Thinking Out Loud

August 24, 2013

The Commodification of Christianity

Many times here I’ve referred to Illinois pastor and speaker Skye Jethani who also works for Leadership Journal and is responsible for this blog’s Wednesday Link List becoming part of the Out of Ur website over the course of the summer.  You can follow his blog at Skyebox.

Skye has a forthcoming book, Futureville and his most current book is With… Re-imagining the Way You Relate To God which I reviewed here. However, his first book, The Divine Commodity kept beckoning to me at the local Christian bookstore, and with a lighter summer reading schedule, I decided this would be a good time.

The Divine CommoditySkye’s passion — and if you hear him co-hosting on the Phil Vischer podcast you already know this — is that we in North America and Western Europe live in so saturated a consumer culture that it is tainting our view of what it means to follow Jesus and distorting our expectations from local churches. While untangling ourselves from this mindset isn’t easy, it has to begin with an awareness of the mess we’re in, and that’s where The Divine Commodity shines.

But as the salesman on TV says, ‘But wait… there’s more!’ The Divine Commodity also has a running metaphor running throughout each chapter pertaining to the life and work of artist Vincent Van Gogh. There are also a few color pages of pieces referred to in the book. Typically, this isn’t the type of writing that attracts me, but the art appreciation lesson truly fits here. Van Gogh also recognized that in the church of his day, something was missing; something was off course but as the salesman on TV says, ‘Your mileage may vary,’ in other words how each of responds to the consumerism prevalent in the modern church will be different.

Unfortunately, with many published writings, the theme of lament leads to books which radiate a certain negativity, but Skye Jethani doesn’t leave room for that here. While it’s true that we’ve adopted the ways of major corporations — including corporate branding — Jethani offers an argument that is criss-crossed with references to early Church history as well as contemporary authors that makes this very positive, encouraging reading. Having turned the last page of the book just hours ago, I plan to immediately start back into chapter one in order to be able to articulate his passion and concern on this with others.

My personal belief is that Skye Jethani is a bit of a diamond in the rough, and that as God continues to use his ministry, this 2009 book will get rediscovered and its somewhat prophetic message will be more fully appreciated. To watch a 30 minute sermon of Skye speaking on the closing day of the CRU (formerly Campus Crusade) staff conference, click here.

February 23, 2012

An Open Letter to the Worship Team

Filed under: Church, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:20 am

Yes, you’ve heard some of this before, but with the weekend approaching, there are some things that can’t be said enough. It’s just so easy to fall into certain routines and patterns. Your best option is to read the whole article in context at it source, the blog of James K. A. Smith, philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. (Now in his 8th year of blogging!)  But some of you won’t click so here’s the focal point of Smith’s open letter:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice — and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing — so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship. In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship. I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity — even with the best of intentions — it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

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