Thinking Out Loud

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.

 

 

 

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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.

May 5, 2018

Tag Team Preaching

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:03 am

Last weekend our church hosted a parenting seminar with Jim and Lynne Jackson from Connected Families and authors of Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart. I was unable to be there, but the Jacksons stayed over for the Sunday morning service and shared some of their principles which have broader application to the church as a whole.

Jim admitted upfront at one point that he was going to go off script, and Lynne confirmed that the Sunday teaching we saw was not their usual fare, but to me it mattered little. What impressed me was the dynamics of watching the interaction between the two of them, as opposed by the presentation by a single speaker which we normally get at church services.

My mind tends to wander, though I need to offset that by saying that by the end of Sunday, I had listened to six sermons. However, this change in homiletic paradigm had me on the edge of my seat. The message took on a different energy and a different life.

I’ve stated this before, but I’m convinced that all the various technologies and social media have wreaked havoc with our attention spans. If you want to connect with people, you need to reinvent the wheel, opting perhaps for three 10-minute mini-sermons instead of the current 30 minutes.

Or consider tag team preaching.

April 3, 2018

Cruising the Liturgical Worship Continuum

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

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

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

I covered this in two previous articles:

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

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

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

February 24, 2018

Blogging Daily for Ten Years: Does it Make Any Difference?

Yesterday we began our 10th birthday celebration. Did those ten years worth of articles make a difference? I don’t know if the answer to our title question yesterday is a ‘Yes!’ for anyone reading this, but it’s definitely a big ‘Yes!’ for me. Maybe this media is something that God has used to keep me focused; to keep my attention.

As to the broader readership, I think we have raised some issues here that are important, and seeing what other writers are now accomplishing — Julie at Spiritual Sounding Board, Warren Throckmorton at Patheos, Dee and Deb at Warburg Watch, Michael Newnham at Phoenix Preacher — in raising awareness of situations, people and issues; all this serves as a reminder that alternative media has become vital in the Christian community and that it is often on the blogs and Twitter feeds that major stories break first.

On this date in 2013, I posted an anniversary piece called Five Years of Thinking Out Loud. It’s actually the only one we didn’t really quote from yesterday, and I want to use it as springboard for today’s thoughts. These are mostly the same points, but a completely fresh rewrite.

In no particular order…

First, God has a very large, very diverse family here. That’s good and bad. On the plus side, the body of Christ has many parts. But as many writers noticed this week with the passing of Rev. Billy Graham, Evangelicalism has become greatly fragmented of late. The capital ‘C’ Church rarely speaks as a unified voice anymore.

Second, in any part of the Christian community, it only takes one person to go rogue — to go ‘off road’ if you prefer — to attract much attention and inure the reputation of that community. Most individuals quietly living out their faith don’t make headlines. Rather it’s people working out what it means to be kingdom people “you in your small corner, and I in mine.”

Third, we are constantly under threat both from the larger culture and from the religious culture. The broader culture wants to bring us down to their level of depravity, the religious culture wants to take our simple faith and add to it layers and layers of complexity. History bears out what happens in either case.

Fourth, to our shame, the Christian Church in North American, Australasia, and Western Europe is totally corrupted by materialism and success. This of course is a reflection of the imbalance of wealth and resources in the world at large. Even the poorest of the poor in developed countries enjoys a level of comfort unknown in the two-thirds world. There are people who say that fixing this imbalance is within our reach and are working toward this. Because of this improper success mindset, basically all our church metrics are misplaced priorities.

Fifth, when I see people who I find disgusting or reprehensible, I always go back to the idea that even the most vile and uncharitable people love their children. There are some elements that are just part of the human experience we have in common, because we are created in God’s image. God sees the redemptive potential in even the worst person, and so also should we. It’s hard, but try to find the good.

Sixth, for the Christian, text matters. The daily hunting and gathering for C201 reminds me each day how few bloggers actually begin with text or write material which is rooted in text. We have a crisis here and the technology is hurting not helping the situation. Scripture memory is generally on the decline, and many — men especially — aren’t reading Christian literature at all.

Seventh, while only a few will be vocational theologians or Biblical scholars, we all need to be doing much better at being able to articulate our faith. How many of us ever get to discuss our beliefs with someone from another religion? Or describe the essence of Christianity to someone who grew up without any spiritual frame of reference? On a personal level, we should be forming a “God-picture” which comes from getting to know the nature and ways of God and how that reflects in particular doctrines; and how those doctrines fit together to form a systematic theology.

Eighth, we need to travel lightly. We are weighted down by having too much stuff. But people who can fit everything that matters to them in a single suitcase are free to follow God’s leading. This may seem to lend itself more to single people, but often hear of families who followed God’s leading to simply pack up and go; for a year, or for an indefinite time commitment.

Ninth, we need to stop the polarization of groups and the knee-jerk reaction which characterizes every issue as black and white. In truth, the issues are complicated, and there are people in every group who don’t fit the stereotypes.

Tenth, to borrow a term from missiology, we need to constantly be looking for creative ways to contextualize the Christian message and present an analogy of redemption. I really enjoy playing with the Short Stories series we run here, because I get to attempt to say something vital or something familiar in a fresh way. There’s a sense in which we all should aim to do something similar.

Eleventh, we need to remind ourselves that it’s okay to have opinions. It’s alright to express what we think and why we think it to others and not to find ourselves in a situation of spiritual intimidation. I look back at earlier days in my Christian life and realize I was going out of my way to fit in. I should have instead spoken up. Of course, if you do this, and you’re proven wrong, you need to be willing to recant a previously held position and humbly reform that opinion.

Lastly, we need to celebrate and join hands with people and organizations who are spreading the kingdom by traditional means or by reinventing the wheel. To paraphrase Phil. 4.8, we need to focus on what and who we admire, the people and institutions that are excellent and praiseworthy. We need a window into the wider world of Christianity and be inspired by people who are bringing energy, creativity and paradigm-shattering vision to fulfilling the love commandment and the go commission. That’s part of the purpose of Thinking Out Loud.

February 8, 2018

Times of Contraction

I checked through the archives here, and thought I had shared this before, but right now it’s eluding me.

I have a friend whose career resumé consists of working in these industries:

  • the post office
  • greeting cards
  • Christian publishing

The first was impacted greatly by the introduction of email. The second one equally so, along with generational attitudes toward sending cards, and increasing postal costs. The third — and reading in general — has been under attack from various factors which we’ve listed here before.

When I first met him, over a dozen years ago, he shared the challenge of working in industries going through periods of contraction. It’s counter-intuitive — I would argue especially for males — to not have the thing you’re giving your energies to be growing.

Yesterday morning, while shoveling snow, it occurred to me that this is true for the Church at large, as well as for local churches. The lament of many local church pastors is that attendance simply isn’t what it once was; that the church’s days of glory seem to be in the distant past; its best days are not ahead of it.

Contraction. It’s no fun.

For the Jewish people, it wasn’t about numbers; it was about exile. (Read more in this book review.) The minority status they experienced was partly numeric (though their numbers continued to grow, see Exodus 1:9) but partly due to living in a land that was not their own.

We are experiencing both situations.

Christianity in Western Europe has lost great numbers and influence. England followed suit. Then Canada. The United States is next, the trend continuing. One projection I saw had Islam as the largest religion in the U.S. in the year 2040. Really? In addition to being somewhat unbelievable when we currently see Evangelical megachurches everywhere there’s a convergence of major freeways, that’s only 22 years from now. One generation!

Are individual Christians strong enough to hang on to their faith in the middle of that?

Am I?

Are you? 

My friend who works in publishing soldiers on in the middle of many frustrating developments. His resilience — I would say his courage — in this is remarkable and encouraging. I look to him as an example of fighting on in the face of contracting numbers and influence. 

It was never about that in the first place.

 

November 28, 2017

Short Takes (3): Sports References in Worship Services

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:46 am

When my youngest son posted this on Facebook on Sunday night, I knew this needed to be a topic here.

The most important difference between Protestant sermons and Roman Catholic homilies is the differing regularity of sports analogies.

Sports metaphors in church sermons are one thing. Announcing the scores from Saturday games is a rather bizarre form of liturgy.

When the whole “seeker sensitive” thing started, the premise was that you would have sermons that connected with various aspects of family, business, school and neighborhood living. You would show how the Bible was already there with applicable teaching; how Biblical characters had already wrestled with these same issues.

Instead of making the Gospel relevant, we communicate the relevance the Gospel already has.

Today, we connect with our audience through sports references; particularly in the United States, where Americans are all about brand loyalty and identity.

Watch any week of North Point Community Church (Atlanta) and see how long it takes for a reference to a local or state team. Usually its 60 seconds. In liturgical churches, your opening statement or invocation is of prime importance. In the modern church, it’s a bit of a throwaway. You can talk about the game before or after the service. From the opening words, the worship service should be wholly different because we serve a God who is wholly other. If all else fails, it’s a time to shut up, stop talking and just let a holy hush fall over the auditorium. Chances are the so-called seekers are expecting something awe inspiring.

I am about to say something radical: We go to church to worship God. Our thoughts should immediately, from the opening statement be directed toward Him and Him alone.

You have one hour to help people make that God connection. Not talking about the weather. Not reviewing how bad the traffic was getting to church.

God. Jesus. The Holy Spirit.

Remember them?

 

November 27, 2017

Short Takes (2): Sin-Shaped Doctrine

All this week — except for Wednesday — we’re doing a series of shorter subjects.

Throughout Christian history debates have raged on controversial doctrinal subjects. We see in part and understand in part. We see through a glass darkly.

Different people read the same scriptures and come to very difficult conclusions as to their meaning. Each is convinced theirs is the correct one.

In preparing for this week’s articles here — I was originally going a very different direction — I started wondering if theologians or church leaders over the centuries were ever influenced by something else: Personal sin.

Too far fetched? Most of us can think of at least one entire denomination that was founded on one individual’s personal desire or preference. Concerning King Henry VIII, a BBC article notes that he

…was anxious to ensure a male heir after his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had borne him only a daughter. He wanted his marriage annulled in order to remarry. In 1534 after several attempts to persuade the Pope to grant an annulment, Henry passed the Act of Succession and then the Act of Supremacy. These recognized that the King was “the only supreme head of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia“.

But how many others, even in our time, have looked at a particular doctrine and said, ‘God would never punish that, he is a God of grace and mercy.’ So with a few published articles in theological journals we’re offered a different take on a familiar doctrine, and if other writers converge on any given viewpoint, a theological trend emerges.

Their desire is to place God in a more lax position concerning things that the church previously believed he had addressed rather clearly.

If we occupy a position of leadership or influence and our personal lifestyle requires us to characterize God as less stringent on particular issues, then through our speaking or writing we can potential introduce new ideas which become part of the contemporary religious literature.

But the root of it just might be personal sin.

 

 

 

October 16, 2017

Skye Jethani’s State of the Modern Church Address

Those of have heard Skye Jethani speak, be it a sermon, conference message, or podcast conversation, know him to both extremely forthright and wonderfully articulate on matters related to church and culture. He brings this gift to a new book, Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. released last week by Moody Press.

The book is a series of 24 short essays on various aspects of church and ministry leadership; interconnected, but presented such they can be studied in any order. While I have heard him touch on many of these before, as assembled here, much of this material was new to me.

Skye Jethani’s forté is analysis, and a major part of his analytical toolkit is a knowledge of the broader sweep of modern church history, some of this no doubt afforded by his years serving in various departments of Christianity Today, Inc. and as a local church pastor. While much ink has been spilled over the last 20 years lamenting the state of the modern church in North America, Australia/New Zealand and Western Europe, the words here are more prescriptive; a look at where the church may have lost its way presented alongside healthy doses of routes we might take to get back on track. Each essay ends with two or three “next step” questions or applications.

Some standout chapters for me — many of which were brought to life through some clever analogies — included:

1. Ambition (and motivation; always a good place to start)
3. Wastefulness (versus efficiency which can enslave us)
6. Dramas (there are three playing out in church leadership)
8. Simplicity (versus the complexity we see everywhere else, discussed in chapter 9)
9. Complexity (the longest chapter in the book; Jethani at his best)
10. Redundancy (an interesting approach to the matter of pastoral succession)
12. Illumination (another longer chapter; on sermon expectation and who might preach)
15. Platform (this chapter is gold; a look at how we confer authority in the local church)
16. Celebrity (analysis of the rise of the “Evangelical Industrial Complex”)
18. Consumers (again, I preferred the longer chapters; this one is about church choices; some of the other chapters not listed I would like to have seen fleshed out in greater detail.)

And then there was chapter 24, an even more autobiographical essay which strikes at the heart of ministry from the author’s early experiences as a hospital chaplain. A fitting ending in so many respects.

On a personal level, if I’ve learned nothing else in the last 20 years, I’ve learned that while ecclesiology is by definition the domain of pastors, books about ecclesiology are widely read by a variety of lay-people who who feel a sense of ownership in the local churches in their community. With so much reconstruction taking place in the look, feel and purpose of weekend gatherings; many want to champion these changes while others are fearful of going too far and thereby losing the plot. So while the book is being marketed more as an academic title for Bible college or classroom discussion, I think the finished product is something I would encourage many of my friends to read.

 


Read a short sample from Immeasurable at this link

Related: Skye Jethani on news and media

Related: A review of the 2012 title, With.


Photo: Skye Jethani on the weekly Phil Vischer podcast.


Thanks to Martin Smith at Parasource Distribution & Marketing for a review copy of Immeasurable.

September 10, 2017

Charts: Ten Largest Churches in America

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus is quoted as saying, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
But you’d never know that by the American obsession with church size.
Image: Journey Online, Australia (click to link)

The Outreach Magazine list is always considered the most authoritative, but only includes participating churches. Nonetheless, here’s how it looked in 2016:

  1. North Point (Atlanta) 39,056 (Andy Stanley)
  2. Church of the Highlands (Birmingham) 38,346 (Chris Hodges)
  3. NewSpring (Anderson) 33,761 (vacant)
  4. Gateway (South Lake) 28,399 (Robert Morris)
  5. Saddleback (Orange County) 25,612 (Rick Warren)
  6. Willow Creek (NW Chicago) 25,371 (Bill Hybels/Steve Carter)
  7. Christ’s Church of the Valley (Peoria, AZ) 24,108 (Donald J. Wilson)
  8. Christ Fellowship (Palm Beach) 23,845 (Todd Mullins)
  9. Southeast Christian (Louisville) 23,799 (Dave Stone/Kyle Idleman)
  10. Crossroads (Cincinnati) 22,458 (Brian Tome)

So right away many of you noticed that Lakewood (Joel Osteen) and LifeChurch (Craig Groeschel) are missing. That’s the problem with this list. It only lists churches that completed Outreach’s full survey. They charge money for their reports, and that’s disturbing because almost by definition, the lists are incomplete.

Go to The Christian Post and you’ll find what might be a better list, but it doesn’t have the data:

  1. Lakewood
  2. Willow Creek
  3. LifeChurch (North Oklahama City; Craig Groeschel)
  4. North Point
  5. Saddleback
  6. Gateway
  7. Shadow Mountain (San Diego; David Jeremiah)
  8. New Season (Sacramento; Samuel Rodriguez)
  9. Prestonwood Baptist (Plano, TX; Jack Graham)
  10. The Rock (San Diego; Miles McPherson)

Regular readers here will notice that there are many churches I would consider to be presently more influential that don’t make these attendance-based lists.

Some readers here would be able to rattle off a list like this off the top of their heads. What I thought would be really interesting would be to list the Top Ten Catholic Churches in the US by attendance. Such a list proved elusive. At least one branch of Christianity isn’t focused on numbers.  Other churches on similar lists include Woodlands (Kerry Shook),  Potter’s House (T.D. Jakes) and Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale (Bob Coy).

If you want to sort by denomination, or state, this list at the Hartford Institute is a good one to know about. They also have an alphabetical Canadian list, but I’m not sure when it was last updated.

Image: Christianity Today (click to link)

 

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