Monday, December 27, 2010

The Challenge of Jesus - More Advent Upheaval

Advent, for me this year, was meaningful.  It was the first time in my life that I was really able to begin to grasp the tensions and promise of this traditional Church season.  I’ve blogged about it before. 

Certainly, planning our church community’s worship around the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love was helpful to me.  My senior pastor grasped the themes as well as he presented his sermon series, “Advent Upheaval.”  Putting off Christmas carols, for the most part, until December 19th enhanced the meaning of the songs when we finally did sing them. (The power of delayed gratification.)  But perhaps the most profound impact on me was reading NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus.

Wright is not a casual read.  Some of his books are a bit easier, such as Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope (I highly recommend both).  But The Challenge took a bit of thinking to process.  I don’t think I read a whole chapter in one sitting.  There was so much to take in.  Many of the themes I’ve read in Wright’s books before.  But there was a good deal that was new to me.

Wright’s approach to Jesus – his self-awareness, vocation, and mission – is historical rather than through biblical exegesis.  That approach is a gift to Evangelicals.  He remains faithful to evangelical values and doctrine while shedding a bright light on the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth.  The light he shines is primarily energized by Wright’s consideration of Second Temple Judaism – the culture milieu in which Jesus lived. 

As I read the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure if I even liked this man, Jesus of Nazareth.  Who did he think he was!  Such arrogance.  Such chutzpah!  To the Jews of his day, the Temple and the Torah was everything.  Clearly, Jesus saw himself as usurping the place of both.  Talk about “advent upheaval!”  I was uncomfortable as I found myself identifying, almost more often than not, with the Pharisees who hated Jesus.  That’s a scary thought.   

Wright also takes on the questions of Jesus’ divinity and the resurrection; again, all from a historical perspective and arrives at an orthodox understanding.  Wonderful stuff. 

I finally began to underline in the final two chapters.  I wish I had done that in the first two-thirds of the book.  But the final two chapters are where the author takes the implications of his work and applies them to Christian life in our contemporary setting.  He is both comforting and challenging.  One of the things that I love about Wright is that he takes postmodernism seriously.  He sees challenges and opportunities for the Faith. Using Luke’s narrative of the risen Messiah’s encounter with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, Wright gives the story a compelling and contemporary twist:

“Was it not necessary that modernist versions of Christianity should die in order that truth might be freshly glimpsed, not as a set of doctrines or theories but as a person, and as persons indwelt by that person?”  (130)

Wright is a thoughtful and helpful critic of modernist views of Christianity, both liberal and evangelical. I find his voice refreshing and challenging.  The author was especially helpful to me in sharing his own struggles to live in the seemingly incompatible worlds of Evangelicalism and serious history.  He has born harsh criticism from both sides.  I’m no NT Wright.  (Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Dan Quayle comes to mind here.)  But I live in the seemingly incompatible worlds of traditional and contemporary worship.  Part of my vocation is to suffer in the middle, bearing the heartbreak and burden for entrenched preferences and divided congregations.  The angst is real.  Sometimes I feel like the prophet Jeremiah, wondering why God has laid this on me.  But like the prophet, “his Word is in my heart like a fire.” (Jer. 20:9)

Wright encouraged me with this:

“You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile, and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways which declare that the powers have been defeated, that the Kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled; and to be prepared the tell the story which explains what these symbols are all about.” (144)

If you call Jesus, “Lord,” that is your calling as well.

May the understanding and practice of our Kingdom vocation in this confused world be clearly manifested in the challenging new year we are facing. Let’s walk in the Light that we celebrate during Advent.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent Tensions - Magnified Meaning

Advent this year has been an enlightening journey for me. At FirstB we have tried to engage the season with real intention. Our sermon series is called Advent Upheaval – the theme about which I posted a few weeks ago. For the most part, we’ve avoided traditional Christmas carols. And yes, I’ve caught a little heat for it. We’ll evaluate our approach after the turn of the year.

But I had an epiphany (small “e” – I know the big day is supposed to be January 6) last Sunday as we sang Isaac Watts’ classic Advent hymn, “Joy to the World.” I think I’ve sung that carol for fifty years and associated it directly with angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph with the Holy Child in a manger stall in Bethlehem. Sure, there is some correlation. The Christ Event and all its implications is, after all, one big story. But Watts doesn’t mention any of those things in his text. I’ve just associated the carol with Christmas – well – because I always have, just like the rest of our Western culture. Even though I try to be an intentional worship leader and church musician, I’m pretty sure most of the value that I was gaining from singing the carol was strictly sentimental. It’s a good bet that sentimentality has been wrapped up in my other caroling activities. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

But when I sang Watts’ words last week the meaning of the words exploded with fresh meaning in my mind and spirit. This is a song of great joy because Christ is the sovereign Lord! It’s more a song about the Kingdom of God than it is specifically about the Baby in the Manger. This song could be sung any day – perhaps even more meaningfully on Palm Sunday or Easter. Now wouldn’t that be provocative! I could see the raised eyebrows. (For FBC readers, don’t worry, I’m not going there.)

Here’s my point: when it comes to this time of the year, we need to be intentional about meaning and spiritual formation without succumbing to the pressures of sentimentality. Sentimentality has a place. It brings emotional comfort. It is a return to a safe and nurturing place. Certainly, ministry does deal in sentimentality. We do have a role in bringing comfort. But sentimentality doesn’t go much beyond cultivating positive feelings. Sentimentality makes us feel good, but it doesn’t change us. Sometimes, it is the absence of positive feeling that becomes an impetus for growth. Tension can be good.

The church’s mandate is to be and make disciples of Christ. Spiritual formation must be our first priority. What we do sing does matter. (Colossians 3:16 – I’ll preach on that December 26.) Putting off the singing of carols has created some tension. I’ve heard and felt some of the push-back. There is only one way to reconcile the tensions of Advent. Don’t observe it. On the other hand, if we learn to live with the tensions of Advent, the discomfort caused by waiting, introspection, and searching for meaning will bear fruit when we do finally unwrap those delightful carols that announce Christ’s wonder-full birth!

Anyway, here are those timeless words from Isaac Watts whose fresh meaning was unveiled to me last Sunday:

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Advent Upheaval

I wasn’t raised in a so called “liturgical” church. Lent and Advent are relatively new to me. But I have become increasingly attracted to elements of traditional worship, particularly the Church Year. The church that I serve as worship pastor has always observed Advent to some degree and I am looking forward to planning the worship services for the fast-approaching season.

I hope I get it right. (Now which Sunday do we light the pink candle? And why is it pink? Or was that purple? ) Even among the staff and other worship planners here at my church, there is some confusion. I’m hoping to bring clarity and real meaning to the season. But I’m the first to confess that this is somewhat new to me.

In my ignorance, I always thought that Advent was just a “traditional” way of celebrating the Christmas season...sort of a way of “putting Christ back into Christmas.” True. It does that. I also thought that it was a way of telling the complete story of Christmas. Yes. It does that, too.

But Advent is more than just a prelude to the celebration of Christ’s birth. If I recall correctly, Advent developed along similar lines of Lent in that it was to be a time of spiritual introspection and cleansing. Sort of a recalibrating of our lives. It couldn’t come at a better time when our culture is fixated on consumerism. It is true that we do seem to consider giving and love more easily during the Christmas season. But our capitalist system (and I’m generally a fan) is eager to leverage any situation for financial gain. It’s hard to say whether or not “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” or “profit and bottom line” is the dominant theme from October 31 to December 25.

In such a culture, Advent is a welcome corrective for those who will enter into its tensions.

I’m grateful for a senior pastor who, like me, did not grow up with high church liturgy but is willing to consider observing some of those traditions, provided it is done with understanding. He has chosen “upheaval” for his preaching theme on the second, third, and fourth Sundays of Advent. I’m preaching the first Sunday and I am eager to embrace the same idea.

I think we could all use some upheaval in our lives. Sounds counterintuitive, I know. I, along with you, I’m sure, will be glad to see the “upheaval of evil” when Christ returns. Christ’s Second Advent is where we begin our contemplation for the season. I’m looking forward to studying, reflecting, and finally preparing the sermon for that topic. But that’s not the only upheaval we need. On the second Sunday of the season, we consider the ministry of John the Baptist who calls us to repentance and to make room for the Savior in our hearts. If we’re honest, that could be costly and messy. Of course, as we move closer to Christmas Day, our thoughts turn to Christ’s first coming and the “Joy to the World” that he brought. So very true. But Christ’s coming also surprised and shocked the religious elite of his day. The cleansing of the Temple in Luke 19:45-48 is only one example of the upheaval he brought during his first advent. We should not be surprised, then, as we consider the mission of Christ and the coming of his Kingdom when we experience personal upheaval in our own lives as we allow the Spirit of God to “clean our house.”

Advent is not for sissies. It’s not nice and neat, warm and cozy like the cultural narratives we cherish during the Christmas season. Not that those stories are wrong, per se. I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year. But Advent is not the same as the Christmas season. If there was one word that would characterize Advent it would be “yearning.” Do you yearn for the end of sin, evil, and brokenness in this world? Do you yearn to walk closer with God and to live a more holy life? Do you yearn for everything to finally be at peace – to be finally made whole? The fulfillment of all those yearnings will no doubt require a good deal of upheaval in all of our lives. Are you ready for that?

“O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” Phillips Brooks

Monday, October 25, 2010

Countercultural Leadership

The following was presented at a lunchean for the Crossroads Worship Conference in Sioux City, IA on October 23, 2010.

Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. “What is your request?” he asked.

She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?”

“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”

When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. 25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.  But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:20-28

The Kingdom of God turns the world’s system topsy-turvy. It is a new lens. Look at the beatitudes. (Matthew 5:2-10) They’re counterintuitive to how the world views things. That’s because our world is upside-down. Jesus came to “put the world to rights.”

I recall one of the very early praise and worship songs put it this way: “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.” (Michael Ryan, Maranatha! Music, 1975) The foundation of effective leadership in God’s Kingdom – not the world’s standards, but God’s countercultural standards – is cultivating the heart and actions of a servant. As I’ve prepared this little reflection on leadership in the church, I’ve been able to identify at least twelve that have made a difference in my experience.


1. Treat those you lead as you want to be treated. (Golden Rule!)
I’m amazed at how many in ministry do not seemingly get this. The Golden Rule applies to your actions and to your thoughts. Do you want people talking negatively about you behind your back? Then you don’t do it. Do you want to be treated with respect? Then treat all with respect. Do you want your full potential to be realized? Then with all that is within your power, draw the potential of people out and empower them. This rule is also a good check on your own wrestling with attitudes about people in authority over you. How would you like the people who you lead to think of you? Then think the same of your leaders.

2. Be organized – plan in advance.
When you don’t, you disempower people – especially musicians who need time to prepare and practice. I think I am organized by nature. But I didn’t operate that way when I first got out of school. I loved the adventure of solving last-minute crises and improvising on the spot. But I got slapped down pretty hard when I found that people who were critical to the success of my enterprise were not available because I did not ask them in time. Ouch! Learned the hard way. But as I’ve journeyed through my vocation as a pastor and leader I have found that being organized is one of the best ways that I empower others to do a good job. If you are not organized, it isn’t cute. Get organized so that your people can flourish.

3. If you are physically able, do the “grunt work” with your people.
This is counter to most leadership models that I’ve seen in the church. When I do see it, I am impressed. There is, of course, balance in this. Don’t value this rule simply because you can’t delegate. And don’t shirk other leadership duties such as interaction with people because you have to clean up the stage. But don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. I have found that doing physical work alongside my teammates nurtures great morale for the group. I loved working with the tech crew of the Living Christmas Tree and they enjoyed me. I’m convinced it was because I was willing to invest time and physical effort in working with them. Cultivate a blue-collar work ethic and you will be surprised by the loyalty that it will inspire.

4. Be a life-long learner.
I can’t emphasize this too much. Model what you expect from others. Do you want them to learn and grow? You must do the same. Be a reader. Hone your craft. Be up-to-date. I started playing praise and worship songs in the 1970’s. At that time, the songs were a bit more folk-oriented and you could easily play them on piano or guitar. It didn’t really matter that much. In the eighties, I was influenced a lot by Hosanna’s Integrity Music, which was primarily piano-driven. I did well because that was my instrument. Since I also never really had a good bass player until my son came along, I pretty much did everything from the piano – harmony, drove the rhythm, and laid down the bass line. But things have changed since the eighties and early nineties. I’ve finally had good bass players, so I’ve adjusted my left-hand technique to stay out of their way. And I’ve also started to work with decent rhythm guitar players, so I’m not driving the rhythm anymore. I’ve also discovered that the acoustic guitar and the mid-range of the piano where I like to play share the same sonic space. I’ve moved a lot of my piano technique away from there, too. Many of you know that the majority of new praise and worship songs are guitar-driven. So I’m also learning acoustic guitar and I fill in from time to time on the bass. You can teach an old dog new tricks. The big 5-0 was a number of years ago for me. If you want to be relevant – which is the theme of this conference – you’ve gotta keep learning.

5. Treat administrative assistants and custodians as equals.
Value them. Cultivate friendships with them. This rule harkens back to the Golden Rule. Cultivating friendships with these folks is very enriching. Unfortunately, sometimes relationships with other church leaders (especially if you are professional staff) can be strained because it seems that you are competing with them for budget dollars, volunteers, or rooms. That kind of relational dynamic is not the case with administrative assistants and custodians. You have the opportunity to build a relationship without that kind of baggage. If you are the leader, you are in the position of power and authority. It is up to you to initiate if you want to cultivate these valuable relationships. If you ask them to do something for you or your ministry, empower them. Make sure your instructions are clear. Give them appropriate time to do the task. And meet the deadlines that they request. If you are pressing them in a time crunch, help them get it done. From time to time, work alongside them to assist them. You’ll cultivate loyalty in the very folks from whom you need it most.

6. Use temperament profiles wisely in your personal interaction with others.
By temperament profiles, I mean the Myers-Briggs personality profile, the DISC© profile, or any other personality inventory that seeks to understand people. Interact with those you lead according to their temperament. For example: in the Myers-Briggs profile you have thinkers and feelers. For thinkers – get right to the point. For feelers – assess the feeling tone and nuance your words so that they will be received. Basically, speak their language. (For a self-assessment using the Myers-Briggs profile, visit and click on the “Jung Typology” link.)

7. Honor people’s time.
This is admittedly cultural. Not all cultures around the world are as tightly wound as ours. But in most Western cultures, time is one of the most precious commodities. So value their time. It is essential if you want to be a servant in our time-conscious culture. Start on time. End on time. When you don’t honor time commitments, you dishonor them and, in a sense, steal something very precious from them: time that could have been spent with loved ones, personal refreshment, sleep, or a host of other worthwhile pursuits. If you have to go over time, ask permission. Grant permission to leave at the appointed time if people have other commitments.

8. Listen to them.
Give eye contact. Learn how to receive criticism without being defensive. This is one of my biggest challenges because I want people to understand what I’m trying to do. But when we are defensive, we put up barriers in our relationships. Even more, if we have a pattern of defensiveness, we may never hear criticism that we really need to hear. Defensiveness usually belies inner weakness.

9. Be quick to say you’re sorry when you’re wrong.
This rule is probably one of the easiest to do and will bring immediate positive results. When you are wrong and will not admit it, you empower those who resist your leadership and you help recruit others to their point of view. Don’t allow that kind of negative leverage against you. Admitting your weaknesses without false humility is being authentic. It will cultivate strong relationships and, in resolving interpersonal tensions, it is a wise strategy.

10. Affirm before you criticize.
When people pour out their lives in an endeavor, personal criticism can injure the spirit and demotivate them. Always affirm their value and positive contributions before you offer criticism. You’ll find a much more receptive audience. Isn’t that how you would like to be corrected?

11. Cultivate genuine affection for those you lead.
I discovered this secret to ministry about fifteen years ago. When I was younger, I was intent on changing the world, changing the church. I still have a strong spirit and calling as a renewalist. But along the way, I discovered the joy of really liking the people that I led. I began to see them as family and friends, rather than tools or obstacles in my quest to move the church forward. I believe my change in attitude made a big difference especially in how I led them publically from the platform. The value of this rule was impressed upon me several years ago when I was mentoring a young man in worship leadership. He was getting very frustrated with some of the responses or lack of response that he perceived from the congregation. He was ready to quit. I asked him if he loved the people. “That’s easy. We have to do that.” “ Yes, but do you like them?” He had a hard time with that question, but he eventually admitted that he didn’t like them at all. (I love this about the Millenials. Typically, very honest.) I encouraged him to develop an affection for the people. Paul felt that way about the church in Philippi: “…for you have a very special place in my heart.” (Philippians 1:7) Affection for your people is the mark of a mature servant-leader.

Jesus modeled servant-leadership to his disciples. Servant leadership should not only be the standard for ministry leadership, but it is a powerful way for leaders in the secular marketplace to distinguish themselves and shine the countercultural light of the Gospel. Several years ago we lived in Portland, Oregon. Lyle Fisher was one of my good friends at our church. He was the church administrator and had recently retired from management in the well-known electronics company: Intel. While there, Lyle began to incorporate servant-leadership principles that he had seen modeled in Christ’s life. Over time, he saw the productivity of his department more than double. Under his servant-leadership style, they became one of the most productive departments in the company. Servant-leadership empowers people to reach their full potential, whether in the church or in the workplace. As Christ’s followers, helping people to become all that God designed them to be should be our first priority as leaders.

12. Live in a covenant of love.
Finally, all of these rules, and more, presuppose that we follow Christ’s command to love one another. If you are unclear about what that looks like, read I Corinthians 13:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

I Corinthians 13: 4-7, The Message

Faithful Relevance

The following was presented as a message for an all-city worship gathering at Sioux City, IA on October 24, 2010.


When I was asked to be a part of this conference several months ago, I was very pleased. I think you’ve got a really good thing going here in Sioux City – doing a worship conference primarily with local folks. The value of building relationships and learning from people in other churches and denominations is no small ideal. I would love to do something similar in Sioux Falls.

But when I learned that the theme of the conference was to help churches be more relevant in their worship, I had conflicting feelings. On the one hand, God has put me in a position to witness tremendous changes in the church since I began music and worship ministry back in the 1970’s. Most of those changes have occurred through the church’s pursuit of relevance and resonance with the changing culture. I believe that some of the changes that we’ve made have moved the church forward. The biggest positive that I see is that Evangelicals are now talking about corporate worship over a broad scale. Prior to the late twentieth century, corporate worship wasn’t a primary topic of interest for us. But as I consider where we’ve come, I also believe that our hot pursuit of relevance without reflection has weakened the Church. So I approach this topic of relevance from a critical, but hopefully, redemptive posture.
Relevance isn’t the problem. If we define relevance as “the quality of relating to a matter in hand with pertinence and appropriateness,” then the followers of Jesus should be, of all people, the most relevant (Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, 12). He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Relevance is essential to the Mission of God. But seeking relevance for its own sake and without careful reflection is a cultural trap that can endanger the essence of the Gospel. Evangelicals have been all too prone to step into it. Since we’ve jumped on the relevance bandwagon, we need to carefully consider where it might be taking us.


In Exodus 32:1-6, we find the well-known story of the people of God really messing things up by making and worshipping a golden calf. A close reading of it, however, reveals an appropriate warning regarding our pursuit of cultural relevance:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him."

Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt."

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD." 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Most of us know that story well, but have you ever considered that the people genuinely thought that they were worshipping Yahweh by making and giving homage to the golden calf? Notice in verse five that Aaron declares “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” That’s a specific reference to Yahweh. Realize that these people had not known the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for generations. Their experience with the Exodus out of Egypt and the beginning of their journey through the desert had just begun. They had been surrounded by a culture of idols and they were just doing what they had been conditioned to do in worship. What they did was entirely consistent with their culture. They were…relevant! But they were dead wrong…literally, for about 3,000 of them.

There is a powerful warning for those of us who lead the Church in her worship in this story. We must remember that it is God who prescribes how we worship. We must be clear that our worship honors the God of Scripture and history rather than some other cultural idol of distraction. Christian corporate worship does the Story of God. We must be sure that the Gospel we celebrate in our gatherings is faithful to Scripture and the faith passed down to us by those who have come before us. We like to say that we are faithful to Scripture, but we tend to be dismissive of tradition – of those who have come before us. That’s a problem and I’ll address that in a moment.

But I have another concern regarding our pursuit of relevance. It doesn’t take a university study funded by research grants to tell us that our culture is obsessed with the young. We don’t even need George Barna. It’s all around us. Our advertisements, our music, our cosmetics - good grief – even the development of Viagra is symptomatic of our aversion to old age. And the Church has followed the same path of youthful orientation since the middle of the twentieth Century. Since that time we’ve seen the rise of youth-oriented para-church ministries such as Youth for Christ and Young Life, and in the church, youth ministers. Most obvious, is that the music of the church has changed to accommodate youthful tastes. A former colleague has labeled this the “juvenilization of ministry.” And much of this is a positive development for the Kingdom of God. It is in childhood or adolescence that most people make the life-choice to follow Christ. It is right to give a good deal of attention to our youth, since they will be carrying the Mission forward. But the danger in fully accommodating ministry and the Gospel to a youth-obsessed culture is that our growth and maturity in Christ will be stunted. The church will be like the Corinthians, of which Paul said, “…when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would mature Christians. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life.” (I Corinthians 3:1) I’m afraid that for the American Evangelical church, that indictment rings all too true. And much of the cause is that we have accommodated all to easily to a youth-oriented culture without carefully reflecting on what we were doing.


Now there is, of course, another side to this equation. We can be an impediment to the Gospel by being irrelevant. I think the biggest example of having blinders to cultural changes was the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. Martin Luther did not act in a vacuum. The culture was changing radically in the early sixteenth century. The Renaissance was in full bloom and people were beginning to think for themselves. Belief based solely on Church councils and papal declaration which the people were obligated to believe was eventually going to be challenged. Church leaders were obsessed with their political power and mired in moral compromise. They had their head in the sand and missed what God was doing in the hearts and minds of the people. There is no virtue in being irrelevant.

Languishing in irrelevance has typically not been an Evangelical problem. Since the Wesleys, we have always been motivated by the imperative of bringing the Gospel to every person. To fulfill that mission, Evangelicals have always been pragmatic entrepreneurs. And as we have been quick to embrace new measures to move the Gospel forward, so we have been quick to toss aside tradition.

That’s unfortunate. Being rooted in tradition is the best corrective to diluting the Gospel in our persistent pursuit of relevance. But when we jettison tradition (which is in complete alignment with the modern spirit of our age) we are simply being arrogant and ignorant. Do we really think that we have a better understanding of the faith than Augustine, Luther, Wesley, or Isaac Watts? Can we in our relative comfort assert that our ideas of approaching God are superior to those who, in many cases, paid for their convictions through martyrdom? By jettisoning tradition wholesale, we are impoverishing ourselves.

A few years ago, when I was teaching at Huntington University, Mark Noll was the plenary speaker at a symposium on Christ-centered education. For many years, Noll taught Church history at Wheaton College. When he visited with us, he had been recently hired by Notre Dame University. In a seminar with the Huntington Faculty, Noll was asked how it was going since he was an Evangelical Protestant and Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic institution. He replied that Catholics have what Evangelicals need – roots with the historic Church, and Evangelicals have what Catholics need – a vibrant personal faith. I think his response is right where we need to be.

In his wonderful book on worship leadership called Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin writes a complete chapter on the necessity of holding relevance and rootedness in balance. I couldn’t agree more. The rich liturgical forms and hymns that we have inherited from two thousand years of church history would go a long way in helping us keep the Gospel pure and in deepening our faith. Let me give you some examples.

Most Evangelicals don’t recite historic creeds. We say our only creed is the Bible. Well, I grew up with that “creed” and I think that it’s a bit short-sighted. The ancient Church fathers who formulated the creeds did it with a great deal of “blood, sweat, and tears” based completely on scriptural revelation. All of the historic creeds are biblically faithful. If they weren’t, they would have been relegated to the historical trash heap of heresies. What if we took the time to recite an ancient creed like the Apostle’s or Nicene creeds, or maybe even the Te Deum every time we took Communion? For most of us, that would be monthly. I suggest that we would be amazed at the richness we would find in reciting those ancient creeds together.

Another traditional form that Evangelicals are averse to is set prayers. We don’t like other people putting words in our mouth or in our heart. Hmm… Most Evangelicals (aside from some Mennonites) have no problem reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I did not grow up with high church liturgical forms and set prayers. But when our work schedules allow Diane and I begin our day with prayer based on a monastic daily service. It ends with this prayer, which we pray together: “Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.” It was written hundreds of years ago. It puts words in our mouths. But it is the fire in our hearts that makes it fresh every morning. We don’t need to be afraid of set forms or prayers if our personal relationship with Christ is strong and vital. And isn’t that what it means to be Evangelical in the first place?

Another way to stay rooted is to sing hymns, set to match the musical language of our people. Most hymns were conceived as poetry and then set to a tune. The music, and how we do it, is secondary– as long as it matches the essential mood of the text. It is the words that are enriching. Consider, for example, this seventeenth century hymn from Isaac Watts:

I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers;
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.

Happy the man whose hopes rely
On Israel’s God: He made the sky,
And earth, and seas, with all their train:
His truth for ever stands secure;
He saves th’oppressed, He feeds the poor,
And none shall find His promise vain.

The Lord has eyes to give the blind;
The Lord supports the sinking mind;
He sends the labr’ing conscience peace;
He helps the stranger in distress,
The widow, and the fatherless,
And grants the pris’ner sweet release.

It is said that John Wesley sang that hymn on his death bed.

There are inexhaustible treasures available for those who draw upon the riches of Church tradition.


To be relevant is to be connected to the surrounding culture in an appropriate and meaningful way. The Gospel is relevant to every culture and every age, for it is the Story of the Lord of time and the King of kings. Church leaders throughout time have demonstrated the timelessness of the Gospel and its limitless reach to every culture:

• Paul told the Athenians about their “unknown God” (Acts 17:22-31) and adapted his approach to be “all things to all people that [he] might win some.”

• Martin Luther was a reflection of his changing times and used the new technology of the printing press to spread his message.

• John Wesley’s innovation was street preaching where the common folk were and it was a scandal to the established church. He also strongly appealed to personal experience in an age where the importance of the individual was beginning to emerge.

• And what can we say about those who adapted song styles to carry the Gospel? There is a long line of those who helped to make the Gospel resonate through music of the culture: Martin Luther, the Wesleys, Moody & Sankey and all other revivalists, which leads us to today with modern Praise and Worship.

But all of these giants of the faith balanced relevance to the culture with faithfulness to the Gospel. May I suggest then, that we not pursue relevance for its own sake; that is simply being trendy. That’s a treadmill that will produce no real progress for the Church except disillusionment. Instead, let’s pursue “faithful relevance.” It is a concept that holds the two imperatives of a pure Gospel connecting with significance to the surrounding culture in dynamic tension. “Faithful relevance”:

• Communicates the Gospel without confusion. The Gospel is not distorted or diluted by accommodation to culture. The Gospel transcends culture. French philosopher Simone Weil has said, “To be always relevant, you have to say things that are eternal.” (Guiness, 105)

• Is local rather than franchised. During the 80’s and 90’s Evangelicals franchised their way of doing ministry based on successful mega-church models. Some of that is still occurring. Relevance can’t be franchised. Relevance is always local because localities are always unique.

• Balances tradition with innovation. Tradition is the best corrective to our cultures’ never-ending quest for the new. Traditional forms and substance can be given up-to-date clothing without diluting their essence.

• Seeks to find its place in the greater Story. One of modernism’s biggest flaws is its tendency to jettison the past, glorify the present, and overstate the future. In so doing modernism has no story, but is stuck in a self-centered whirlpool that has no destination. The Christian Story, on the other hand, has a history, a present, and certain future. With “faithful relevance” we will consider our part in the greater narrative and live accordingly.

In the end, we are called to be faithful carriers of the Gospel to the people in our time and community. The Incarnation is the most compelling claim for the cause of “faithful relevance:” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NASB) May we truly connect with our culture so that they may see Christ, fully, undiluted, beholding His glory – full of grace and truth.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Friend of God?

I had a worshipper from our second service relate to me in passing that she didn’t like the new song we were doing called, Friend of God. She insisted that it wasn’t biblical. I have to admit, it’s not my favorite song. But I countered that the idea of friendship with God was biblical. For that reason and some others, I’ve introduced the song into the repertoire for the second service.

But when someone challenges me, it always sets me to thinking…

I agree that our relationship with God should not be conceived in a cavalier manner such as, “the Man upstairs” or “Buddy-buddy.” Such a conception of Christian spirituality is certainly not how the Scriptures frame who God is. He is the Sovereign Lord and Creator of the Universe. Indeed, the Scriptures say, the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) I doubt that the prophet Isaiah was singing Friend of God when he saw the Lord sitting on a lofty throne. As I recall, his first response was “woe is me!” (Isa 6:5)

It is all the more mysterious then, that God should stoop to call men His friends. But that was the case with Abraham as King Jehoshaphat referred to him as a “friend of God” in his prayer for deliverance from a menacing army in 2 Chronicles 20:7: “O our God, did you not drive out those who lived in this land when your people arrived? And did you not give this land forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham?” There are very few references in Scripture as someone being “a friend of God.” Abraham had special favor with God and Jehoshaphat leveraged that place of privilege for “the children of Abraham” to gain protection from their enemies. As presumptuous as it may seem, Jehoshaphat’s prayer was common practice for the Israelites who lived within their covenant with God. (See Nehemiah 1:5-11.) God was bound by his word and promises to his people. Abraham had found favor with God to be even called His friend and that favor was passed down to his descendants forever. (Genesis 17:1-7)

In the New Testament, Jesus extends the same privilege to us as He distinctly called his disciples “friends” in John 15:15: “I no longer call you servants, because a master does not confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” It is quite a mystery that the Sovereign Lord of the universe should call us His friends. But that is, I believe, the wonder of His grace.

I think that some of the discomfort with the song, Friend of God has to do with the music. As a musician, I find it quite fun (and relatively easy) to play. It has lots of positive energy. I suspect that when the casual fun nature of the music is wedded to the mysterious and wonderful concept that we can be friends with the Almighty and Sovereign Lord, warnings against a watered down and human-centered Gospel start going off in many folks’ mind. That’s understandable. Perhaps if the music was more dignified, some would find the concept of friendship with God more palatable.

OK. Some hymn writers also mention the idea:

“He is our Guide and Friend, to us He’ll condescend…” Come, Christians, Join to Sing  by Christian H. Bateman

“Jesus! What a Friend for sinners…” Our Great Savior by J. Wilbur Chapman

…and the well-loved What a Friend We Have in Jesus by Joseph M. Scriven.

Still, Jesus called His disciples friends. I take it that the invitation to friendship with God is still open to us. Friendship with God is a deep mystery and full of wonder. We can celebrate His deep love and affection for us even as we stand in awe of the Almighty.

Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me
When I call
Is it true that You are thinking of me
How You love me
It's amazing

I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend

God Almighty
Lord of glory
You have called me friend

CCLI Song No. 3991651
© 2003 Integrity's Praise! Music
Vertical Worship Songs
(Admin. by Integrity Music, Inc.)
Israel Houghton
Michael Gungor

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Being the Church in a Age of Juvenilization

One day while Jesus was teaching the multitudes, people brought the grey-haired old folks to him, hoping he might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they were indignant and shooed them off. But Jesus called them back. "Let these seniors alone. Don't get between them and me. These folks are the kingdom's pride and joy."

Yes. I’ve rewritten the story upside down. But I wonder if Jesus had come in our day if the disciples wouldn’t have tried to shoo away seniors rather than children. As the color of my remaining hair continues to turn to white, I’m beginning to wonder if that might be the case.

Since the middle of the last century, Americans have idolized youth culture. Sure, people have always tried to postpone their personal appointment with the undertaker. Every culture has sought the “fountain of youth.” Ponce De Leon has his shrine in St. Augustine, Florida. Baseball superstar, Ted Williams had his body cryonically preserved in the hope that he might be revived someday with a technology not yet known. The writers of the Scripture frequently remind us that we are like the grass that springs up and just as quickly withers away.

But our obsession with youth culture in the last fifty years is without historical precedent as far as I can tell. Those who study these things could tell us more precisely if that is the case and how and when it began. It is understandable that a nation and culture that had spent the previous fifteen years struggling through the Great Depression and World War II would turn their attention to their children. Perhaps our obsession with youth started with James Dean who became an icon of rebellion through a very brief career on the big screen and his untimely death in a tragic car accident. The advent of rock and roll, the quintessential music of youthful rebellion, occurred during same period. Certainly, the fact that we transitioned from a print to a broadcast culture in the twentieth century helped us on the way as we became enamored with the young. The explosion in music recording and filmmaking provided a medium to propagate and romanticize the adolescent and young adult experience.

Evangelicals rode the wave of youthful emphasis during this same period by starting Young Life and Youth for Christ, two organizations whose mission was focused exclusively on reaching the burgeoning youth population and culture. They adapted their music and their methodology to resonate with teenagers. Local churches responded to the focus of the culture by hiring youth ministers. The evangelical response to our culture’s emphasis was right and good. There are probably very few adults in church today under sixty who haven’t been impacted – some very profoundly – by local or parachurch youth ministries. I was, and I’m very grateful.

But there is a problem with our cultural obsession with youth in the church. And it should be examined through Scripture and honest reflection.

My Experience

I’m in my mid-fifties. I feel a bit sheepish raising an issue about the juvenilization of ministry in the church.(1)  I remember very clearly thinking twenty to thirty years ago that people who were in their fifties and sixties were not really “with it.” I was somewhat irritated that they wouldn’t get with it or (better yet) get out of the way so we could implement our progressive ideas. The church would really move forward then! And why were they so cranky? Ah, the good old days of the “generation gap.”

It’s still with us. And how did I get on the other side?

I think I first felt the sting of age discrimination when I was passed over for a worship pastor position that I really wanted. I was in my late forties at the time. When I asked why, I was told that my (old) age played a factor. Of course, such discrimination is illegal in other professions. But it is a reality in ministry. Since then, I’ve been told that I wasn’t relevant by a colleague in ministry. And it has sometimes been a challenge to win the trust of contemporary worship bands that I’ve led. My advancing age is a recurrent theme.

And I’m not the only one. My brother who is two years older than me has been frustrated for at least the last ten years. He’s a gifted worship leader, but he has been consistently denied opportunities because of his age. Recently, I’ve spoken with folks who are quite capable but have somehow received a message that they are no longer welcome or qualified to be worship leaders because of their age. Exclusion, especially in the church, is deeply wounding.

To be fair, there are issues. Contemporary praise and worship music has changed from a primarily piano-driven genre in the eighties to being guitar-driven since at least the mid-nineties. I’ve had to learn and change my technique. I’m still learning and recently, I’ve picked up the guitar.

But it’s not just about me. It’s not just about music. I’m concerned with the health of the evangelical church that has for the last fifty years focused, sometimes obsessively, on youth culture. (See my post on “Filtering the Waters of Willow Creek.”)

The Impact of Juvenilization

I’m concerned when a church community is divided because of generational differences, either perceived or real. It seems to me that the many of our churches have made real strides in gender justice. We work at being multi-cultural. But the missional focus of evangelical churches to be on the cutting edge of cultural relevancy seems to drive deepening divides between young and old. How many churches have “traditional” and “contemporary” services simply because they cannot find a way to bridge the gap between what seems to be generational preferences? In effect, they form different congregations so that people don’t have to “honor,” “prefer”, or “serve” one another – clear commands for us from the New Testament. There did not seem to be a generational divide in the early church. Sure, Peter told the elders to rule with sympathy and care and young men should respect the elders (I Peter 5:1-5). But first century culture had a sense of connectedness through generations rather than the competition that we have. Their struggle was the paradigm shift in welcoming Gentiles as fellow partakers into the Family of God. Today, the young/old divide in the western church has replaced the Jew/Gentile divide of the early church. Perhaps it would be useful for us to revisit New Testament Scripture and insert “young” or “old” in place of “Jew” or “Gentile.” Consider, for example, the insights it might offer if we read Ephesians 2:11-14 in that way:

Don’t forget that you [seniors] (or young people…depending on how you want to read this) used to be outsiders by [age]. You were called [irrelevant] by [young people], who were proud of their [music, clothes, hair, piercings, etc…], even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ [or so it seemed]. You were excluded from God’s people [the young], and you did not know the promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God [or so it seemed] and without hope. But now you belong to Christ Jesus. Though you once were far away from God, now you have been brought near to him because of the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has made peace between us [young people] and you [seniors] by making us all one people. He has broken down the wall of hostility that used to separate us.

Now I admit that I’ve violated the text by rewording it. Rewriting Scripture is a dangerous hermeneutic. Still, I think we need to recognize that our division and preferences over age in either direction does great violence to God’s design of unity through Christ Jesus.

I’m concerned also when ministry strategies seem to be subject first to the relevance rubric of popular culture. We need to be more discerning. Not all of popular culture is bad. Not all is good. But by holding relevance – which typically means compliance with the prevailing youth culture – as the first filter, the evangelical church has inadvertently and unknowingly impoverished itself. The jettisoning of religious symbols in the eighties and nineties is one example. Disdain for hymns is another. “Juvenilization” of evangelical ministry in the late twentieth century has left the church weakened. By and large, evangelical worshippers have a consumer approach to worship. Many of us “date” Jesus only to “break up” with him when life gets challenging. The divorce rate among evangelicals matches that of the surrounding culture.(2)  For all of the accommodation to youth that we’ve done, we’re losing the next generation.(3)  It’s time to grow up.

I don’t have all the answers. And I recognize that I may sound like those surly curmudgeons that I used to wonder about when I was in my twenties. But we need to ask some questions and reflect deeply on our approach to ministry for the Kingdom’s sake.

A Path Towards Renewal

I think that our problems stem from our lack of historical connectedness. It’s a modern condition. As a child of the 60’s, I wasn’t too enamored with the past. I, like most of the country, set my sights on the future – on reaching the moon. We were anticipating JFK’s “New Frontier.” I rode the Carousel of Progress at the World’s Fair in 1964 where I was promised “a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day!” Of course, Vietnam and Watergate shattered that dream. But instead of reassessing our place, we wallowed in self-pity and sunk into a “national malaise.”(4)  When we finally emerged from that condition in the 1980’s we were more greedy and self-absorbed than ever. “Better get while the gettins’ good. It may be our only chance.” In the words of Christopher Lasch, we had become a “culture of narcissism.”(5)

In his book by the same title, Lasch pointed out our disconnect with historical place. We live for the moment, for ourselves, rather than for our predecessors or posterity. We don’t see ourselves as players in a grand story in which we have taken cues from those who’ve exited the stage. They’re not relevant. Nor do we seem to have much sense in which we need to set up those who follow us. I often wondered why the builder generation seemed reluctant to hand the reins of leadership over to boomers. I’m amazed that many of the same generation seem impervious to the fiscal perils that are facing our culture now, especially with Social Security and Medicare. Lasch explains, “Because the older generation no longer thinks of itself as living on in the next, of achieving a vicarious immortality in posterity, it does not give way gracefully to the young.” (213)

We are all guilty. We need to recover the sense of place in God’s story that Moses had. “Lord, through all the generations you have been our home.” (Psalm 90:1) We need to take our place, to play our part in “the Grand Story” of God. Below are a few practical thoughts that I’ve had about being the Church in this age of juvenilization.

First, boomers and the builders who are able need to become mentors of the next generation. I have wondered, sometimes aloud to my students, if boomers will be reluctant to give away power and place like the builders, or if we will focus our efforts on mentoring the next generation. There is no reason to hope that we will step aside unless we grasp our place in history. We live in very challenging times. There are social, economic, technological, and spiritual earthquakes occurring all around us. And there is reason to hope as we look to the millennial generation.(6) But boomers must unselfishly consider their place in the drama of history and then mentor and empower their children for the immense challenges that lie ahead. Those in the builder generation who still have the energy and health have an advantage in speaking to young people. Social historians William Strauss and Neil Howe believe millenials have more in common with builders than with their parents. Because builders are a generation removed, they are generally perceived as “cool.” Most builders are no longer clinging to social place and power and therefore are not a threat to youthful progress.

I am grateful for the five years that I had to teach and mentor young people in a Christian University. Though sometimes irresponsible and not always wise, I admired their passion for the Kingdom. And I well remember the fire that flamed in my heart and mind when I was at that stage. The church needs the fire, passion, and vision of the millennial generation. We’re losing young adults in our churches. Their absence is apparent in almost every evangelical congregation. Could it be that part of the reason why young adults drop out of church is because they are not being given leadership opportunities? Recall that most of the twelve apostles were probably teenagers or in their twenties when they began following Jesus. Boomers need to mentor and empower the next generation now.

Second, teenagers and twenty-somethings need to respect and honor their parent’s generation. Admittedly, this is counterintuitive. Most generations react or rebel against their parents. It’s the rhythm of life and probably a corrective for most societies. Frankly, I’m quite ready for some of the boomer values in ministry to be replaced. But most young adults are not fully equipped to be released unhindered and unsupervised into leadership and responsibility. Builders and boomers have lived through a challenging and transitional period in history. Like them, the next generation needs a sense of their place in the story and to learn from the wisdom and experiences of their forbearers.

Finally, we all need a good dose of humility. The mark of a truly educated and mature person is the acceptance that he or she does not have all the answers. Both young and old in the church need to cultivate a stewardship of life that includes an insatiable desire to learn and grow. Boomers do need to learn from younger people. The world is changing. People are thinking differently than they did twenty years ago. Boomers can learn from the emerging generation’s critique of our values and practices. On the other hand, young people need to pursue learning and growth from wherever it may come so that they may wisely confront the challenges that they will be facing. May we join hearts and hands so that together we can face the daunting task that lies before us.

“Teach us to number our days, so that we may grow in wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

1. I am indebted to the work of my former colleague, Tom Bergler, Associate Professor of Youth Ministry at Huntington University for term and concept of “juvenilization of ministry.” His research and the implications that he draws are sorely needed in modern evangelical ministry.

2. 9/15/2010

3.  9/15/2010

4. President Jimmy Carter coined this term for our national condition in a speech delivered on the anniversary of his nomination, July 15, 1979.

5. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. (1979)

6. See William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning (1997) and Millenials Rising (2000)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

An Invitation to Grow in Worship

Dear worship leaders,

Next Tuesday, September 7, we will launch our first night of “Growing in Worship.” I am excited about this new venture and I want to encourage you in the strongest way that I can to urge you to participate.

Solo planning has always been my gig when it comes to designing worship services. There are many reasons why I’ve always done it this way. Certainly, it is the most efficient and time-effective method. None of the churches that I’ve previously served expected me to draw others into the planning process, though most everyone felt free to critique the results. Most of my friends in ministry who were doing contemporary services were planning by themselves (with, of course, oversight and some input from the senior pastor). Trying to put together a team and schedule them to meet on a regular basis has not been an additional task that I have eagerly wanted to take on.

I have come to realize, however, that the solo planning model, while efficient, is not the most wholesome model for a church family. First, since worship is “the work of the people” the people should have a voice in evaluating and planning the corporate experience. Second, no matter how imaginative the planner, it is nearly impossible to avoid creative ruts. Engaging others in the process will enrich the experience for all. Third, a worship evaluation and planning team enables others to exercise gifts and abilities that might be otherwise hidden. Finally, bringing others into the process will encourage much greater “ownership” from the worshippers themselves.

These truths are “self-evident” to me. But still, I’ve been reluctant to push forward and initiate involvement of others in the process. Up until forty years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of controversy in what Evangelicals did in their worship services. Most everybody sang the same songs from the hymnal, had a sermon, and an invitation. If contemporary praise and worship music did anything, it raised worship as a topic of passionate conversation in our churches. That conversation hasn’t always been civil. I’ve had my fill of “worship wars,” to be sure. I’m not averse to passionate conversation or even controversy if it will produce real community and growth. But unfortunately, conversations about contemporary worship, by the popular nature of its music, have often been rooted in nothing more than personal preference or the top ten songs that are playing on Christian radio.

I’ve hesitated to open the doors of group planning to others because corporate worship is too vital to the spiritual health of the church to be simply subject to the winds of popular consensus. Those who would plan corporate worship for the church need to be biblically and historically informed, as well as have a pastoral sense of mission. By that, I do not mean that all should be pastors. But corporate worship is a vital part of spiritual formation for the individual and the corporate body. Concern for spiritual growth and nurture must be first when planning corporate worship. In light of the great responsibility involved, it is easy to rationalize worship planning as a pursuit reserved only for “experts.”

But I am not satisfied with that rationalization. My highest ministry priority in coming to FirstB was and is to empower others to plan and lead worship. I don’t want to be a solo planner. I believe that our worship will be impoverished if that is the model we follow. How many gifts of artistry and leadership will remain dormant if people are not empowered and released to plan, evaluate, and lead worship? And frankly, I don’t want to carry the burden alone. I am excited to see what the future will bring when we work together.

I have invited several individuals to participate in a worship planning group for both services. If you would like to be in such a group and did not receive an invitation, please talk with me. If you are so inclined and impassioned about worship planning, I’m certain we can find a place for you. The most important piece to this initiative of inviting others into the process is the teaching and conversation we will have about biblical and historical worship. I certainly don’t “know it all.” But God has granted me the opportunity and charged me with being a student and teacher of Christian worship. I want to share what has been given to me. So each month, when we gather on the first Tuesday night, I will teach and facilitate discussion on a worship topic. As I unpack what I have discovered about worship and we talk about these topics, I believe that we will come to a common understanding of worship essentials. It is from that point – being, as they say, “on the same page” – that we will be able to evaluate and plan meaningful corporate worship. The burden and the joy will be shared and I am certain that the church will grow in community and spiritual depth.

Convinced? I hope so. If you play a role in facilitating corporate worship either as a musician, an usher, or in tech support, I hope and (candidly) expect that you will want to be a part of the monthly “Growing in Worship” teaching series that will be held September through June on the first Tuesday night of each month. This is not the planning team, but rather the study group that is open to everyone in the church. We will start at 6:30 p.m. and end at 7:30. The study will be held in the Youth Room (#109). Study notes will be provided for each session. Please forgive me if it seems I’m heavy handed in this matter. I am convinced that our time together will really make a difference. I hope you feel that it is not too much to ask or expect since these worship study sessions are only one hour a month for such an important formational time together. I know that some have work obligations that will not allow them to participate in the studies. If that is your situation, please let me know and I can at least provide you with the session notes so that you will be aware of our journey together.

I am genuinely looking forward to our time together.

Warmly, in Christ,

Pastor Bob Myers

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Most Pressing Question: Who Gets to Narrate the World?

The Most Pressing Question:

Who Gets to Narrate the World?

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

Life…human existence is a story. Stories trace the actions and interactions of people with each other and the world as we know it or wish to know it.

Stories have been called “equipment for living.”

There are a multitude of stories (or what we might also call narratives) in the world which determine our values and actions. There are family stories. And who knows that better than the young couple who has been married for only six months. Remember that season of life? Remember the tension as you and your spouse were trying to sort out the values – sometimes competing values – that came from two different family stories? Tough times. It’s a good thing we had stars in our eyes! Then there’s America’s story with all of its romantic rugged individualism and heroic sacrifice. But it also includes nearly two hundred years of slavery and the doctrine of eminent domain which brought unspeakable tragedy to this region of the country. There’s the story of capitalism and democracy. Socialism, Communism, and the progression of society are other interrelated stories. The Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century brought us the modern scientific narrative which has given us wonderful inventions like the light bulb, cars, and computers. But it has also multiplied the atrocities of war and normalized the murder of unborn children.

Eastern spiritualist stories like Buddhism or Hinduism seek to reveal the meaning of life. Finally, there are the great monotheistic narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Our world is a world of competing stories. Some stories are – shall we say – “short stories” and only address a limited number of people. Other stories, such as our own Christian faith, assert the meaning of life for all of humanity. While these stories are part of the human fabric around the world, postmodern thought rejects any notion that there is a metanarrative for all. Furthermore, those who try to apply their story to others are simply trying to impose their power over others. That may be true for you, but it’s not for me. Truth is relative. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the cultural air we breathe. Ironically, dismissal of grand stories – metanarratives – is a metanarrative itself grounded in the modern story of complete individual autonomy without accountability.

The “grand stories” of the world stand in competition with each other. Each seeks to narrate the world. Across the landscape our era, three of these stories are dominant:

1. The secular humanistic modern narrative worships reason and the scientific method. With science and reason, we will ultimately figure out all our problems. Nothing is impossible and no one is ultimately accountable. God is not a part of the equation. But this secular humanistic modern narrative has set us on a trajectory of cultural demise – a self-indulgent downward spiral that has brought us to a place of moral and (if things don’t change soon) fiscal bankruptcy.

2. Radical Islamists are deeply committed to the narrative of their faith. They have observed the festering moral decline of the so-called “Christian” Western world and are rising up in holy war against us. They are offended by our modern ways and seek, with often the most violent means, to bring the entire world under Allah’s rule.

3. The Christian narrative is under great attack by both modern secularists and radical Islam. Much of our story has been compromised by accommodation to the competing modern narrative without us even knowing it. Make no mistake. We are under assault and we must recapture the historic Christian narrative in all its fullness.

These are the three dominant stories of the world today. They each have a history, a present narrative, and a future plan. They are in direct conflict with each other. The most pressing question of our day, then, is, “who gets to narrate the world?” The question is not original with me. The insight and rationale behind the question were literally the dying words of my friend, mentor, and professor, Robert Webber. Bob wrote a book by the same title in the last three months of his life before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in April of 2007. For most of us, we recognize that the words of a dying man are uniquely profound.

SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ephesians 1:3-14
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God. And now you Gentiles have also heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him.

That is the Christian narrative. That is our story.

We can frame the Christian story simply and powerfully in three words:

Creation. God created all that there is for His own pleasure and glory. Humanity is the crown-jewel of God’s creation in that we are made in His image with the capacity to engage with him in deep relationship. But the image of God was marred and its full potential lost when we rebelled against our Creator. Moreover, not only have we been alienated from God, but the entire creation has been marred and is broken. That’s why bad things happen… The story of the Hebrews in the Old Testament is God’s initiative to form a people for Himself to eventually redeem His creation. The drama of Jewish failure and God’s covenant love throughout the Old Testament reveals God’s character and His plan for redemption.

• In the Incarnation, God does not merely “step into history” as some sort of interruption, but He becomes humanity, time, space, and history to (as NT Wright puts it) “set the world to rights.” In His obedience even to death on the Cross, Christ does what Adam and all of Israel could not do. In His resurrection and ascension he overcomes the evil powers of this world, sin, and death and inaugurates the New Creation. As the early Church called it, Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection is the “eighth day” – the first day of the New Creation.

Re-creation, then is God’s Kingdom – which is now but not yet fully realized. It is “the world set to rights.” It is our mission as God’s people who pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Read the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12…happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven….happy are those who are gentle and lowly, for the whole earth will belong to them. Counterintuitive! That’s because we view the world through a broken lens rather than through God’s eyes. Our up is really down. Our down is really up in the Kingdom of God. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Notice, then, these things about the historic Christian narrative:

• It is cosmic. While Christ died to save individual sinners like you and me; that is only part of the story. He became one of us to redeem all of His Creation. He has undone what Adam did and we long for the consummation of time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

• The Christian story is corporate. Notice the text that we read. Only one part of it referred to the individual’s part (when you believed in Christ) and even in that phrase, Paul is referring to the corporate church in Ephesus. Throughout the Gospels and Acts, we see Jesus calling individuals. We must each individually respond to the Gospel. But God has always been in the business of seeking and forming a corporate people. He didn’t call Abraham out into the desert just to have a personal relationship with him. He was seeking a people. Abraham is called the “father of nations.” Look at the New Testament. Christ’s purpose was to redeem a people for himself. Those who believe have had their citizenship papers from the Kingdom of darkness revoked and they have been transferred, Paul tells us in Colossians 1:13, into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. Christ in you – plural; Christ in us, is the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)

• Finally, the Christian narrative is unique. Islam cannot answer the power of evil, except by a God who demands complete submission to His law or suffer physical death. What other story has the Creator Himself entering into our suffering and death to overcome it and to redeem his creation. It is a story worth dying for – and many did. It is a story worth living for.

So how do you get to play a part in this grand cosmic story? Does God only cast “good people?” Do you somehow audition by doing good works?

How many of you have accepted Christ as your personal Savior? (Show of hands) Interesting. You won’t find the phrase, “accepted Christ as your personal Savior” in the New Testament. It’s not wrong – per se – it’s just not complete. The phrase “accepting Christ as my personal Savior” resonates in our culture where the individual and choice is preeminent. But it wasn’t like that in the New Testament. A study of New Testament conversion would be very helpful for us, but of course, this is not that message.

Conversion, in the end, is not my choice but rather a work of God. Because of that, there is a sense of mystery regarding the point of conversion. For some, it is like turning on a light in a dark room. For others, it is like the dawn of a new day as light slowly permeates your life until you finally see the sun in all its warmth and penetrating power. The New Testament has a number of metaphors for conversion: “born again” reflects the supernatural essence and newness of life; “adoption” reveals God’s initiation and love; “redeemed” reflects the enormous cost and the exchange nature of conversion.

In his book, Beginning Well, Gordon T. Smith tells us that the New Testament reveals seven elements of a Christian conversion:
Belief is knowing that the Gospel is true and embracing its truth and implications for my life.

Repentance is changing my behavior – moral transformation – living my way and then doing a “one-eighty” in my behavior to obey God.

Assurance is that deep down feeling in our heart that we know – we just know – that we are God’s child. Romans 8:16 tells us that God’s Spirit tells us within that we are His child.

Commitment to Christ is essential to being in His Story. Jesus said to take up your cross and follow Him. When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we give Him complete control in our lives.

• Each Christian is empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life that manifests Christ’s character.

Water baptism signifies our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection.

Assimilation into the Church family where you share your gifts and your life with your fellow “actors” in the Story.

All of these elements are the New Testament norm for being a Christian. Conversion is both event and process. At what point one is “born again” into God’s family is His determination rather than a result of some words we may have said or action we have taken.

The early church understood this well. In fact, as early as the second century, the process of becoming a Christian might have taken as long as three years before a person would be baptized and allowed to take Communion. There are many reasons why the conversion process took so long. Most significant, I think, is that ancient Christians considered following Christ as a radical departure from their culture’s lifestyle. For them, to say “Jesus is Lord” was to set oneself against Caesar, who claimed to be “lord of all.” For many, it cost them their lives. Somehow, we need to recapture the sense that following Jesus is counter-cultural.

In our day, personal salvation has become just another therapeutic path for the betterment of our lives. And we Evangelicals haven’t helped by focusing our worship services on “relevant messages that speak to the felt needs of seekers” rather than on the grand Story of God. Call it the “Oprahization” of our faith. We invite folks to come to Christ to help them with their problems, make them more successful and in general, give them a better life. It’s not that being in Christ won’t bring meaning and purpose to our lives. It’s just not the full Story. It’s impoverished. The focus is on us. It should be on God who invites us into the Creation – Incarnation – Re-creation narrative of the cosmos.

I’m inviting you to a different way of thinking. Stop letting the culture press you into the mold of individualistic self-obsession. Let’s be transformed, as the Apostle Paul tells us, by the renewing of our minds. Instead of focusing on my story, let’s begin to act and think as players in the grand narrative of God’s Story. Let me illustrate it this way…

Back in the early nineties, we sang a very popular worship song that expressed thanks to God by singing “I’m so glad you’re in my life.” (1)  Not really New Testament theology. Better stated, “I’m so glad I’m in Your life.” Now that’s what it means to be in God’s Story – to think of the Christian faith in a new way. And it’s consistent with Scripture. Consider:

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:3

“You are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession.” I Peter 2:9

“And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.” II Peter 1:4

And what might happen if we were able to shift our thinking from God as an addendum to my life to being full participants in God’s grand story of Creation – Incarnation – Re-Creation? We would recapture the sense of what it means to be God’s family? Personal preferences and agendas would be seen in a different light as we honor one another as truly brother and sister. Since we are participants in the Story that spans all of history, we would not jettison the Church’s past with its rich creeds and hymns, but rather honor them and seek to be taught by actors in the Story who came before us. It is modernism’s code to reject all except the present and the future. As participants in God’s full story would be enriched and truly counter-cultural as we embrace our history – from the Hebrew’s story of the Old Testament, through the rich and varied history of the Church. It’s what Pastor Steve talked about two weeks ago. Living God’s Story is being on the Way – literally, “in the Way” – not as an obstruction, but fully immersed in Christ. Being immersed in God’s Story is participating in His completeness – experiencing God’s Shalom – His peace as Pastor Shawn talked about last week. God’s peace isn’t just another therapeutic option for handling the stress in our lives. It is participation in the third act of the Story -RE-CREATION - accomplished by Christ’s victory over the forces of evil, sin and death.

Understanding our part in God’s Story will bring fresh understanding to the songs we sing. “This is my story, this is my song” is no mere personal statement of faith, but rather a joyous realization that we are united those who sing the chorus with us. Or in a contemporary setting, if we sing this invitation:

All who are thirsty, all who are weak,
Come to the fountain, dip your heart in the stream of life.
Let the pain and the sorrow be washed away
In the waves of His mercy, as deep cries out to deep.
We sing, “Come Lord Jesus, come.” (2)

A modern person who is merely seeking personal help will see the song as a possible therapeutic path for their betterment. But, on the other hand, if the worshipper considers himself or herself as a participant in the Grand Story, he or she will recognize God’s universal call to join in His story. The worshipper will be eager and humble to “immerse” their heart in the stream of Life once again to find wholeness and healing in Jesus Christ. He or she may also recognize that the cry, “Come Lord Jesus” has been the cry of ancient Church since New Testament times. “Come Lord Jesus” is a core theme in God’s Story.


We live in a day of competing stories. The Christian Story of Creation – Incarnation – Re-Creation stands in opposition to the competing narratives of modern secular humanism and radical Islam. Hear the words of a dying man:

“Whose God rules over our lives? Whose God rules history? Whose God will rule over all creation forever? We Christians had better be ready to give the reason for the hope that lies within.

It is not evidence, or logic, or philosophy.

It is the narrative.

God’s narrative.

All of it – in its fullness.” (3)

1. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” by Rick Founds © 1989 Maranatha Praise

2. “All Who Are Thirsty” by Brenton Brown and Glenn Robertson ©1998 Vineyard Songs

3. Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 37.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Filtering the Waters of Willow Creek

I was fortunate to grow up in California during the late 1960’s and 70’s. During the early years of that period I learned to backpack in the Coast Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. During those days, you could drink pure unfiltered water from the lakes and streams without fear of catching giardia. By the mid-seventies with the explosion in popularity of backpacking, it was no longer safe to drink water without first treating it with a special tablet or filtering it. What a pain! You could no longer dip your Sierra cup into the waters of a rushing stream and satisfy your thirst with great tasting cold water. Sure, the water still tasted great, but you would put your health at risk of picking up some nasty parasite without filtering the water.

I have spent the last two days drinking deep at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit. The water tasted intoxicatingly good! I wish I could have imbibed without filtering, but I believe the health of the Church and its ministry is at stake. Frankly, I don’t trust the source. I’m afraid there is a certain amount of contaminants naturally in the waters of Willow that have negatively affected the American Church in the last thirty years.

There are many things about Willow Creek that I admire. Bill Hybels’ mantra is that the Church is the hope of the world. Since the Church is the only conduit that God has established for the Gospel, I absolutely agree with him. And Hybels has made that point consistently throughout his ministry. It is a message that needs to be sounded over and over again in the current milieu of rampant individualism even among Christians. I am also inspired by Bill Hybels’ commitment and energy to the Kingdom enterprise. I confess: I cannot hold a candle to his passion, intention, and actions. I also applaud the way that Willow is always assessing its ministry and refining their practices to best accomplish what they believe is the mandate of the Church. Indeed, in many ways, Hybels and the ministry that he has built through Willow Creek are a gift to the Church.

It is difficult, then, to stand in criticism of Willow. But I believe what we drink from that source must be filtered in order to ultimately fulfill Christ’s mandate for His Church in sustaining health and growth through the long haul.

It seems to me that Willow Creek is youth ministry on super steroids. I observed some of the adolescent attitudes that form the perspective of most youth ministries at the Summit. They’re subtle. But they’re there. I heard it first when Hybels introduced the event. Though it was held at a church and most of the audience were Christians, he assured us that “we wouldn’t be hearing any bad choirs” or experiencing any of the other trappings associated with the traditional church. That was my first alert and I’ll return to the matter of “bad choirs” later in this post.

I have never seen any “ugly” people on the platform at Willow, except of course if they were world-class guest speakers or musicians. All are youthful and vigorous. Even Bill, who is sixty-ish, has maintained his youthful good looks, a discipline that I applaud. It seems clear to me though, that Willow will only intentionally use the same kind of people that we see on television, marketing all our consumer goods and services. There’s an embedded message in all those cool and beautiful people.

Relevance is a core value for Willow Creek. I heard that term at least a dozen times in the last two days. I believe relevance in ministry is important, but I have yet to hear a good theological rationale (though I think there is one to a point) for it from anyone who subscribes to Willow’s values. I think rather than from a theological imperative, that Willow simply mirrors exactly the values of our culture. Our modern western culture values relevance so highly that it intentionally ridicules the past and worships the culture of innovation. Has that not been the case with Willow Creek? Willow reflects this aspect of our culture so well that it has been very successful in capturing a very large share of Baby Boomer religious consumers in the marketplace.

All of this is consistent with Willow Creek’s history and values. It started as a youth ministry that was discontent – perhaps even contemptuous – with the traditional church. Willow, it seems to me, has always had a youth ministry approach to “doing church.” In so doing, it has exemplified what a former colleague as termed “the juvenilization of ministry.”(1) This “juvenilization of ministry” is simply a mirror of accommodation to our culture’s infatuation with youth. The result is a Church that is lacking in maturity – just the same as our Western Culture. And we are just beginning to recognize the danger that we are in, both as a Church and as a culture.

I have a second confession to make. I have baggage. Throughout my career of over thirty years I have dealt with the tension of “being relevant” but also understanding and embracing the values of the traditional church. I’ve had to work with colleagues on church staffs who whole-heartedly embraced Willow’s approach. In the mid-eighties I worked under an executive pastor who wanted me to stop using a certain singer on my praise team simply because she was overweight. This same pastor wanted to fire me because he thought I would hold the church back. I liked hymns, organs, and choirs. Fortunately, he didn’t get his way.

As for the “bad sounding choirs,” I have a few thoughts. We have lost a great deal in our churches that have abandoned choirs. The choir used to be a place where the average musician could share their love of music and the little bit of talent that they had in service to God. Churches without choirs have given that opportunity away. What remains is an elite (and typically, cool) small group of musicians who can lead in worship. That is a significant loss that I mourn. I’m certainly not in favor of “bad choirs.” But even bad choirs offered an opportunity for authentic involvement and service in the church. An elite praise team is a step towards, and in many cases, into the professionalism of ministry. Better check your biblical ecclesiology, those who continually rag on church choirs.

During the same period of time in the late-eighties, I sat through a number of seminars led by church growth gurus who told their audiences that if they wanted their churches to grow that they needed to get rid of organs, choirs, and hymns. Uninformed and arrogant “consultants” who had no clue about biblical and historic worship. To them, you used music and “worship” (and it had to be done with a really good band) to form a crowd with lots of positive energy so that the pastor could come in and deliver his “relevant” message to a receptive audience. That’s not biblical worship. That’s a prostitution of worship forms in order to build numbers. For most of my career I’ve had to deal with colleagues (fortunately, not my senior pastors) who drank the impoverished Kool-Aid of the church growth advocates who were, in turn, very influenced by Willow Creek’s practices.

So when I come to a Willow event or read Willow material, I’ve got my filter in place. It’s not fun and it takes more time. I wish I could drink freely. But I know better. I’m a signer and subscriber to the Ancient Evangelical Future Call that states, “Today, we call Evangelicals to turn away from…contemporary pastoral ministries so compatible with culture that they camouflage God's story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning.”(2)  I know the Leadership Summit was not supposed to be a theological conference. I also suspect that one of its objectives was to attract non-Christian leaders to the event to be exposed to the Gospel. In some ways, that was well-done. The few Gospel-themed sessions we experienced balanced out the excellent secular leaders that we heard. But the event was not really Christ-centered as its leaders asserted. I never really heard the full Gospel – the story of God, the Christ Event, the Church and where we fit into the narrative. The Gospel calls were, in effect, an invitation to welcome God into your story – your life - to give it meaning. The Gospel is just (sorry to be so crass), just another commodity that will help you live your life better. Wouldn’t it be better to invite people into the grand story of God – the metanarrative that includes the historic Church? Hard to do that when your core message has often had overtones of contempt for our religious forbearers.

So what did I get? A few fresh ideas and lots of affirmation for my plans to give away ministry and include as many as I can in defining and leading the worship ministry at my church. I’ll also give a blessing to Bill Hybels for what he is trying to do. A Christian leader can find lots of intellectual and inspirational nourishment from the waters of Willow Creek.
Still, for the sake of the Kingdom, use your filter.

1.Tom Bergeler, Associate Professor of Ministry at Huntington University has written an unpublished (as of yet) manuscript for a book describing and analyzing this process that began after WWII and was probably first manifest best in groups like Youth For Christ. I hope he can get the work published. It is a badly needed insight for the American Church.