Archive for May 2015

STARS & STRIPES OR TONGUES OF FIRE?

May 26, 2015

American Flag - Christian Flag Like it or not let’s face it, worship engenders a certain political allegiance among worshipers. Before we
go much further let’s consider what kind of politic we are speaking of here. The republican vs democrat, red state vs blue state, conservative vs. liberal media saturation in our country leads us to assume that any talk of political allegiance has to do with the state. In biblical terms, it is as though the struggle of rendering unto Ceasar vs. rendering unto God all falls on the side of rendering unto Ceasar, making it a question of which Ceasar will earn our allegiance. In truth worship of the living God is surely to remind us of our first and highest allegiance to the Triune God from Whom all blessings flow, through Whom the only provision for salvation is made, and upon Whom the hope of the world rests. Where we as disciples have lost our way in our proneness to wonder Christian worship repositions us. As we pray for those who have authority over us (1 Timothy 2) we are reminded that God is ultimate authority. As we sing songs that embrace God’s reign in the good times or bad we are testifying to faith that may assist us to “be still in times of storm,” or to triumphantly “rejoice! the Lord is King!” no matter the circumstances. Worship singing holds rich potential as a primary means of declaring our allegiance as citizens of the Kingdom of God as first priority. Furthermore it provides an effective avenue for shaping our sensibilities to the characteristics of God’s activities in the world, and can help form our thoughts in relation to all that is happening around us. A proper perspective should result from our worship in which we love God with all our being, and love neighbor as self.

I am writing on this tension of Ceasar-rendering vs God-rendering in response to the tendency I note for so many churches to ignore an important observance in the Christian year. Of course, most of the same churches pay little attention to any of the Christian calendar save Christmas and Easter, but that is a variation on the same theme. Coming in to this past holiday weekend I reviewed a sampling of websites for evangelical churches, mostly Southern Baptist, who consider their worship to serve as exemplary of the overall ministry and mission of their church. I was interested in the emphasis for last Sunday’s worship, given the conflict of calendars, national and Christian. More than half of these sites indicated that last Sunday’s worship emphasis would be a memorial remembrance in one dimension or another; some remembering those among their church body who had passed away during the course of the past year, and many churches recognizing fallen American soldiers who died in the line of duty serving their country. Other sites indicated they would place an emphasis on recognizing graduating seniors, and still others gave no indication of any special emphasis other than a sermon series or other regular progression in the church. With few exceptions, by reviewing promotional emphasis for last Sunday you would never know that it was Pentecost Sunday, a special day in the Christian year that celebrates the visitation of the Holy Spirit on that gathered group of Jesus followers as recorded in Acts 2. Its significance to individual believers and to the Church cannot be overstated. The ignorance (ignoring) of that significance surely says something to and about the state of the evangelical church as well.

The book of Joshua instructs us to choose whom we will serve, and the prophet goes on to declare, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) Many of us learned this verse as a child and have found it to be a familiar friend guiding our steps into our adulthood, especially as spouses and parents. Prioritizing allegiance to Christ and His Church does not exclude us from honoring those who have served country even through sacrificing their life, nor certainly would it exclude us from pausing to rehearse the names of those who have transferred residency from this earth to be “present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) To the contrary, the latter serves as a reminder of our permanent home, our ultimate citizenship, and a reason for our participation in missio Dei, as we participate in forming the community of faith in testimony as the Bride of Christ. It is within consideration of these very things; declaring allegiance of “our house,” subordination of all service to the highest calling which is as child of God in His Kingdom, recognition of our eternal destiny, and our engagement in that larger mission of bringing God’s Kingdom to be “on earth as it is in heaven,” that we evidence our participation as worshipers.

An important aspect of leading others in worship surely includes drawing attention to significant events in the God story. Could it be that a bolder calling of disciples to faithful observance of all time as Christian time might help re-establish our pews as preferred means of forming genuine Christian spirituality? Might we better establish a worshipping Church seeking to be empowered by the Spirit if we more readily confess our helpless state that results when we act apart from that Spirit? In music and word is it clear that worship is on God’s terms and by His provision alone?

HOW WAS WORSHIP SUNDAY?

May 18, 2015

things go wrong  Me to Worship Leader on a Monday: “How was worship yesterday?”

Worship Leader: “It was ok, but attendance was down and my drummer was late ….again! The tech guys were not ready because we had a wedding Saturday and of course they did not put things back like we asked them to. On top of that I just feel like we have lots of people that are not really into the worship. We did a new Hillsong piece Sunday and with the drummer issues, plus the sound mix never felt right, we just never seemed to hit our stride. I am not looking forward to staff meeting cause the pastor does not like it if things do not go just right, plus when attendance is down he is always bummed. But I’m sure other people have it worse than I do, so I really should not complain.”

The feelings expressed above are real. I have had them myself. I do not want to ever cut off discussions about feelings related to responsibilities in worship leadership, but at the same time I am fearful that our bent toward performative understandings of the worship environment continues to undo us. Not only is it failing miserably, even at its intended purpose of getting more people into church and into the faith, but what is much worse, it smacks of serving directions diametrically opposed to the very heart of Christian worship itself. Namely, I refer to a grace-induced faith solidly rooted in an unfailing triumphant Christ, Who was, and is, and is to come! While we hunt for catchy new songs, the Spirit offers an ancient faith, a sure foundation. While we try to figure how we can do it better next time, He invites us to a work finished once and for all. While we strain trying to achieve the “next level,” He describes a certain eternity.

I have asked and have been asked the question many times, “How was worship?” The response in the first full paragraph above is not uncommon coming from the lips of any frustrated worship music leader. Asking a senior pastor the question may elicit similar response and focus. Problem is that our striving for some semblance of performative perfection tends to project the erroneous notion that we can pull off spiritual transformation ourselves. It implies we believe worship is up to us, and I am sadly convinced many practice just that. If we get the right song set, the most attractive worship singers, the hottest video shoots, field the most imaginative preacher, we will grow and turn people’s lives around. Mmmmmm…..really? Biblical witness and history beg to differ. The most foundational soteriology reveals the human condition and complete dependency upon God’s provision for salvation. The same is true regarding our access to commune with God in worship. In the so-called Roman Road we see the contrast between human effort and God’s provision in Jesus:

Romans 3:23 All come short of God’s glory (our effort)

Romans 3:10-18 none of us on his own does good (our attempts)

Romans 5:23 the gift of eternal life comes through Jesus Christ our Lord

Romans 5:8 God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us

Romans 10:9 “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Romans 10:13 “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved”

Romans 5:1 “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Romans 8:1 “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ.”

Romans 8:38-39 “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Through the entire history of Christian worship two facts are undeniable:

1. We have always been prone to wander. From Old Testament idol worship to first century believers who were confused and sidetracked by Gnosticism and other false doctrines that distorted truth, human tendencies have distracted worshipers and worship leadership throughout the history of Christian worship. Review worship practice at any point in history and somewhere you will find a human propensity for moving away from Christ-centered worship. It is as if we want to return to the garden and eat the fruit again rather than placing full trust in God’s provision. 2.  God has always been and ever shall be at work. He does not slumber nor sleep. He provides the full resource for renewal at any point in history. Through long stretches of history where the heavens seemed to be silent, God was at work. In long stretches of our own spiritual deserts, God is at work in the silence. I do not pretend to understand it, but I am not called to understand, but rather to trust. Jon Bloom says it well, “And when we feel forsaken by God we are not forsaken (Hebrews 13:5). We are simply called to trust the promise more than the perception.”[1]

Worshipers and Worship Leaders, take heart! Worship in which we are in Christ, and Christ is in us is never less than miraculous. It is never “unsuccessful,” but neither is worship’s “success” ever because we did everything right. It is not dependent upon a house full of people, or upon precision performance. Authentic worship cannot be proven or disproven by how we feel.  Like salvation, it is by grace through faith, and that is a gift.  It’s efficacy is in Christ alone! So, how was worship Sunday?

[1] Jon Bloom, Desiring God, July 19, 2014. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-god-seems-silent

WORSHIP THAT HELPS US LIVE IN OUR BAPTISM

May 11, 2015

baptize I grew up a P.K., a preacher’s kid. As a a son of a Southern Baptist pastor I observed baptisms in church from the time I was much too young to have any notion of what was going on other than somebody was being lowered into and raised up from a tank of water. I remember getting tickled when watching a lady with a bouffant’, hair teased and concreted in place with hairspray, who was lowered into the water and when she came back up she was a few inches shorter as the pile of hair became a wet stringy mess plastered close to her head. I remember friends being baptized and wondering if they would flail their arms as did happened from time to time, much to the entertaining pleasure of us kids. I remember Dad chuckling when I asked if his baptizing boots (waders) were good for fishing too. All in all this baptism thing was kind of a strange rituaI to a kid. Not as weird as if they still baptized naked what archeologists have indicated was early church practice. I also remember, though, a certain excitement that seemed to go along with baptism. In a worship service it broke up what was sometimes a monotony of songs and sermons. Baptism provided a focus on family members of the one being baptized. I remember family members standing when their child, brother, sister, mom, or dad was the one in the tank. I remember time and again seeing my dad weep as he announced special words about dying with Christ, and being raised to walk in “newness of life.” I remember him saying “I now baptize you my young brother, or sister.” Some of these “young brothers” were my buddies. Some of the “young sisters” were girls who passed me “she likes you” notes during Sunday School. Baptism was part of family in the making.

These memories and more came flooding to my mind again just a few weeks ago when I had the humbling privilege of baptizing my oldest grandson. Like my dad when he baptized me decades before, I found my voice breaking and a tear running down my cheek as I spoke those same words that had been spoken over me. This is a mark of identity. This is the sign/evidence of a new birth and a testimony to church and community. It is a proverbial big deal! Robert Webber spoke and wrote of “living into your baptism.” He spoke of a baptismal spirituality. It was appropriate in every way for baptism to be addressed as a part of worship study because this is what it is, an act of worship. In his book, Divine Embrace, Webber speaks of turning away from identity in Adam and turning to Jesus for new identity. That turning, he says, is expressed in a ritual that marks us. “Those who accepted his message were marked as his own.” (Acts 2:41)

Lost in our present day flaps over worship style (really music style), worship environments, and technology, is a far more critical set of issues, including our desperate need to make more of baptism. Lest Worship Leaders think this is a senior pastor issue, this is an every believer issue, and if you are a leader, then for certain it concerns how we lead and guide the church to worship. I want to note two aspects of baptism that I believe need elevating in worship, particularly among we evangelicals. Whether one’s doctrine teaches baptism as sacrament, covenant, or ordinance, its importance cannot be overstated. Here are two ways I believe evangelicals must make more of baptism in gathered worship.

  1. Gospel proclamation for witness to Christ during worship. This is not just a reciting of theological belief. Baptism reveals visual enactment of gospel embrace. As Webber says, “language and symbols perform.” Heightened awareness of the welcoming embrace as one of God’s own, as a new member of the family of faith, is surely essential and pregnant with powerful witness to others. Songs sung, scriptures read, prayers prayed, life testimonies given that lead up to this moment of visual outward sign displaying an inward reality” deserves undivided attention. Even unbelieving family members who have come to “observe” are often more susceptible to the Holy Spirit’s urging during these moments of Gospel on Display than perhaps they have ever been. The new identity is to be hailed with similar gusto as when we pronounce the birth of a new child into our biological family. I pass by a Church of Christ on my way to work that uses its marquee to announce the celebration of baptism in its church family. It states name of the one being baptized, announcing that to the outside world. I sure believe that marquee is stronger witness than a lame spiritualized euphemism could ever be. I love the idea of trumpeting baptism to all who drive by. I read the name and utter a prayer of thanks.
  1. Celebrate baptism as a unifying force for the church body. Baptism is a common identity among fellow believers and serves as a reminder of our common sinfulness, our new life, and need for ongoing renewal. Let me say again that songs, scripture readings, prayers, sermon themes, and testimonies can well serve to remind us of our baptism, reiterate to all our shared identifying mark called baptism. Churches would do well to consider how a baptism of a new believer is handled and celebrated, but also to perhaps consider a “Remember Your Baptism” service in which special focus is given to recalling our baptism, and professing renewed commitment to living into our baptism. Using stations for touching water (in a bowl perhaps) and/or other means of interactive confession and testimony hold great prospect for worship enhancement. In formal or informal ways worshipers could speak to one another to remind and remember and testify, “I have turned from old ways. I have united with Christ.”

The theological richness of water is undeniable. Baptism gives opportunity to remind worshipers.

MYTHS ABOUT MILLENIALS AND WORSHIP

May 4, 2015

millenial church prayer For at least the last decade a variety of leaders have trumpeted the need to reach young adults categorized as millenials with the gospel. The group known as Generation Y, or millenials, has reportedly been studied more than any previous generation. There are no hard edges on a definition of who is encompassed by this grouping, but it roughly covers those born in the early 1980’s through 2000, and we need to reach them. For those of us who would call ourselves evangelical Christians the response to such trumpeting would surely be, “of course!” We need to reach this generation just as we need to reach people of all ages. We do not have time or space here to go into what “reaching” even means, but it seems to me much polluting of message and ministry has occurred in the methods engaged in the process. Much of what the Church (ekklesia) is “called out” to be in the world has gotten lost, or simply become fodder for something besides its God-intended purpose; most notably for our discussion and focus, worship. So here are four of the myths about millenials and worship.

  1. Church and worship need to be more cool to reach young adults. According to Barna research, out of those millenials surveyed who see church as unimportant only a scant 8% say church is out of date. Writer (and millennial), Emily Underwood posits:

No one is impressed by an older adult trying to “fit in.” Millennials are hyperaware and deeply suspicious of the intersection of church and consumer culture”. We’re still consumers, of course, but we’re skeptical. Making church cool isn’t going to work because we’re not buying it. Millennials want a faith that is real and functional, not a cheap imitation of the culture.

Worship that reflects all generations that are participating offers opportunity for shared expressions and growth. Research shows millenials prioritize rich content, authenticity, and quality that is motivated by a genuinely humble desire to serve. (see Thom Rainer)

  1. Millenials want Christianity convenient and easy. This is largely a myth offered up by we baby boomers and gen-exers, who want these features in our own spiritual quest. In fact, authenticity is at the core of what young adults want and need, regardless of how demanding. In large part they are ready and willing to get their hands dirty in serving and addressing social issues and benevolence needs. Discipleship and authentic self-sacrificing worship and service should be at the heart of the local church.
  1. Worship is best in separated environments. This myth seems rooted in a marketing-driven assumption that smells more of “divide and conquer” than “come together.” Like other myths, its faith seems reliant on polls rather than trusting the power of the very gospel it portends to pronounce. According to Barna research young adults who have experienced an established relationship with an older adult inside the church are twice as likely to stay in church and 59% who stay indicate such a relationship. Intergenerational relationships are fostered and encouraged in the mutuality of genuine worship in spirit and in truth.
  1. Worship music style is a top priority in worship. Like any group of people, millenials have individualized and varied tastes in music and art forms. My own grown children (millenials) have found presumptive attitudes in this regard to be demeaning and often a signature of narrow-thinking on the part of church leaders. One very hopeful sign that I find among millenials

Whatever else some of my Baptist buddies may think of Rachel Held Evans’ journey away from the church and back, surely all concerned with millenials and related worship issues must hear important characteristics in her sojourn that speaks of her generation and spiritual sensitivities in corporate worship.  There is much to be learned.

Anthropocentric (human-centered) worship that seeks experience will at best achieve its focused end, an experience. Even when millenials are reached with such, what are they reached to, but experience? Our need is the Triune God Himself! “Ascribing worth to God arises from how He has revealed himself in scripture and how he has acted in history, not least in his redemptive work.”[1] We meet to rehearse His acts, to sing and proclaim what He has done, is doing, and promises to do. In His Triune Presence mediated by the Holy Spirit, there are real tensions where Theocentric (God-centered) worship confesses the awe and mystery. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts.

What if rather than our overblown insistence of our own certainty we once again embraced the humble walk of baptismal spirituality in which we engage in what Robert Webber called “living into our baptism?” (one of my next blogposts)

What if we all sang with genuine abandon lyrics that make less of us, and all of Him, such as “love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all!” even as we recognize our struggle to sincerely offer our all?

[1] Herbert Bateman, Authentic Worship: Hearing Scripture’s Voice, Applying Its Truths (Kregel Academic & Professional 2002) 174.


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