Archive for February 2014

HELP MY UNBELIEF – HONEST WORSHIP

February 25, 2014

Help My Unbelief  In David Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church …and Rethinking Faith, there is a recurring theme in the responses voiced by the wandering young adults interviewed in relation to what happened in their drift away from the church.  One oft repeated sentiment indicates feelings that the church could not handle their doubts.  In fact, a full 50% of the 18-29 year olds interviewed in this study indicated the following statement was “completely or mostly true of me.”  The statement:

I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.

That statement disturbs me.  My disturbance is not aimed at those young adults who have doubts, or who feel church is not a place to ask pressing life questions.  To the contrary, my disturbance is concern over what we leaders may have allowed church to become when sojourners feel such disconnection during challenging aspects of their journey.  Could it be we have been preoccupied with trying to have all the answers, when a critical aspect of what was needed was a more sincere embrace of the questions?  Theologian, Philosopher, and Pulitzer prize winning novelist, Frederick Buechner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”[1]  Perhaps leaders could better enjoin the faith community in the shared journey.  What’s more, as worship planners, facilitators, and thinkers, I cannot help but wonder seriously about the ethos of our worship, and wonder if we may unintentionally encourage dishonest worship by services that are filled with a music of self-focus, prayers dominated by self-interests, and sermons with an undertone of self-promotion.

A great revelation of worship study for me has been worship’s capacity to embrace wide tensions.  The mystery of God’s otherness which stirs in us a sense of awe lives right alongside His intimate nature that makes Him, to us, closer than a brother.    While undoubtedly our worship must unveil the means of personal relationship with Christ, and encourage full personal participation in the worship event, we must never ignore our responsibility above all to lift up the Christ as the One worshiped and adored, and include aspects of character that point to our Triune God in a manner that we may grasp again that His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts.  Likewise, it seems crucial that we sing, pray, and hear about His deeds; past, present, and future.  It seems to me that emotional intimacy should not be confused as a substitute for obedient surrender.  I am fearful that rooting Christian worship in the former sets us all up to encounter a more fundamental doubt when the proverbial thrill is gone.  We can anticipate such when tragedy strikes, when fellow believers fail us, and when we simply have no answers to life’s pressing questions, just as our young friends leaving the church have experienced.

May our worship singing provide opportunity for sincere expression.  Indeed, we are “Prone to wonder, Lord, I feel it.  Prone to leave the God I love.”  Thankfully, there are yet other young believers who are finding ways of giving voice to the times of unbelief.  No need to hide, but rather, let us reach out like the father of the young boy possessed by an unclean spirit in Mark 9, and proclaim, “I believe, help my unbelief.”

From the recording: Help My Unbelief
Words adapted from John Newton
Music by Clint Wells

I know the Lord is nigh,
And would but cannot pray,
For Satan meets me when I try,
And frights my soul away,
And frights my soul away.

I would but can’t repent,
Though I endeavor oft;
This stony heart can never relent
Till Jesus makes it soft,
Till Jesus makes it soft.

Help my unbelief.
Help my unbelief.
Help my unbelief.
My help must come from Thee.

I would but cannot love,
Though wooed by love divine;
No arguments have power to move
A soul as base as mine.
A soul so base as mine.

I would but cannot rest,
In God’s most holy will;
I know what He appoints is best,
And murmur at it still.
I murmur at it still.

Help my unbelief.
Help my unbelief.
Help my unbelief.
My help must come from Thee.


[1] Quoted by David Kinnaman in You Lost Me, pg. 161.

OF WORSHIP AND LEARNING – A WEEK AT NEW ORLEANS BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

February 18, 2014

Crescent City Praise NOBTS  What a refreshing joy it was to spend last week on the campus of one of our Southern Baptist Seminaries, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).  I believe for me personally, as a worshiper, a minister of the Gospel, a follower of Christ, a student of the Word, a pilgrim on the journey of life, and as a musician it was a reminder of the importance of continued learning.  I confess that I am not real hep on the thought of taking notes on endless lists of names and numbers.  Been there….done that….much of it left me bored.  Just sayin’

On the other hand, I consider myself a lifelong learner and I really aspire to maintain that posture right on through my senior years on the planet.  I love to learn and grow.  Many newer forms of conveying information stimulate me to know more and foster a deeper hunger to be able to assimilate different ways of thinking.  Dr. Andrew Hill in my first seminar at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies made a statement that enriched my attitude toward the time it takes to ingest information and prayerfully assess how any particular information will be applied in life and ministry.  At the time I was wrestling with the volume of hours and expended effort it was taking me to read and synthesize so much material.  Dr. Hill’s statement in class one day was simply a reminder, “We worship God with our mind.”  His quote went immediately into my classnotes for the day, but more formatively, it lodged in the deep recesses of mind and spirit.  The statement was certainly not one of exclusivity, as if we worship God only with our mind, but rather was a reminder that “offering our bodies as living sacrifices” includes our minds.  His statement set me free!  One of those “Aha!” moments when I sensed the Lord’s Spirit was saying, “Clark, this is for you!”  The revelation applied in two directions:  First of all, I need to apply my best thinking to things of God, as the Apostle Paul says, “think on these things.”  Secondly, reading, studying, and deep contemplation of theological truth are appropriate means of worship, and as such merit the time and attention required.

 

Last week’s trip to New Orleans to conduct the seminary sponsored Annual Crescent City Praise Choir & Orchestra provided memorable opportunities for music-making through the week in multiple rehearsals and then in the Thursday evening concert of praise.  Anyone that knows me at all knows how much I love to dive into quality music and explore the nuggets of lyrical and musical nuance.  I find that pursuit and the preparation for it richly worshipful.  In addition to the music-making endeavors last week, being on campus provided opportunities to visit with students, professors, and fellow worship ministry leaders.  It was all rich with food for the mind and soul.  On the very first day I found out that it was Revival week on the campus, meaning daily services and nightly prayer meetings focused on renewal.  What’s more I discovered that the Worship Music Leader for the week was a friend.  What a week!  Worship services focused on openness to the Holy Spirit renewing lives and churches, certainly penetrated my own spiritual conscience as well.  I was invited to address multiple classes about corporate worship, and followed those periods by engaging in countless conversations with students regarding those themes.  Since I had no car and was housed on campus, my transportation was with faculty and administration, which provided yet more opportunity for rich conversation and fellowship.  My mind was in a state of constant stimulation.  It reminded me of the importance of seminary education.  It also encouraged me to continue pursuit of gathering Worship Leadership in Roundtable and conferencing settings where practical meets theoretical.  I believe such gatherings will never substitute for formal theological ministry education, but rather serve as reminder to those who had the seminary experience, and open deeper conversations for those who have not.  We live in a day when many are looking for shortcuts.  I am not necessarily opposed to online programs of study, and in fact am looking now at prospective programs to aid Tennessee Worship Leaders who have not been able to do seminary.  At the same time, I confess that there is really no substitute for the hard work of entering a formal accredited program of study in order to prepare mind, heart, and spirit for pastoral ministry in worship leadership.

Giving heart and mind in Christian worship is much more than a momentary engagement.  The path of worship leads to a life of learning, growing, surrendering, regularly humbling ourselves to His Lordship.  Those who call themselves Worship Leaders must surely follow in this way of learning as a lifestyle.

Special thanks to Dr. Greg Woodward, Dr. Ed Steele, Dr. Michael Sharpe, Dr. Darryl Ferrington, and of course Dr. Chuck Kelly for your warm hospitality.  Thank you even more for the stimulating conversations, the shared times of prayer support, the deep reflections regarding life, ministry, and worship.  I am privileged to partner with you to encourage those who lead others in Christian worship!

MEDIA, WORSHIP, AND SAVING TIME

February 10, 2014

stealing time  Last week’s article on Media and Worship prompted some good discussion and further reflection both in written and verbal communication.  Some of the verbal conversations in response to the subject matter have further indicated the need for deeper thinking on the matter.  One lengthy conversation with a Worship Leader ended with a strong sense that we had just spent 45 minutes talking past each other.  That conversation along with other experiences of the past week have led me to further contemplation as to where we are as worshipers in American culture, and what some of the long-term influences of some of our methodological choices may be.

Recently I listened to a sermon by T. David Gordon in which the media ecologist and theologian noted that on occasion he hears ours referred to as a “media savvy culture.”  In fact, in the aforementioned conversation that I had, that very term was used by the Worship Leader as justification for heavy use of multi-media in the worship environment.  In his sermon Gordon contradicts the assumption of a “media savvy culture” by concluding that we are instead a “media naive culture,” and perhaps the most naive of all time.  He appropriately notes that emersion and understanding are not the same thing.  In other words, just because our culture is saturated with and in digital media does not mean we have even begun to think deeply or critically enough upon the effect its usage is having in our culture, much less the way in which we seek to engage with God as faith community.  His point in this sermon-lecture rooted in 1 Corinthians 1:21 is precisely in the vain of the concerns I sought to express in last week’s blog.  Cultural presumption is that digital media and mediums are neutral.  The conjecture is that since persons are exposed to and, in fact, utilizing digital media in the general culture, then it is smart to use it in the worship setting.  Like Gordon, as well as other scholars and practitioners, I am convinced that modern technological conventions bring with them certain values and when used so freely in the gathered worship environment clearly influence the ethos of the worship itself.

One of the values that tends to be attached to digital technology’s use and overuse is the “my time is important” mantra.  Perhaps this brings a whole new twist to the conversation, opening the proverbial can of worms related to service scheduling, broadcasting of worship, and the like.  We are convinced that using digital technology speeds the process, as well it may, but are we considering the effect of truncating the form and/or even the substance of worship?  In experiential terms, just because you flash pictures or words at me in a brief timeframe, does not mean I can process the thoughts or conclusions implied in those pictures or words.  What’s more, seems a central point of worship is that we offer ourselves to God as our “spiritual act of worship (Rom 12:1), and this surely involves surrendering “my time” to Him.  By its nature worship is counter-cultural in that regard.

As a case in point, Saturday I attended a memorial service for a friend whose family-run company had provided custodial service at the building in which my office is housed.  Orlando was a black man (did not like the term “African-American” as he said he had never been to Africa), a musician, a faithful family man, a strong Christian, and a leader in his church.  His cheerful, fun-loving spirit was contagious.  The memorial service lasted for nearly two hours.  It included several pastors with whom Orlando had been associated, several scripture readings, remarks offered by family members and friends, as well as a healthy dose of Gospel music.  I found myself getting fidgety about halfway through the service.  My primary awareness was “my” time.  Really?  Mine?  Not only was I in this service to honor a dear friend who had often freely offered his time as we sat “after hours” and talked and laughed, but more pointedly, I was here as an act of worship, to commune with God in the presence of friends and family of this beloved Christian brother.

While driving home from the memorial service I could not help but reflect upon the service of worship.  Certainly, the conviction I sensed regarding my attitude toward time weighed on my mind, and called for renewed commitment.  Of note, as well, was the realization of how much more person to person interaction occurred in the worship environment than what seems to have become common practice in many of the Anglo churches I attend and/or visit.  I know that some of the things I experienced in the church Saturday are traditions within the African-American church culture, but their influence is, nonetheless, refreshing reminder of a central tenet of gathered worship – that we are gathered with one another, many members – one body.  As I evaluated factors contributing to the worshipful and interactive atmosphere, I could not help but note the use of verbal guidance for the worship.  A minister spoke to begin the service.  She walked through the entire service order helping us know what was to come when, and gave a sense of the why in the liturgy.  Her demeanor was personal and ministerial.  I found Gospel present from the beginning.  A triumphant tone.

As we continue to contemplate our worship environments, let us be certain we surrender the time to the One Who holds time in His hand, beginning to the end.  Instead of contemplating (even bragging) how we might save time for ourselves, let us redeem the time for His Kingdom.

Media and Worship – Careful Contemplation

February 4, 2014

Technology  Our culture is obsessed with media, and the journey into this obsession developed at lightning speed.  I mean think about it: we went from vinyl phonograph records to radio to broadcast television to computers, cellphones, smartphones, and seemingly infinite variations on these themes in a very short time.  Lest you think I am just a non-comformist, old fashioned stick-in-the-mud who refuses to keep up, I am, after all, writing this on a blog, ok?  Twenty years ago none of us had ever heard of the term, “blog.”  Give me a little credit here.  This is not some kind of a “burn your cellphone” rant.  Rather, my appeal to the church is for us to think about the implications, ramifications, and longterm impact upon our culture of these “advances” and more particularly, I would call for serious consideration of how embracing their use effects our worship, and how it might impact the spiritual lives of the worshipers.  Certainly, very careful evaluation as to how technology effects worship when it is used in the gathered worship event itself must be a concern for church leadership.  The field of media ecology has evolved into a field of study of which more Christian leaders, and particularly worship ministry leaders, must take note.  Let’s think a moment about the cultural dilemma and then we will come back to the gathered worship context for some comparative consideration.

Is it possible that rather than living our lives we have taken to creating virtual worlds through technological devices that allow us to place ourselves at the center of our own universe?  Social media allows us to literally project an image that we choose for ourselves, making public some facts and pictures to affirm that projection, while selectively omitting other aspects of who we are.  We can sorta be whoever we want people to think us to be.  What’s more, we can even develop and project multiple personality projections.  With multiple screen-names could come multiple personality presentations.  “Danny the Pleasant,” a mild mannered Christian gentleman by day could become “Dane the Devious,” a prowling sexhound by night with relative ease.  No one in either world, Danny’s or Dane’s need know of the other.  Human tendencies to compartmentalize our lives anyway are far too well served by the opportunities to foster the dichotomy.

For some there may have developed an inclination to observe life on a technological screen rather than to live it.  Young persons can now entertain themselves by obliterating pixelized humans in video games where they can blowup bodies leaving a screen-generated bloody mess, but have nothing to clean up, and no bothersome guilt to assuage.  Some people can no longer read or speak in complete sentences, but rather reduce communication to tweets, posts, and bullet points.  Extended logic, or reasoned dialogue may be too taxing for us, because it just takes too long, and seems hardly worth the effort when Wikipedia and Google are as close as my fingertips.  And we have not even ventured to the most blatant problems of pornographic virtual realities, cyber-bullying, or theft.  These horrific realities, however, have become part and parcel of modern life.  In the face of vulgar realities, the Christian community tends to toss combative words at Hollywood and politicians.  In some cases this technique may be simply deflection.  What seems to have developed is a kind of moralistic deism, in which Christians pretend that all who traffic in this stuff reside outside the church walls.  Little, if any, consideration is given to how our own practices of technological gluttony might be feeding an addictive monster.  Virtual reality is no reality at all, except for the real deception that occurs as our imaginations weaken to the point of non-existence.  So many of us disengage with the real world that God has given for us to steward.

And now back to consideration of our worship environments.  I am not necessarily advocating an abandonment of technological devices in our gathered worship.  Like anyone I could provide a significant list of ways technology can and does contribute to the worship environment.  What I am positing is a need for prayerful, careful consideration of any and all technologically induced and produced materials in worship.  This is not exclusive to video screens, projectors, amps, and electronic instruments or sound reproduction devices.  Indeed, hymnals, printed litanies, and even the lights in the room that allow us to see are all produced by mechanical means.  What if Christian leaders engaged in meaningful meditative contemplation of every aspect of worship prompts?  Perhaps such actions would lead us to reset biblical norms in the ethos of our worship setting.  Careful reflection might call us to pause before we substitute an edited video clip of a testimony that meets our time restrictions, and dare I say may then convey what we want it to say, for the live presentation of personal testimony in worship.  Should we not examine why we are so concerned at the risk of the new believer going overtime in their unprofessional sharing about what God has done in their life in order to save time in order for the professional ministers to extend their performance of music and/or sermon?  And what is the tradeoff when we opt for worship words on screens in eight to twelve word bites that disappear instead of printed resource to which the worshiper can return his or her eyes for extended reflection and meditation?  Again, I am not advocating adherence to use of one or the other, but rather calling for more careful reflection on the use of either.  How are they effecting our worship and worshipers over the longterm?

For a number of years our church leaders, especially worship leaders, seem to have been motivated by presumed relevancy.  While we try to impress the world that we are “keeping up,” evidence is strong that the world is unimpressed.   What is more critical is that in chasing cultural relevancy we run the risk of leading our church worship environments to leave their first love.  Lord, help us!


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