Thinking Out Loud

February 1, 2016

Know Where You Believe

 

Tic-Tac-Blinders-Church-Stage-DesignYesterday I got to visit a church in our community which offers a contemporary and a traditional service which run concurrently, with the contemporary service getting a video feed of the sermon when it begins. It was my second visit.

Opinions on music in the local church can often divide people, but this church found a way to satisfy both groups at once. Yes, the one auditorium demographic skews much younger and the other much older, but there is considerable overlap. I spoke to many people after the service; one was a couple (she’s turning 80) who much prefer the more modern service. The other was a guy half their age who much prefers the hymns and the organ.

hymnboardThere is a value to inter-generational worship, and much has been and is being written about this elsewhere on the internet. But both of these worship settings provide that accomplish this, even the demographics are more pronounced in each one.

The thing that got me however was one comment that certain people in the traditional service hold to an opinion that you aren’t truly able to worship God in the modern service, and look down on the younger worshipers condescendingly.

No, it’s not about the music.

The contemporary service meets in a gym.

Therein lies the problem. There are still a number of people who feel that you can’t truly worship God in a civic center, a community hall or a gymnasium; you need a sanctuary that has been set apart for this purpose.

(Given the choice I had when I walked into their building, I chose the gym because I felt I could make a better connection there; that the overall tenor of that service would resonate with me much, much more. I don’t mind the hymns so much, but to listen to the organ would have proved counter-productive and even a bit of a distraction.)

The story of the woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 is more than simply Jesus encountering a woman with a bad reputation; it raises theological issues as well.

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

She was raising one of the Samaritan distinctives: Where should one worship? She’s really choosing to enter into a debate on the thing that separates Jews and Samaritans instead of focusing on the things with which they agree. She’s not looking for a basis of agreement, but looking to argue doctrine. (She’d love the internet!)

But Jesus sidesteps the question entirely.

Stephen, in his one and only recorded sermon, reiterates this:

48  “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?

I just couldn’t believe that the person described in my conversation yesterday seriously believed you can’t worship in a gym, but this mentality still exists in 2016.

If you agree with me that it doesn’t matter, take a moment to prove it. Turn away from your computer or mobile device, or close your eyes, and take a moment to worship God right where you are.

January 22, 2016

The Pastor’s Wife as “The First Lady”

First Lady ParkingIt’s spreading like a virus. Calling the wife of the senior pastor “The First Lady.” I think it may have had its beginnings in the African-American church, but it is no longer limited to those congregations. Where did this nonsense come from? Well, I looked it up and there it was:

II Amendations 4:3 The wife of the pastor shall be given a place of honor, for she is more special than the other women of the church. 4 She shall be called The First Lady, and everyone shall bless her. 5 She shall be seated on the front row of the assembly, unless that church has a balcony, in which case she shall sit on the front row there if it is her preference. 6 And if it is the case that she drives to church separately, she shall be given a reserved parking spot, it will be next to her husband’s, and this place shall be indicated by a sign which states, ‘Reserved for The First Lady.’ 7 And the pastor shall make reference to her during his sermon, and if it does not suit the text, he shall refer to her during the announcements.8 And if that service is televised, the cameras shall cut away to a shot of her smiling and shall linger there if she is especially telegenic.

9 Upon her arrival at the house of worship, the women of the church shall take care of her children so that she need not be concerned for them, for they are pastor’s kids and not particularly well-behaved. 10 She shall be exempted from the requirements of the other women, she shall not be asked to bake cookies, serve in the kitchen or the nursery, or make sandwiches for funerals. 11 She shall be permitted to be clothed lavishly, as she is an example to the other women of the church; with fine fabrics and gold jewelry shall she be dressed. 12 The congregation shall shower her with Ministry Appreciation cards on a regular basis as well as small gifts,  13 for she continually must attend to the needs of her husband whose schedule is hectic and whose life is filled with stress. 14 And she shall preach on Mother’s Day; for this expectation she is not to be exempted, even if speaking is not her particular gift.

October 27, 2015

Finding Your Church’s Comfort Sweet Spots

Sometimes we don't realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we're just not thinking ahead.

Sometimes we don’t realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we’re just not thinking ahead.

I’ve never actually been in a church where the color of the carpet was an issue, but the topic stands in for a host of other topics when people are discussing superficial things they don’t like about a particular place of worship.

Still, there are some superficial environmental details which impact how effective ministry can be. For example, why is sometimes the pastor seems to really connect with people during the sermon, and other weeks when people are less responsive. It may have to do with things you don’t think about.

Sound

  • If the sound is turned up too high, people feel like they are being shouted at. It’s the live equivalent of me typing a sentence in CAPITAL LETTERS, back when people actually interacted in groups. Of course, there are some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches where the preacher’s words are amplified at rock concert volumes, but I think we have natural defenses that want to shut off any message bombarding us at high decibels.
  • If the sound is turned down too low, I believe that even if you’re hearing every single word, you’re using some mental processing capacity to strain to catch those phrases and sentences, at the expense of being able to use that capacity to process the actual content of the words, and their applicability to your situation.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle, and find a way to keep it consistent week-to-week.

Temperature

  • If the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system is turned up too high, people feel sticky in the summer and sleepy in the winter. If the temperature makes you feel comfy and cozy like you’re lying under a couple of blankets, you will indeed nod off.
  • If the thermostat is turned down too low, people are squirming or perhaps even needing to use the restrooms. Preservation instinct takes over, and the message processing capacity diminishes.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. Sometimes, if you’re not sure, you need to take 15 seconds to survey the audience on this one.

Lighting

  • The modern church spends a fortune on stage lighting, which includes something called “backlighting” which helps give definition to people on the platform. However, depending on where you are sitting, these lights can be shining directly into the audience seating. After the first five minutes it gets annoying and after as little as fifteen minutes you have a headache.
  • On the other hand, some churches are so dark it’s creepy. (We covered this topic in the list link a few days ago here.) Combine the absence of light with a high temperature and you have a perfect recipe for slumber once the sermon starts.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. One church I know turns up the lights for the sermon so people can follow along in their Bibles and make notes. Trouble is, in other auditorium contexts, when the lights come up it means the show is over! 

Smell

  • Some churches smell like a church; there’s no other way to say that. Is it the wooden pews? Something given off by old hymnbooks? Stale air from a sanctuary that’s sat relatively idle since the previous week’s service? It could also be something not quite so neutral. Maybe it’s the smell of sweaty socks from a sports night the youth group had downstairs the night before. Or the smell of food from the potluck taking place after the service. It might even be the smell of perfumes worn by mostly female adherents who are mostly above a certain age; a scent many are allergic to. (We’ve discussed that last one in this popular post.)
  • Of course, you can try to compensate for any and all of the above with products that prove the adage that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The result can actually cause some people to wince as they enter, or after prolonged exposure.

Although we would never admit it, some of us who attend older church buildings have a subconscious affinity to the smell of the church building, but no clue how it impacts first time visitors. Maybe the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have the cure: Just burn off any transgressing smells. You can read more about that in my next book, The Case for Candles.

So what superficials have affected worship in your past experience?


From last week’s link list, here’s an excellent article dealing with the exterior that greets first-time visitors:

 

September 20, 2015

We See Trends and Stats; God Sees Individuals

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
-Matthew 6:26

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.
– Matthew 10:12

And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury…”
– Mark 12:41-42

The Star Trek mantra that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is very noble in context, but Christian ministry is all about the few. That’s hard to reconcile in at a time in history when people are preoccupied with stats and even in the church, pastors meet each other at conferences comparing notes as to average attendance and annual budget.

At the Breakpoint blog, Leah Hickman writes:

2,992.
51,112.
405,399.

Do these numbers mean anything to you?

They’re casualty numbers. 9/11. Gettysburg. American soldiers in World War II.

I don’t have much of a head for numbers, but I know enough to know that that’s a lot of people–a lot of individuals.

But when we see numbers like this, what do we do? We rationalize. In comparison to these massive numbers, the deaths of one or two individuals seem like nothing. A small fraction of humanity. A blip on the screen…

She then links to an article by Jim Tonkowich at The Stream,

Given a world with more than seven billion people, it may be only natural and reasonable for us to think of nameless, faceless masses. The crowds of Middle Eastern immigrants marching from Hungary to Austria seem to be just that: crowds, mobs, hordes, multitudes. But it’s merely a coping trick of the mind, not reality.

Where we see crowds, God sees individuals. Each has a name and a face, a history and a future, a family and a purpose. “There are no ordinary people,” C. S. Lewis declared in The Weight of Glory. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

He continues,

You shall love your neighbor,” said Jesus, “as you love yourself (Mark 12:30a).” How do we love ourselves? With knowledge, respect, and sacrifice. The refusal to love our neighbors with knowledge, respect, and sacrifice results in a coarsening of our souls and a distortion of the image of God in us.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, “to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.”

We end today with another snapshot of Jesus separating an individual from the larger crowd (emphasis in text added):

Luke 8:40 Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him…

42b…As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. 43And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

45Who touched me? Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

46a But Jesus said, Someone touched me…”

scriptures: NIV

August 17, 2015

The Perils of Being the Guest Speaker

guest speakingI was coming to my third point when I noticed my mouth was getting dry from all the talking. Sometimes at work, I just push past this, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the glass of water that had been placed there.

I paused, picked up the glass, hesitated, and took a small sip. You guessed it. It was water that had been sitting there from the previous Sunday. Were some in the audience aware of what had just happened? Should I acknowledge the distraction? With the adrenaline rush that you get when you’re speaking before a group of people, I simply continued on in my message.

I did not get sick that day. I’ve often wondered if in this denomination, it’s the pastor’s responsibility to refresh the water glass himself. As a guest speaker, it’s certainly an occupational hazard.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Over the course of a couple of years, I had become the default speaker when the pastor, who had ministry interests both in Europe and Central America, needed to be away.

The first Sunday I arrived wearing a dress shirt and dress pants, but no jacket or tie. I was fairly certain this wasn’t normal for that church, but I wanted to make a statement.

The second time I spoke there I also went business casual, but this time, in my introduction, I explained how my work and my writing put me in contact with dynamic churches and pastors across North America and how the church is changing, being very careful to emphasize changes in church architecture, ministry philosophy, music and dress. I think I even acknowledge my own lack of a tie as example of this.

The third time — or just before the third time via email — one of the members told me that a few of them had been part of a discussion resulting in the decision that they would chip in and buy me a suit. “Where else would I wear it?” I asked. Even at the last wedding and funeral I attended, a sports jacket had been sufficient. “I think I do indeed own a suit;” I told them, “But that’s not the direction the North American church is moving.”

The fourth time I simply donned the sports jacket as I was leaving the house. When I arrived at the church, I noticed a few smiles.

…We got to hear John Wimber a couple of times in Southern California in 1989. They were both Sunday evening services, and he was wearing a track suit. Actually, he played with the worship band and then got up to preach, and if someone had said to you, ‘One of the people in the band is the pastor and tonight’s speaker; now guess who it is;” unless you’d seen his picture on his books, I guarantee you would have gotten it wrong.

Andy Stanley wears jeans for the most part, though not yesterday. In the south, it’s all very natural. Rick Warren has his trademark Hawaiian shirts. Bill Hybels is always very corporate, but I’ve never seen him in a suit, and not sure if I’ve seen him in a jacket and tie. (A quick scan of Yahoo Images bears this out, but for the one shot that I’m sure was taken at a banquet.)

The church in question now has a new minister so my guest-speaking and clothing-paradigm-smashing days there appear to be over. What I hope they remember is that the messages were good, but if my name is mentioned, what I think they may remember will have nothing to do with the Bible expositions I brought.

May 29, 2015

Your Favorite Praise Song May Not Be For Congregational Use

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.

December 5, 2014

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November 13, 2014

When Church Gets Too Informal

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:20 am

What’s the most distracting thing you’ve seen someone do in church?

I had noticed her for many weeks. A very animated conversationalist. Frizzy hair that swung back and forth as she made various points to her conversational companion. I spotted this taking place for several weeks in a row. Talking up a storm. In church. During the service.

I never understood why the ushers didn’t address the problem. This was a very conservative church and there was no missing her hair and head bobbing back and forth. Surely the leadership here would DO something.

Then came the week that we ended up sitting directly behind her. She talked through the call to worship. She talked through the opening prayer. She talked through the first half of the opening scripture reading. Okay, this was scripture, the Word, right? It was then that with a voice that was reined in so it wouldn’t travel too far, but with a voice that was distinct, clear and firm, I said, “W-i-l-l  y-o-u  p-l-e-a-s-e  b-e  q-u-i-e-t.”

She got the message. I hoped she would think about whatever might have motivated me to do that. (Gee, I dunno know; maybe wanting to hear the service? Maybe something about having respect for the reading of the Word of God?) Instead, the service ended, and her son-in-law, who was sitting two seats over, stood up, turned around slowly towards me in all his massive 260 lb. frame, and informed me that if I ever did something like that again he would take care of me out in the parking lot. Or something like that.

We left that church shortly after. Not because of her, or him, but because the ushers, deacons and other leaders were gutless to deal with her. It took me to do it.

text_message_girlFlash forward several years. My youngest son returned home from church — a different church — with the news that a girl whom he named in the youth group who was sitting a row behind him was text messaging throughout the entire sermon. I happen to know this girl’s family and they are infected with the same germ as the woman with the bobbing hair. I’ve seen them conversing in a manner so animated that it was distracting to me on the farthest part of the other side of a very wide auditorium. Texting uses no audio, but in a church service, it’s amazing how the little taps can carry.

Interesting how you can be in a room with 300 other people but it only takes one person to spoil the experience. If the person was making a lot of noise, it would be dealt with, but sometimes these things sit on the borderline between requiring action or determining that confronting the situation might make a greater (and more memorable) distraction.

I like that we can dress casually for church. I like that we sing contemporary songs. I like that we show cuts from popular movies. I like that we laugh and are transparent about our lives. But…

I miss reverence. I miss solemnity. I miss the awe with which should approach that part of our week where we enter into the transcendency of bringing our worship before a holy God. I miss the holy hush I experienced in some meetings I attended in my early twenties.  I miss people treating that part of the week as something special.

If I had been sitting anywhere near this girl, I don’t know exactly what I might have done, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant. I might have gone for “P-u-t  t-h-a-t  t-h-i-n-g  a-w-a-y  n-o-w.” But remember, he was sitting in front of in this case and would have had to turn around to do this.

Then again, I might have simply stepped out of the service for a few minutes.

To make a whip out of cords. 

So… what’s the most distracting thing you’ve seen someone do in church?

May 18, 2014

Modern Worship Movement Dead-Ended

Filed under: ministry, music, worship — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm

worship_tshirt

As of today, I have seen the future of the modern worship movement, and even now, I am convinced that we are not being well-served.  Today I got to observe the height of performance-oriented worship formatting; songs that were completely unfamiliar pitched in keys that rendered them completely un-singable. I also saw the approach toward casual dress of platform/stage personnel at its worst. I also observed song lyrics that simply cannot be supported theologically. Throughout it all, I was expected to remain standing.

Oddly enough, part of the reason we decided to take our free Sunday at this church was because of its history and reputation for outstanding worship. I really don’t want to be a curmudgeon, but I honestly feel that worship leaders to need to rethink some basics before assembling a worship set.

  • At least one hymn (yes, mostly for demographic reasons, but also for theological ones)
  • At least one modern hymn (as in Townend, Kendrick, Gettys, Sovereign Grace)
  • At least one modern worship composition that proved itself in the ’80s, ’90s or early ’00s.
  • For another two songs, you can have your recent modern worship songs, but try to go with something of substance. (Doerksen or Baloche for at least one would be nice)

There’s a five song worship song list I could live with.

In the meantime, if I were in leadership at the church we attending this morning, I would be convening an emergency meeting early in the week.

Just because your church has achieved success numerically is no reason to assume you’re doing everything right.

October 27, 2013

Church Life: Pleasing Everyone is Hard to Do

I’ve never actually been in a church where the color of the carpet was an issue, but the topic stands in for a host of other topics when people are discussing superficial things they don’t like about a particular place of worship.

Still, there are some superficials which impact how effective ministry can be. For example, why is sometimes the pastor seems to really connect with people during the sermon, and other weeks when people are less responsive. It may have to do with things you don’t think about.

Sound

  • If the sound is turned up too high, people feel like they are being shouted at. It’s the live equivalent of me typing a sentence in CAPITAL LETTERS, back when people actually interacted in groups. Of course, there are some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches where the preacher’s words are amplified at rock concert volumes, but I think we have natural defenses that want to shut off any message bombarding us at high decibels.
  • If the sound is turned down too low, I believe that even if you’re hearing every single word, you’re using some mental processing capacity to strain to catch those phrases and sentences,  at the expense of being able to use that capacity to process the actual content of the words, and their applicability to your situation.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle, and find a way to keep it consistent week-to-week.

Temperature

  • If the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system is turned up too high, people feel sticky in the summer and sleepy in the winter. If the temperature makes you feel comfy and cozy like you’re lying under a couple of blankets, you will indeed nod off.
  • If the thermostat is turned down too low, people are squirming or perhaps even needing to use the restrooms. Preservation instinct takes over, and the message processing capacity diminishes.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. Sometimes, if you’re not sure, you need to take 15 seconds to survey the audience on this one.

Lighting

  • The modern church spends a fortune on stage lighting, which includes something called “backlighting” which helps give definition to people on the platform. However, depending on where you are sitting, these lights can be shining directly into the audience seating. After the first five minutes it gets annoying and after as little as fifteen minutes you have a headache.
  • On the other hand, some churches are so dark it’s creepy. (We covered this topic in the list link a few days ago here.) Combine the absence of light with a high temperature and you have a perfect recipe for slumber once the sermon starts.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. One church I know turns up the lights for the sermon so people can follow along in their Bibles and make notes. Trouble is, in other auditorium contexts, when the lights come up it means the show is over!

So what superficials have affected worship in your past experience?

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