Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Pastoral Role of a Worship Planner

...and now, by request...

I received one of those notes the other day.  The kind that worship pastors or leaders receive from time to time but on a regular basis:
“Please, please, may we have more hymns!” 
I received almost the same anonymous note in the same handwriting nearly six months ago.  Only this time, the author mailed it to me; again, anonymously. 
My policy has always been to ignore anonymous notes because they are often intentionally hurtful and I have no way of interpreting (not knowing the context) or responding to them.  The intent of this older lady (I know the approximate age and gender because of the style of the handwriting) was certainly not hurtful.  But she is frustrated and persistent!  I only wish I had her name so that I could respond personally.  Lacking that opening, I have taken the note as an opportunity to share my sense of calling as a worship designer/leader/pastor.
In direct response to her, I would have asked, “What do you mean by ‘hymns’?”  I’m almost certain that she attends our traditional service in which we rarely sing anything but hymns.  Obviously, we don’t share the same language.  My hunch is that by “hymns” she means the well-known ones that she traditionally sang or Gospel Hymns.  I am more than happy to sing well-known traditional hymns like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty or Immortal, Invisible when they fit the flow and progression of the service.  We are fortunate to have Hope’s hymnal, Worship and Rejoice.  It is full of wonderful new and modern hymn texts set to traditional tunes.  We sing a lot of those, which I suspect frustrates her. 
Gospel Hymns are songs that typically have several verses and a repeatable refrain.  We don’t sing a lot of Gospel Hymns (though we do from time to time) because they are typically testimonial personal songs that were written purposely for evangelistically-oriented services.  I know that Gospel Hymns are the preferred genre for Baptist-type folk over the age of seventy.  It’s what they grew up on.  (So did I.)  Gospel Hymns are the genre that resonates in their soul.  I was not surprised a couple of months ago when several of us sponsored a hymn sing at a local retirement home and all but two of the songs chosen to be sung were Gospel Hymns. 
The desire to “sing the old songs” is primarily sentimental, an urge that I strongly resist in designing worship services.  Sentimentalism seeks to retrieve a feeling that we had in the past arising out of a meaningful experience.  Most hymnologists or liturgists reject sentimentalism outright in corporate worship.  I generally agree, but because those meaningful experiences are often monuments to God’s work in people’s lives, I think there is a place for some sentimentalism within the Body of Christ.  Sentimentalism as a function of spiritual memory is not a sin; it’s part of human nature.  But being a universal experience in fallen human nature, sentimentalism can also be insistently self-serving, in which case it does become sinful. 
For those readers who are confused by what I just wrote – I’m arguing with myself.  I do it all the time.  It’s part of living with tension.  Don’t worry.  It will work out.  There is a place for singing sentimental songs for Christians, though generally not in corporate worship. And I will unveil what I think might be a helpful proposal at the end of this blog. 
But on to more foundational issues…
The Role and Responsibility of Those Who Plan Worship Songs
Martin Luther once wrote, “I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart…the devil flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God.”  A high and lofty role for church music, indeed!  Perhaps even more to the core of my conviction, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians encouraging them to “let the word of Christ dwell richly within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16 NASB).
What we sing does matter in the spiritual formation equation.  Song repertoire is one of the most powerful shapers of our spiritual understanding.  In the Church’s song we express the story and truth of the full Gospel and do it in a way that engages our whole being:  body, mind, and spirit.  All that we do in corporate worship should form us into maturing disciples of Christ, whether it is singing, prayer, giving of our offerings, hearing the spoken Word, the Lord’s Table, even greeting one another.  Singing is only one of several meaningful elements within Christian worship.  And I affirm, along with Paul and Martin Luther, that it is a wonderful gift and powerful medium in proclaiming God’s Story of which we have been cast as players.
Most people in the free church/revivalist tradition do not understand these dynamics.  I have been told all my life that the role of music in corporate worship was “to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the message.”  That’s what Ira Sankey did for D.L. Moody.  Homer Rodeheaver did it for Billy Sunday and Cliff Barrows was the warm-up for Billy Graham. 
I reject that role.
I do not disagree that music has the power to move people.  That is one of its fundamental gifts.  But music in corporate worship is more; much more because it carries the Gospel itself, with all its transforming power.  Like the sermon or even the Lord’s Table, the song of the Church has intrinsic worth.  When we prescribe and limit the role of worship music to “preparing hearts to receive the message,” we strip it of its formational power and prostitute it as manipulation.  And yet for many church folk and even ministers in our tradition, that is exactly what is expected of a worship leader or church musician who selects the songs for corporate worship.
There are not many who ask the preaching pastor for a favorite sermon or a message on a favored topic.  I know it happens, but probably not as often as favorite song requests are submitted.  I’m not suggesting that the songs we sing are more important than the Word that is preached.  It is not necessary or helpful to compare.  Worship always springs from God’s Word.  But just as the sermon has worth because it is God’s Word and has transformational power, so the song of the Church also has worth because, it too, often carries God’s Word and has transformational power.  The point it simply this:  to preach is a pastoral burden and responsibility; selecting the music we sing is nothing less.  Selecting music and designing corporate worship is a pastoral role and responsibility that worship leaders need to embrace and the Church needs to understand.
Sounds like clericalism – only the professionals should do it – a premise that Baptists have always rejected.  Frankly, that’s why I’m writing this post.  I want us to understand the vital importance of selecting the music we sing and empower others to do it.  While I have labeled that task as “pastoral,” I don’t mean it in a professional sense. It is “pastoral” in that it is a role that has a responsibility for the spiritual nurture of the church.  My role as a “pastor” is to equip others to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12).  If I could have it the way that Paul describes, I would love to share and lay this burden on others who understand the weight and nature of the role of worship planning. 
So what to do with requests?  I listen and consider if the song can serve the Body of Christ in shaping us into more mature disciples.  My first criterion is the text and whether or not it is biblically true and secondly, whether or not it has value as literature.  Sometimes I’ll even use poor poetry if the theology is exceptionally strong.  But I know, in the end, the song won’t have staying power because of its literary flaws.  My next criterion is whether or not it is a good song musically – especially the singability of the melody.  Third, I try and determine if the song is in the musical vocabulary of our people.  Or if it is not, does the value of the text/music justify using it even though it will stretch our people?  I don’t use many of those songs.  Finally, especially with contemporary music, I have to determine whether or not our band can play it effectively.  All of those criteria are carefully and prayerfully measured before I choose to use any song. 
What about those “hymns?”
OK.  What about sentimentalism – singing those favorites?  What about the lady who is pleading for more hymns, however she defines them?  There is a place in the church for sentimentalism because it causes the singer to relive a moment or a time that often was formational in their spiritual walk.  I don’t do it in corporate worship because the focus is on the individual rather than God.  But I think as a pastoral gesture – that is, caring for and nurturing the souls of those in the church – it would be appropriate to have casual hymn sing-a-longs where people get together and choose their favorites to sing.  As a musician and a person who knows a lot about hymns, I could also add some stories or history to enhance the experience.   
I’m a pastor. In a sense - a spiritual father.  I have a responsibility to “feed the flock” good food.  To be kind and nurturing to those for whom I am responsible before God (I Peter 5:1-3).  I think sponsoring hymn-sings from time to time might alleviate the frustration of my anonymous friend and those like her as well as serve a spiritual purpose.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Transformational Power of Corporate Worship

God’s people have always assembled together on a weekly basis as a corporate spiritual discipline.  Post-exilic Jews met on the Sabbath to read and discuss their Scriptures in the synagogue.  The early church continued the weekly pattern but gathered on the first day of the week – the day of Resurrection – the Eighth Day.  The writer of Hebrews specifically warned us to “forsake not the assembling together as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). Why?

Consider these facts about corporate worship:

·         For over 1500 years most Christians did not have a personal copy of the Bible.  How did they grow spiritually and how did the Church expand?

·         At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, those who believed Christ was fully divine were virtually at an impasse with those who believed that Christ was less than fully divine.  The reality that the Church was already worshipping Christ as fully divine was the deciding factor in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity.

·         At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and articulated.  At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD the complexities of Christ’s dual human/divine nature was articulated into Church dogma.  Both doctrines are foundational for the faith.  A major Church Council was never convened to formulate and articulate the doctrine of salvation.  Why?  Because the people enacted the Christ Event every week when they partook of the Lord’s Table.  They understood salvation from their regular worship practice.

Lex orandi, lex credendi.  What we pray is what we believe.  Join us Tuesday, September 13th at 6:30 p.m. as we launch our second year of the Growing in Worship teaching sessions and we consider the transformational power of corporate worship.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Modulating from Corporate to Personal Discernment

 The last sermon that I preached is posted on my blog.  The topic was cultivating conditions for hearing the Holy Spirit in the corporate church.  In my reflection on the development of the Church in the opening chapters of Acts through chapter 13, I observed five conditions that were present when the leaders in Antioch clearly heard the voice of the Holy Spirit (13:2):
1.       Believe that God still speaks today.
2.       Purity in the church.  No known sin is tolerated.
3.       Unity of the church. 
4.       An expectancy that God was going to move; or better put, knowing that God is always working and seeking to join Him there.  (This idea was well developed by Henry Blackaby in Experiencing God.)
5.       Corporate spiritual disciplines that positioned the people to receive the grace that God is always pouring out.
The message has stayed with me and I’ve had several people let me know what they heard God saying to them (or us) that morning.  I mentioned several times in the sermon that it could be applied personally as well as corporately, which was the focus of the text.  With a bit more reflection, here’s what I’ve come up with as a personal application of the five points I offered:
1.       Active belief in God’s intention to speak and act in our world.  I’ve combined points 1 and 4 from the message here because I believe they are essentially the same thing.  We must approach God in active faith.  Hebrews 11 tells us that those who would come to God must believe that there is a God (loaded statement – I believe such faith encompasses an understanding that God is who He says He is and that He is actively working in His world) and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him (v.6). 
2.       Purity in your life.  Of course you sin; we all do.  You’re still a work in progress.  Keep short accounts with God.  Confess your sin.  Most importantly, repent from any known pattern of sin in your life.  Do not embrace it if you intend to hear the Holy Spirit speaking in your life.  I John 1:5-2:6 speaks powerfully to this issue.
3.       Do not allow unforgiveness, resentment, or bitterness to take root in your heart.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer with integrity, “…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…”  “But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:15 NLV). 
4.       Finally, engage in regular spiritual disciplines such as prayer, silence, solitude, and in critical situations, consider fasting.  God rarely speaks in the busyness of our lives.  His voice is almost always quiet – the “still, small voice.”  You must separate yourself from the diversions of your agenda if you are to know God’s.  Spiritual disciplines do not earn favor with God; rather, they put us in a position to receive the grace that God is continually pouring out towards us.
I want to hear God’s voice in my life.  I find when these principles are in alignment that I begin to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying and where He is working in the world.  And that is where I want to be.    

Monday, August 15, 2011

Thoughts on Hearing God's Voice in Community

I am convinced that God still speaks today.  How could a God who spoke the cosmos into being and whose very essence in human form was referred to as “the Word” (John 1:1-12) clam up after the New Testament was written? After all, Jesus clearly said, “my sheep recognize my voice” (John 10:27). Asserting that God no longer speaks today doesn’t make good theological sense.  It’s not Jewish or Christian.  It’s deist. 
But Scripture does hold a unique place in the revelation of God.  What is it that makes the New Testament of a qualitatively higher order than a word that we might hear from God today?  Well, it’s complicated and I’m certain that I don’t know all the nuances.  But in my understanding, the trump card of the New Testament (that is, what makes it Scripture) is that it carries apostolic authority.  The writers of the New Testament were either apostles (part of the original band of twelve – plus Paul who was recognized by the early church as an apostle) or they were closely associated with an apostle’s ministry.  Mark and Luke were connected to Paul’s ministry.  Jude was Jesus’ half-brother.  It took the early church over two hundred years to confirm which writings carried the authority of Scripture.  The twenty-seven books that we call the New Testament are known together as the canon.  “Canon” means “rule” or “standard” and the writings of the New Testament have met the rigorous standard of apostolicity. For that simple but profound reason, Scripture is no longer being written today.  But that doesn’t mean God no longer speaks.  It does mean, however, that whatever word we might think we hear from God today must be in alignment with the revelation of Scripture.  Think of Scripture as a “filter” with which we test all prophecies or words of knowledge we receive from God.
How might this work in a church?  How can we learn to hear from God?  I’ve never been part of a church that valued the gifts of prophecy or words of knowledge.  That’s too bad, because Paul highly valued the gift and coveted it for the believers in the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 14:5 – I suggest you read the whole context – Chapters 12-14).   I don’t believe that prophecy is part of my gift mix, but I know that I’ve heard God’s voice.   In one instance, I was strongly impressed that a good friend of mine should have the elders of the church anoint her with oil and pray for the healing of her eye.  She was quickly losing her vision and doctors could only explain it but not cure it.  She was anointed with oil and prayed for and the degeneration in her vision was fully arrested.  I believe the prompting that I sensed was the voice of God.  In another completely different instance when I was very angry at one of my children I heard God almost say audibly, “Bob, your anger will not accomplish my purposes.”  The word almost literally stopped me in my tracks.  I could take you to the exact place where I heard that word today.  Most often, however, I hear God in quietness, especially while I’m journaling, reflecting on Scripture and the issues of my life. 
Hearing God, I believe, takes practice.  We learn to discern God’s voice over time.  Most often, His voice is quiet and comes with a sense of peace and settled-ness.  Over time, I’ve come to recognize it.  I’m sure many of you share the same experience.  But there are also many other voices competing with God’s in our life.  It could be a voice of pride or insecurity.  Or perhaps it might be the voice of fear or even the voice of Evil which would seek to destroy us.  That is why Scripture is a necessary filter.  Along with Scripture, I also believe that the wisdom of the community is invaluable in discerning whether or not we have heard the voice of God.  Within the church there are mature people who can help us determine if the word we hear is consonant with Scripture and the nature of God.  We observe the discernment of the community in Acts 13:3 as the church leaders continued in fasting and prayer before they confirmed the word to send Barnabas and Saul on their mission.
What if someone has received a word they believe the whole church should hear?  I think it would be prudent for that person to humbly and privately share their impressions with the leaders of the church (pastors or other trusted leaders – who are, after all, charged with the spiritual health of the church) and allow them to discern the word according to the written Word and the consistency of God’s character.  If the word is confirmed, it can then be shared with the whole church. 
One word about humility.  It is very telling if the person who receives the impression/word from the Lord offers it in humility.  God’s Spirit is not pushy.  Jesus promoted and modeled humility.  If a person shares a word in a demanding manner (to be heard), that word, to me, would be immediately suspect because the conduit for God’s word (the person sharing the word) contradicts the character of God himself. 
I’m not experienced in these matters.  I certainly do not know it all.  But this is a conversation that any church desiring to hear and discern the voice of God should have. 
By the way, three people shared “words” that they heard from the message I shared on discerning the voice of God in community.  They’re good words and they just might be from the Lord:
1.      There is unity here. (This was an especially encouraging word.)
2.      This (the message we heard this morning) is a good word.
3.      I want to be a catalyst for unity in the church (from a person who has the position and ability to function in that way).
Lord, give us ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

A New Mission: Catch the Wave - Sermon from 8/14/2011

I’m a sailor.  Not a very good one and I don’t do it very often.  But it’s in my blood.  I was born on Long Island, New York and some of my relatives were boatman as far back as the Colonial Period.  Sailboats are a lot different than powerboats.  When I’m in my fishing boat and I want to go from point A to point B, I just pull the cord on my outboard motor, point the bow of the boat in the direction I want to go and head there.  Most of us would like our lives to be like motor boats.  Set a goal, make your plans and off you go – you’re sure to arrive in time.  Problem is:  life is more like sailing.  We’ve got economic boom or bust, relational blessings or break-ups, good health or bad, and the simple realities of growing up and growing older.  In sailing terms, we have to deal with the variance of wind speed and direction, the intensity of tidal flow and the size of the waves.  To reach our destination in life we have to be able to navigate through conditions that are constantly changing.  What is true for individuals is also true for communities.

Since Pentecost, the church had been sailing along with the powerful wind of the Spirit of God.  They successfully navigated through the rough waters of dissention in chapter 6 and the shifting tide of public opinion as persecution arose.  They trimmed their sails as the Gospel moved beyond the safe harbor of Jerusalem out to Samaria and even further to Syria.  All along the way, the leaders and people were attentive to the wind direction of the Spirit.  The ship of the Church was strong and seaworthy and they made good headway for the Kingdom of God.

By the time we get to Acts 13, the crew is experienced and attentive to the slightest variance in the wind.  They’re about to experience a significant change in direction.  Let’s look at the story:

Acts 13:1-4 (NLT)

 Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul.  One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.”  So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way.

So Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the Holy Spirit. They went down to the seaport of Seleucia and then sailed for the island of Cyprus.

As the story continues, Barnabas and Saul, along with John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew journey to Cyprus.  There they encountered a sorcerer – a false prophet – who had attached himself to the governor of the island.  While there, we observe the two men bringing the Gospel to the governor (who is very receptive) being harassed by the false prophet.  In one of the many remarkable stories from the book of Acts, Saul, filled with the Holy Spirit, curses the false prophet, who was a very serious impediment to the Gospel, so that he becomes blind.  There is a lot of poetic meaning in that episode that which we can’t address here, but the effect was the Cyprian governor “believed and was astonished at what he had learned about the Lord.  His conversion was very strategic in the ancient world as it opened the door for the Gospel on the island.

From there, Barnabas and Saul (John Mark went home), sailed for Asia Minor, and began evangelizing in what would be central Turkey today.  They gather quite a crowd and inspire no small amount of jealousy from the Jewish leaders until they are finally driven out of the town.   The chapter closes with a church being planted, but Saul and Barnabas turning their focus more intentionally to the Gentiles.   And thus begins Paul’s first missionary journey.

Prayer for Illumination
Speak O Lord as we come to You
To receive the food of Your holy word
Take Your truth plant it deep in us
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith
Speak O Lord and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory.
                                                             Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

I want to backtrack a bit to the beginning of chapter 13.  I want us to consider this morning how the church heard the voice of the Holy Spirit so clearly that they commissioned Barnabas and Saul for this new mission.  The question of spiritual discernment should always be in focus for any church that wishes to fulfill the mission of God in their day.  It is especially pertinent for us as we shape strategic plans and consider what God is doing in this city and how we can be a part of it.  Let’s look, then, back at the text:

Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul. 

We should be immediately struck at the rich diversity and depth of leadership in this church.  The church in Antioch was very dynamic.  It was made up of both Jews and Gentiles.  The movement of God had been so powerful (Chapter 11) that Barnabas was sent down from Jerusalem to check it out.  God was moving so powerfully that Barnabas needed help and set out to recruit Saul who had moved back to his hometown of Tarsus.  By the time we get to our story, Saul had been with Barnabas in Antioch for a year.  But along with Saul and Barnabas, we see a black man (Simeon), one of the original evangelists (Lucius) and a childhood friend of the Jewish King.  There are few prescriptive models in Acts – it is a narrative, not a rulebook – but in Antioch we see the wonderful possibilities of plurality in leadership.  Any church that has multiple gifted leaders is gifted indeed.  Leadership in the local church need not be vested in just one person.  In fact, plurality of leadership is probably more the norm than the exception.

2) One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” 

We observe here that these leaders were engaged in regular spiritual disciplines and it was in that setting where they heard the Holy Spirit clearly speak.  We come back to this point in a moment.

3) So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way.

I find this extension of the story almost amusing, but very necessary.  God has already spoken, why should there be any question.  There is an art to discerning the Lord’s voice.  We don’t always hear right and we can be easily swayed by other voices in our head.  It is wise to test the promptings we hear from the Lord.  By continuing to fast and pray, the word they heard was confirmed and then they acted on it.

What were the conditions that enabled the leaders in Antioch to discern the clear voice and command of the Holy Spirit?  And how can we cultivate those same conditions at FirstB so that we might hear the voice of God and experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our community?  All that we unpack in the next few moments can be applied to your personal life, but I want us to focus together on what applies to us as a church.

The Conditions for Spiritual Discernment in the Church

First, we need to acknowledge deep within our collective soul that God is still speaking today.  The days of cessation theology, where people believed that certain gifts had ceased, are mercifully pretty much over.  God, by his very nature, is an expressive God and is always speaking.  He spoke the worlds into being.  Jesus Himself, the full expression of Deity, is called “the Word.”  God still speaks today and we need to make room for that.  Certainly, Scripture holds a unique place, and no contemporary word of knowledge will ever hold the same authority as the written Word.  The record of Acts is that God speaks most often to individuals and then that word is relayed to the community.  While our text seems to say that the Holy Spirit spoke directly to the leadership team, it could be that He spoke through one of the prophets and it was confirmed and resonant in the hearts of the other leaders.

Second, God speaks to the church that is pure.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is shocking.  Why would God judge a husband and wife by killing them simply because they conspired to lie to the church?  And why is that story included in the narrative?  Luke tells us that fear gripped the entire church.  You can be sure that people were determined to walk with integrity before the Lord after that episode.   I think we have to conclude that purity in the early church was vital if God’s mission was to be fulfilled.  The church that tolerates known sin will not hear the voice of God.

Third, the church was diligent to preserve the unity of the community. When dissention arose over the treatment of Greek widows in chapter 6, church leadership quickly dealt with it and did not allow it to fester.  When rumors spread that Peter had fellowshipped with Gentiles against the accepted norms of the people, he explained himself till they understood what God was doing.  The morale and unity of the community was a vital concern for the leadership of the church.  This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  It’s the hardest part of the prayer to say.  The church that harbors bitterness and cultivates factions will not hear the voice of God.

Friends, do you want to know what the role of our Church Council and leadership should be?  (The answer should be yes…we’re wrestling with those issues right now!)  Concern for the purity and unity of the church must be at the top of their job description.

Not only do we need to be a pure and unified church, we need to be a people of expectancy.  A sailor looks for telltale signs of the wind; a surfer looks for the next wave.  The early church was moving in the mighty stream of God’s power.  They were going places.  They regularly saw God perform signs and wonders.  People were coming to Christ wherever the Gospel was preached.  There was an expectancy and anticipation for God’s next move.  In such an environment, people are ready and eager to move with the Holy Spirit.  We need to be a church that expects God to speak to us. 

Finally, in our story we observe that the leaders were engaged in regular spiritual disciplines.  The Holy Spirit spoke while they were worshipping and fasting.  People who engage in spiritual disciplines are people who expect God to pour out his grace on them.  They are people who expect to hear from God.  Spiritual disciplines – practices such as Bible reading and study, regular prayer, worship, fasting, and many more… - do not earn favor with God.  That is a theology of works.  Our standing with God is based solely on the work of Christ.  What, then, do spiritual practices do for us?  Simply this:  they put us in a place to receive the grace that God is constantly pouring out towards us.  It’s like being in the outfield on a baseball team.  When the ball is hit in the air, you move to the place where you can catch it.  It’s like catching the bouquet or garter at a wedding reception.  You get in line and push and shove your way to the place for the catch – that is if you want to get married.  Spiritual disciplines are very intentional. They enable us to receive what God is pouring out to us. 

Let’s camp here for a moment.  We need to nurture a culture of expectant prayer when we gather together, especially when we meet together in small groups and especially when we need to make decisions.  We need to – and we can – do better than just opening and closing prayers when we meet to deliberate on what God would have us do.  And some groups are beginning to do this as they’ve gathered to shape strategic plans.  A few months ago worship planners from both the traditional and contemporary services met to shape a unified plan for our worship life together.  You have to know that perspectives and opinions in such a group are widely divergent.  We laid the issues out – discussed the landscape of worship ministries at FirstB – and then spent a good deal of time in prayer.  Nearly everyone in the large group prayed.  We still retained differences of opinions but most of the folks that attended those meetings would say that God was present and he spoke through the voices of everyone.  A sense of love and respect for each other pervaded our deliberations.  I can only speak for worship ministries, but I suspect some of the same dynamic has been happening in the other groups that have been meeting.  Folks, we need to cultivate that culture.  We need to give time – and a good deal of time – for spiritual disciplines together.  Then, I believe, we’ll hear God speak. 

I started this message using sailing as a metaphor for navigating life.  Well, I’m a surfer, too.  Not a very good one and, as you can imagine, I don’t do it very often.  I spent most of my childhood and half of my adulthood in California.  In fact, I was privileged to live in a beach community for five years.  I know how to catch a wave and since it part of the sermon title, it makes a good illustration for discerning the voice of the Spirit.

If you want to catch a wave, you have to get in the water.  If you want to hear the Spirit’s voice, you have to be determined to follow Jesus.  If you want to surf, you’re gonna get wet.  If you want to move with God you’ve got to exercise faith with the expectancy that life is going to be an adventure.  That’s true for you as an individual and true for us as a church.  Any good surfer learns to discern what waves will provide a good ride and which waves will won’t.  In the same way, as we walk in faith we begin to discern where God is moving and where He isn’t.  When a good wave starts to rise up the surfer must position himself in place to catch it.  This involves several things:  paddling to the place where the break is most conducive to catching the wave, paddling with the wave and fast enough to be picked up by the wave.  The metaphor is rich.  First, surfing is about catching a wave.  Much of what we try to do in our lives and in ministry is like paddling against the waves, across the waves, or completely outside the break expecting to get the ride of our life.  God invites us to join us in His enterprise.  Waves are always breaking in the surf.  God is always working.  He invites us to join him.  The problem is, we often seem to want to generate our own waves and ask God to empower them.  No wonder we go nowhere fast.  How much better to seek out what God is already doing and join Him there – you know, catch the wave.  If you want to catch a wave you’ve got to paddle to the right place and get up to speed with the wave.  That’s a picture of spiritual discipline.  Sometimes you’ve got to paddle fast and deep if you’re gonna catch the wave.  Sometimes we need to pray long and hard – maybe even engage in fasting – if we’re going to hear God’s voice.

Church family, God is working.  He invites us to join Him in His mission.  We need to be a people who give place to hearing Him.   We need to be a church characterized by purity and unity.  We should expect God to work in our midst and we need to be intentional about doing spiritual disciplines together.   If we do these things, I believe we will begin to cultivate ears that hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. 

Friends, this has been more teaching than I had intended.  But I believe it is what God would have us hear from this text this morning.  I want to give you an opportunity to respond to the word today.  To reflect on what you’ve heard.  I’ve put the points we’ve discussed on one PowerPoint slide for us to consider together.  We’ve focused the message on us this morning, but it also applies to you as an individual.  I’d like you to take your Times and find the blank space on the back cover.  In that space, I’d like you to write, “I hear God saying…”  Then I want you to reflect on the five points on the screen.  Do that now.  What is God saying to you through the word this morning?  It could be a word for you personally or it could be a word for the church.  Write it down.  If it is a word for the church, I’d be curious to know what it is if you would be willing to share it.  Talk to me or Steve, write us a note or email, or call us. 

God is speaking.  May He give us grace to cultivate ears that hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Communion as “Trans-Participation”

The church staff attended “Pastor’s Day” at the Okoboji Bible Conference yesterday.  Good stuff and good company.  Many times pastor’s gatherings are rather stuffy and just a bit boring.  We had three fabulous speakers. Skye Jethani, senior editor for Leadership Journal began the day with provocative challenges to contemporary ministry.  A lot of his comments were push-back from some of the stuff I’ve heard in ministry methodology for the last twenty years.  Refreshing.  Bob Thune, brother of Sen. John from SD and previously the pastor of Christ Community Church in Omaha, shared his stunning story of being released from his position as lead pastor in a very large church in California.  It was sobering but also encouraging as he recounted the affirmation of ministry that he received from many individuals in his church.  We never really see what is going on underneath the surface.  Occasionally, God allows a peek.  We’re probably having more impact than we’ll ever know this side of eternity.
Ross Hastings was the last speaker of the day.  He is an associate professor in pastoral theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  I pretty much hung on his every word.  He speaks my new-found language of the last ten years:  missio Dei, metanarrative, Trinitarian theology and the like.  The final thrust of his talk was centered on the Lord’s Table.  He said that if he were ever to return to local church ministry that he would focus worship on the table rather than the sermon.  I agree, but that agenda is too radical for my faith community.  He did make a comment that was incredibly profound.  It went something like this:
“I don’t care how you view the elements, as transubstantiation (Catholic & Orthodox), consubstantiation (Lutheran), as a memorial (Reformed traditions), real presence (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox), or real absence (all the rest…that was funny!), the Lord’s Table is trans-participation.”
I don’t know if he really knew how profound he was.  (He probably did.)  I’ve studied and taught on the meaning of anamnesis – the Hebrew concept of remembering and I’ve never heard it put in such clever and clear language.  Participation with Christ in his complete work of salvation (death, resurrection and ascension) is what biblical rememberance at the Table is all about.  It is the mystery that we are invited into union with Christ.  Check your New Testament and the theology of St. Paul.  Union with Christ is what St. Peter is talking about when he says that we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).  I’ve unpacked this idea of biblical remembrance in an earlier blog.  ("Remember What?" )
“Trans-participation.”  Wow!  That’s profound.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Are the Presbyterians Missing?

The gay issue is not going away anytime soon. For Christians who are open to gay people - as Jesus certainly would have been, but not affirming - as all of Scripture and Church Tradition have taught, the issue must be faced squarely and courageously. We are salmon swimming against the flood of cultural opinion and change. Our President proclaimed June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month for the third year in a row. This does not bode well for us. I can easily imagine churches that will not bend on this issue facing significant cultural and governmental persecution within the next few decades.

I’ve engaged the debate over whether or not a homosexual lifestyle is compatible with the Christian faith. The affirming side does not lack for stories of homosexuals who are otherwise morally and ethically commendable. Many are in long-term committed relationships. Of course, the same can be said of heretical Mormons who also want acceptance by the Christian church. Those who affirm homosexuality as compatible with the Christian faith do not lack in scriptural claims, though their system of interpretation can and should be questioned. I’ve heard the scriptural debates on both sides. Unfortunately, I’m not a biblical scholar. Though I believe we must vigorously engage the fight in that arena, I don’t know the original biblical languages and so feel unqualified to take up that argument. I’ll leave that to others.

In all of the debates over this issue, I have rarely heard the argument of Church Tradition put forward to support those who cannot affirm the homosexual lifestyle. That’s too bad. I believe it may be our strongest hand to play. The two streams of Christianity that are tethered to Tradition – the Orthodox and Roman Catholic – do not dance with this issue. They may have challenges, but the matter is settled. It is only the children of modern Protestantism who have, by and large, rejected Tradition as authoritative that have embraced homosexuality as compatible with the faith.

We modern Protestants have been arrogant and short-sighted in saying that Scripture is our only authority. On what basis, then, do we interpret it? Do we throw out two thousand years of Church Tradition and presume to use our modern exegetical tools alone to arrive at the truth? What of Augustine, Gregory the Great, St. Benedict, and the whole host of medieval mystics? Our answer has typically been that they have been found to contain errors and, besides, they’re Catholic. Who then, is without error? What would our Protestant fathers like Luther, Calvin or Wesley say of the homosexual issue? All condemned it. If we throw out Church Tradition we are deeply impoverished.

To my knowledge, the Church in its two thousand year history has never embraced homosexual conduct as compatible with the Christian faith. Why are some now affirming the lifestyle by ordaining openly gay ministers? It is because history and Tradition mean nothing.

It is time to recall the authority of Church Tradition. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. To ignore them is arrogance and folly. John Knox must be turning in his grave over the Presbyterian USA action last month. We need our forebears in the faith. Especially today.

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Is the Church a Movement or an Institution?

We recently held a renewal conference at our church called “Fresh Winds.” The leaders of the Holy Spirit Renewal Ministries converged in Sioux Falls to plan their summer conference at Green Lake, WI. Since they were in town, they blessed us with their ministry gifts from Friday night through Sunday. They are great people and we had a refreshing time together. Personally, I made some spiritual progress with issues I had been wrestling with.

In at least two of the sessions, the speaker asserted several times that the church was a movement rather than an Institution. I agree with the intention and the point that was being made. We are a Spirit-formed people. We are alive with the Breath of God. The church is an organism, not a building or a business. But it is also an institution.

Institutionalism in missional communities is an axiom of the human experience. Missional communities are groups of people who are united by the work they do to fulfill their purpose. As enterprises grow and become more complex, more systems are necessarily instituted to avoid chaos and ensure success. Businesses are missional; in fact, many today have “mission statements.” Governmental entities such as cities and nations are missional in order to “promote the general welfare” of the people. Even families are missional. The church, of course, is motivated by our mission to be the executors of the Kingdom of God on earth.

An institution is simply a system that has been established to facilitate efficiency in fulfilling the mission. Businesses have work policies to ensure their success. In our family, we instituted the ritual of morning and evening brushing of our teeth to ensure good dental health (and lower dentist bills!). Governmental institutions? We’ve got plenty!

The people of God have always had institutions. When Moses led Israel out of Egypt, he nearly failed from exhaustion in leadership until he delegated and instituted a system of judges who would rule over the people (Exodus 18:13-26). David instituted a fantastic ministry of musicians and Levites to serve the worship needs of the nation (1 Chronicles 6:31-48; 15:5-10). In the New Testament, the apostles instituted the office of deacon to care for the needs of the people so that they could continue their teaching ministry. The early church used a system of regional leadership and oversight by bishops in order to defend against the constant threat of heresies. Even the New Testament itself is an institution as the church established standards for the writings which would be included in the canon.

In his helpful book, Deep Church (IVP Books, 2009), Jim Belcher addresses the question of whether or not the church is a movement (“organism” is the term he uses) or an institution:

All healthy communities, even families, have laws, structure and leaders. We have not been afraid to embrace the church as institution. Our life together requires love, and love demands certain laws, whether informal or formal, to be adopted to bless the community…We don’t shy away from talking about them because we realize they are necessary for the health of the community.  But the church is also an organism…God’s mercy and his call upon his people to renew his good creation lead to an outward stance toward the world. We are not only a people called into something – the institution – but we are called in order to be sent out on mission to renew the world. The history of the church calls us back to this important balance. When we don’t keep these two aspects of the church – institution and organism – in perspective, our ecclesiology gets out of shape and we enter unhealthy territory (Belcher, 174-175).

The problem with institutions – rules, structures and systems – is that they can take on a life of their own and diminish the community’s capacity to address its mission. This “mission drift” happens all the time. It happened to the ancient church as more and more systems became necessary to manage its growth – especially after the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It happens with contemporary religious movements as they grow. Study the history of revivals. They usually last only a few years. As the number of converts grows, systems are instituted to continue to support the movement. In time, the energy originally spent on fulfilling the mission becomes diverted to support the institutions.

Of course, many churches fall into the trap of spending all of their resources supporting their systems while the mission is only given lip service. More to the point of my friends from the Fresh Winds Conference, because the church has become so institutionalized, it can seemingly run on its own without supernatural empowerment from the Holy Spirit. But that’s not the church. The church is more than an institution. It is both a movement (organism) and an institution.

We need the “fresh wind” of the Holy Spirit to empower the church. We need to cultivate a listening ear for His voice. We need to yearn for and expect His supernatural intervention in our lives through conviction of sin, transformed lives and even miraculous manifestations like healing. It is possible to be both a movement and an institution. We must allow – no, we must insist – on the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of our institutions. And what are our institutions? They are our ministries, our committees, our teams. They are any of our structures necessary for us to work together. We must give time and space for the Holy Spirit to speak. Expect God to empower us. We are really only the church when we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). We are, after all, His enterprise.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tribute to Bob Webber

I missed the anniversary of Bob Webber's death by a few days. It was Wednesday, April 27. For some reason, I was confused and thought it was today. Truth is, I thought about Bob throughout the day on Wednesday.

Though I was only a student at his school in Florida for a few years and I never had the privilege of interacting with him at any length in person, he always acted like he was genuinely interested in me and what I was doing. He was both brilliant and accessible. His humor was delightful. He was taken from us far too early. I miss him very much.

Bob built a school of prophets in Orange Park, Florida that continues to thrive even after his passing. It is the Robert E Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Student and graduates (of which I am one) have cultivated a fire in the belly for worship renewal. Worship renewal, like any prophetic ministry, is both richly rewarding and deeply discouraging. I have and continue to experience both. There are times, like the prophet Jeremiah, when I want to refuse my calling and say, "why me, God? Isn't there anyone else?" There are other times, like Good Friday, when I was able to craft a service based on traditional liturgical models that really “hit the mark” and had a profound impact on people.

IWS students and alumni often speak of being "ruined" by Bob and our journey through his school. It is true. I can’t be content with the status quo of evangelical worship that is all too often permeated with narcissism and cultural accommodation. My heat beats for the glory of God and his Church. This, of course, is not an easy road to travel. My challenges to conventional evangelical thinking and practice are not always understood or received. Most of that is probably my fault. I’m learning the graces of timing and patience. But I’m also learning how to stand my ground and to not take opposition personally.

In the spirit of Bob Webber, (who enjoyed being provocative just to get people thinking) I would ask him to pray for us. I know evangelicals don’t have saints pray for them like the Catholic Church does; we have direct access to God. But I’m convinced Bob is part of the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 and I know he’s cheering us on. So Bob, three days after the anniversary of your home-going, please pray for us. You’re the one who got us into this in the first place.

And oh, I miss you. We all do.