The Need to Ask Questions

I have read a couple articles a while back about Rob Bell and the fallout from his book Love Wins that came out 5 years ago. Bell was most popular for asking really good questions about things many Christians assumed to be true, but either didn’t have the confidence or desire to question what they’d been told their whole lives. There seemed to be a resurgence in asking questions when I was growing up. Rob Bell was hitting his stride, Donald Miller was Blue Like Jazz, and youth group was where we’d go to have fun. I agree that it’s an incredibly important aspect of our faith to ask questions, God will NEVER be fully understood, but there are some things that are true, and will remain true, and we need to remember to proclaim.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a statement we can be sure about. It’s so easy in churches to get bogged down in the confusion of eschatology or blow small comments out of proportion instead of keeping our focus on Christ. One of the most impactful verses for me in my biblical interpretation over the past few years has been Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The point and purpose of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. It’s a book for him and about him, and he should be the focus of all of our lives. This also needs to be the focus of our corporate times of worship. If Jesus is the focus, it shouldn’t matter what kind of music we sing, how long the services are, how long you stand or sit, or how many people you’re forced to interact with. The point and purpose needs to be Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t ask questions at all! Some of my biggest times of growth have come from asking questions, or someone asking me a question I didn’t know the answer to. But, as Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” We can trust in the God that has chosen to continually reveal himself to us through his Word and his people. This is why it’s so important for us to gather as the body. The church doesn’t exist as a single component of the body (you can’t have church by yourself in the mountains), but when we gather, we are to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will never completely understand everything, but we serve and worship the God who does.

Passively Engaging with God

One of the most difficult aspects for me during a worship service is to be actively engaged with what is happening. Someone moving down the row from me, or someone coming in late, or a child crying or a funny joke all distract me from the primary purpose I’m there: to commune with the family of God and to spend time in awe of who God is. It takes a concerted effort to be engaging with people and with everything that happens during the service. This is the difference between being an active participant and being a passive participant.

Being a passive participant means I expect everything to go my way, for the music to be my favorites that I enjoy, for the sermon to be perfectly applicable to me and relate to me. This leads to both an entertainment model of church and a me-centric model of church. Church is all about me and what I get and want from the weekly services.

Being an active participant means I look for opportunities to serve those around me. Instead of wanting the music to be my favorites, I look for the ways these songs can serve us as a whole. I actively listen to the sermon and think through ways I can encourage the pastor for being faithful to the Word, ways I can grow as a believer, and support those around me.

This is part of the reason I ask for people to stand when we sing. By standing people are forced to be more engaged in what they are doing. Not to mention, it’s much easier to sing with correct posture, like you have when you stand.

Instead of looking for ways that we can get something, I hope we as a church can look for ways that we can engage with the Word of God and allow that to change our lives and the ways we interact with each other.

Worship in Adversity

We began a new series this week at Grace on the life of Elijah titled ‘Adversity.’ As I confessed during the beginning of the corporate singing, it was pretty tough to find songs that we know that deal with this important issue. This week I found a blog by a pastor at New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs who asked the question: how many minor keys are we singing at church? Looking at the 104 top CCLI songs from the past 25 years, there were 7.

Paul in Romans 12:15 tells believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In my experience, we tend to do a great job rejoicing with those who rejoice (at least outwardly, even if inwardly we’re jealous) while a poor job at mourning with those who are mourning. It seems that we want people to mourn for a short time and then move on to being happy. Instead of actually mourning we offer poor platitudes, while not actually relating to any seen or felt needs.

This is also true of some songs that deal with our response to difficult situations. In trying to find songs that related to this theme, one of the first that came to mind was Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed Be Your Name.’ He wrote that right after 9/11 when he realized that many of the songs the church sings don’t have any aspect to dealing with difficulties. Yet that song is still in a major key and resolves in a hopeful statement.

I introduced a new song to the church this week, ‘Give Me Faith’ by Elevation Worship that hopefully helps put words to how we as believers can deal with difficult situations that arise: through faith. Hebrews 11 talks about the faith that many people have demonstrated throughout history. My hope and prayer as we go through this sermon series is that we can  pray for the faith to trust God even when our lives feel like a mess.

Singing Through Generational Trends

One of the most difficult things of leading congregational worship through singing is the wide range of opinions people bring to church. Some listen to only top-40 radio, some blast KLOVE all day, others don’t listen to any music, and others only listen to classical. How do we bring all of those together on a Sunday morning? This is an area I have struggled to work through since I began serving in the church.

First, remember that no one will enjoy the same thing. The point and purpose of our corporate gatherings are not to appeal to the masses, but to encourage better pursuit of God. Every week it seems that there are some people that like every song I do, and other people that hate every song I do. And there’s weeks where I feel the same! Ultimately this isn’t about us, but about God.

Second, listen to various genres of music. All genres have some music merit that people can learn from. This is a great reminder that it isn’t just about an individuals preferences. God was a creative God who made things as seemingly mundane as ants all the way up to the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. If God finds pleasure in everything he made, I think we can find pleasure in various forms of music.

Third, learn to speak the language of difference generations. Many of the complaints lobbed at me about newer songs it that they “lack the depth of the old hymns.” I think this may have been true 10-15 years ago when “worship music” was just gaining traction, but I don’t think this same complaint hold weight today when there are such rich and deep songs that have been written over the past 5 years. At the same time, there is a rich history that is connected to the hymns of centuries ago, and refusing to do any hymns loses our sense of connectedness to our history. In my interactions with many people who prefer hymns, I ask them to think through the words we sing in the newer songs. Are any of them biblically erroneous or leading people to not think rightly of God? Or is it merely a preference for a specific style of music?

Fourth, have a long-term view and plan in mind. Looking at the day-to-day doesn’t give a good perspective of how people are growing. Instead of being discouraged, think of specific ways you can help the congregation to grow over the next month. We have eternity to look forward to getting this down right, so don’t be discouraged by what seems to be a lack of growth on earth.

Finally, love and pray for your congregation. You have been tasked with the great honor to point people to Christ through your singing. Do your best to be honoring and loving toward those who may malign you. And remember that the reason we gather together is for God, not for us.

 

Can We Swear in Church?

I’ve been a big fan of Hillsong United since 2007 when I was introduced to “Mighty to Save” at a youth missions trip. My influence from them grew even more when I went to college and it seemed like EVERYONE loved them and sang their songs. They’ve put out many songs I’ll sing at church often (Hosanna, Lead Me to the Cross, Search My Heart, the whole Zion album) and they recently came out with a new album called ‘Empires.’ I was once again looking forward to having many new songs to introduce at church at some point, but after listening to the album a couple times I’m a little disappointed with this album. Nothing stuck out right away as a song we should sing at church (as I quickly thought of “Oceans”). From following many of the members of the band, I understand that this album was born out of a period of immense suffering because one of the members’ baby sons had many complications and was in the hospital for an extended period of time. That suffering is most acutely felt on the song “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)” Thematically it’s very similar to something like “Blessed Be Your Name,” and I musically really enjoy it (as most previous albums have done, Hillsong United is able to blend modern music with worship in a beautiful way). The chorus says

Even when my strength is lost
I’ll praise You
Even when I have no song
I’ll praise You
Even when it’s hard to find the words
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise

I would gladly sing that part of the song at church and fully embrace it. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s the second chorus that I have a problem with.

Even when the fight seems lost
I’ll praise You
Even when it hurts like hell
I’ll praise You
Even when it makes no sense to sing
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise

Can we use a phrase “hurts like hell” in church? Is it ok to swear to God? Most often it depends on who you ask. Part of the reason Mark Driscoll got as popular as he did was because he was known as “the swearing pastor.” I remember one time when I was younger reading about John Piper swearing during a sermon (I looked it up and couldn’t find anything at this time). Piper said he could point to instances in the Bible where the writers used stronger language, but he still shouldn’t have done it in a sermon. This is one of those issues that Millennials have seemed to more often embrace. Swearing is fine because it’s funny! Or done to make a point. Anyone who says swearing is bad is a legalist! Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” I think it is important to separate our corporate times of worship with our personal times of worship in this issue. During a church service, I would not be comfortable singing something like that. Ever. Even when it’s done to make a point I think there are better words that can be used that are more conducive to building the body up toward Christ. At the same time, for my personal time of worship, if I was really struggling, I wouldn’t hesitate to use some strong language in my prayers. Jesus on the cross said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thankfully I will never have to deal with the same kind of separation he experienced, but I don’t know what my future holds. I have two friends who have held their still-born children and have wrestled through intense periods of grief, and still came to the conclusion that God is still good and he cares for me. Even when my life hurts like hell I know it isn’t the end. Christ has defeated sin and death and will use everything in my life for good and his glory.

Using Music From People With Wack Theology

There have been a few articles I’ve read recently about why people will not sing songs at church from specific groups, the most often quoted are Hillsong, Elevation Worship, and Jesus Culture. They do not want to endorse any kind of theology that may be questionable or lead people to study more about specific churches. But what if the words of many of the songs they write are biblically true, or a resurrection of an old hymn? Personally, I have chosen to do songs from almost all these churches. They have written many songs that are very catchy, easy to sing (sometimes! if you lower it a lot!), memorable, and theologically rich. I’m grateful for these people who have been gifted with combining biblical truths with good music that won’t put me to sleep! The main reason I use music from these churches is because if we were going to ban music from anyone or any group with a questionable past or questionable theological bent, we wouldn’t sing any songs. Moses was a murderer, David was a murderer and an adulterer, Paul was a murderer (there was a lot of death in the Bible) and Jesus saved all of them, and used them for his good. The disciples even wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans, I think their theology was completely off at that point! I also know that at times my theology has been completely off. If I think I have it all figured out I’m still off! Thankfully God is still God and can and will work despite me and my completely wack theology. Yet in the midst of that, we will still do our best to worship God and equip the saints to better understand God through the gift of music.

Singing to Teach

Whenever I’m asked why we spend so much time singing during a church service, there are two passages I cite. The first is Ephesians 5:18-21 where Paul says,

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

The second is also by Paul in Colossians 3:15-17 where he says,

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In the first passage, Paul writes about one of the purposes of singing “addressing one another.” He words it similarly in Colossians when he says, “teaching and admonishing one another.” That means that we need to spend time singing to each other, and also means that the congregation needs to be able to hear each other! Mike Cosper, a worship pastor in Louisville, KY says, “we sing so that we can teach and admonish one another.” (Rhythms of Grace, 156)  Harold Best, a music professor at Wheaton college, words this even more strongly in his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith where he writes, “a congregation is just as responsible to sing the gospel as the preachers are to preach it.” (192)

The common thought among many Christians today is that the church is run by the pastors and leaders, which leads to a passive approach to church. People come to church to be fed instead of coming to serve those around them. This also is manifested when people refuse to sing during our corporate times of worship. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul writes that the job of the teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” (4:12) This also applies to music as it is done to equip those in the church to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus. Therefore, singing plays an essential part to the ministry of the church. We must not neglect singing together, as some are in the habit of doing, instead let us continue to sing to build one another up and help teach each other the richness of the gospel message through the power of God to the ends of the earth.

Holy Week Services

This past week was the celebration of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. This is one of those holidays that both Protestants and Romans Catholics celebrate together. I always look forward to this week and enjoy the opportunity to try some new things throughout the week. Last year we did our first ever Maundy Thursday service and continued that tradition this year. This year’s service was focused on the communal nature of our faith. I set up 12 tables in our sanctuary and had people gather sit around those tables. The service itself was divided up as following:

Greeting

What is Maundy Thursday? (John 15:12-17, Luke 22)

SING: Jesus Paid It All

Celebrate

The Passover (Exodus 12)

SING: In Christ Alone

Remember

SING: Mercy

The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

At each table was: Matzah, bitter herbs, hoaroset, and grape juice.

This was the longest time of the service, and each table had instructions to guide them through the various elements, as well as Scripture readings and explanations of what each element stood for.

Go

Love One Another (John 14:15-31, 1 John 4:7-21)

SING: Give Us Clean Hands

Each of the 4 parts also had a responsive reading and all 3 of the pastors on staff shared speaking responsibilities. Our time together was helpful in thinking through how the Passover applies to today, as well as being able to slow down and reflect more deeply about the Lord’s Supper.

On Friday night I divided the night into 5 parts and focused on the individualistic part of our faith. We are called into a community, but we are still still individually members of that community. Since February, we had been going through a series titled “Christ in the Psalms” so I carried that idea into our Good Friday service. It was divided into 5 sections with a Gospel passage being read aloud, followed by a Psalm displayed on the screen for people to pray through, and a station for people to participate in. As people were walking in there was a half sheet of paper with instructions, a nail and a pen to grab and take in to the service. It was divided as follows:

Remember

Luke 22:14-23

Psalm  105:1-11

Think back to when the cross and the Gospel message first began making sense to you. Write out that story in the space below, if there is not enough room, use the back of your paper.

SING: The Wonderful Cross

Betrayal

John 18:1-32

Psalm 55

IMG_2814

On each side of the front of the sanctuary is a cross painted on a canvas, when you’ve had enough time to reflect, walk down the middle aisles to paint the canvas red. There are wipes for your fingers once you’re done. Please walk back to your seat on the farthest outside aisles.

Suffered

John 19:1-16a

Psalm 73

In the front middle of the sanctuary is a bucket for you to drop the nails you picked up when you entered. Whenever you have had enough time to reflect, please walk down the middle aisles and then return to your seat on the outside aisles.

SING: Were You There

Crucified

John 19:16b-30

Psalm 22

At the bottom of this paper is a space for you to write out why Jesus had to die for YOU. Write out as few or as many sins in that space as God lays on your heart.

It Is Finished

John 19:38-42

SING: Once Again

Psalm 25

On your way out the door, tear off the paper below where you wrote your sins and place them at the foot of the cross at the back of the sanctuary.

If you would like to “borrow” any of these ideas for your services, please do! They were enjoyable to plan and hopefully encouraging to the congregation.

Songs Are Like Sermons

One of the most common phrases I hear about contemporary worship songs is that they lack the depth and richness of hymns. While I would strongly disagree with that statement, I don’t hear the same argument being made for the sermons that are preached or (for most people) the Bible translations we use. When David penned the words, “Sing to the Lord a new song” did he actually mean it, or was it just a cute phrase he penned to mean something else?

One of the things I’ve been reminded about God recently is that we will never fully understand him. His ways are so much superior to ours that we need an eternity with him to be able to adequately understand him (Isaiah 55:8-9). That means that while the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, it isn’t complete. If God can never be fully grasped, then all the ink and paper in the world could never adequately describe him (John 21:25). Every book about God will fall short in some area. This is one of the many reasons we continue to meet together on a weekly basis in the church: each week we’re reminded of who God is and what he’s about: redemption. The focal point of our time together on Sundays is generally the preaching of the Word which is, hopefully, an explanation of what the Bible is saying and how that applies to our lives today. While the preacher should preach Christ alone, he will still preach through the lens of his own life experiences and understandings, and no two preachers will sound the same. If they don’t preach exactly the same way through the texts of Scripture, can both still be right and faithful to the words of the Bible? I think, and really hope, so! Until Christ returns or we are called home our ideas of God will be skewed and will need to continually be honed and sharpened. We need the church and our family in Christ to continually point us back to God and to the glorious riches offered to us through Christ. We need a new word preached in a new way every week so our hearts of stone can be turned into hearts of flesh. Yet I don’t see the same logic applied to music.

Because God is completely superior to us, all the songs in the world would never be able to adequately describe him. That means we need new songs to be written that can help us to be reminded of who God is and what he is like. As we continue to be made more like Christ through the songs we sing, new understandings of God’s character will emerge and we’ll be able to relate to him in new ways that require new words. I would hope that our faith is an ever growing faith that moves us on to depth and maturity in faith. Yes, we cling to the words of Scripture as the primary source of truth, the norma normans (the rule that rules) while the songs we sing are the norma normata (the rule that is ruled).

So why don’t we hear people say, “These new sermons aren’t like they used to be,” or “These new sermons are so lacking in depth,” or “If only he would preach more like John Calvin”? Yet so many people will say these things about the songs we sing. No-I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and never sing hymns – there is a legacy there and helps to keep us grounded in the tradition of our faith (just as a side note, that’s why I think reciting creeds as a church is helpful). But that doesn’t mean we need to demonize new songs or new styles within music. God is a God of innovation as he calls each new day into being. Instead of harkening back to a “golden age” of music or church (which I don’t think existed), be grateful for new ways to worship the God who can never be grasped. And in all that we do, whether in word or deed, may we do it all to the glory of God.

Worship Wars

After a week away in Chicago and some time with other EFCA pastors, I got to come back home on Friday night and prepare for meeting with the body on Sunday. Some of my discussions with friends at the conference lead to thinking through some issues related to music and church on Sunday (someone mentioned the book “When the Church Was a Family” which lead to a discussion on this issue). As an introduction to this issue, think through the question: when was the last time you viewed your family through a consumeristic lens? Does your family exist to serve you or to be served by you?

1. We live in a consumeristic world. 

The “i-everything” mindset has permeated into all our thinking. We’re able to enjoy whatever we want with a touch of our finger. We don’t like being inconvenienced or to have anything but our perfect ideas served to us. I can listen to whatever type of music I want on my phone or listen to whomever I want to listen to preach a sermon. This all leads us to draw into ourselves instead of looking for ways we can serve our brothers and sisters around us.

Unfortunately, so many people look for a church to see where they can “be fed” or where they enjoy the music or where they have their friends. There’s no looking around to see how you can serve or get involved and pour out your life for those around you. However, when everyone is looking to see what they can get out of church no one is going to grow or be made more like Christ. The pastor’s job isn’t to feed you, it’s to grow you. Growing sometimes hurts. Growing sometimes means being pushed outside your comfort zone and being forced to wrestle with deep seeded issues that take a lot of time and energy to work through.

This mentality isn’t just for the younger generation. I see many retired people who are convinced church should be all about them. They’ve put in their time and energies during their younger years to give up when they’re getting close to the finish line. Instead of continuing to pour into those younger than themselves, they draw into their own groups and similar ages friends to remember the “good old days” and wish things were the way they used to be. I need and am so grateful for older people who aren’t giving up, but are continuing to faithfully serve the church and equip the next generation to rise up and lead the charge for the next generation. My best youth worker is a retired high school principal who teaches the youth group Sunday School class and checks up on me to help me better pour into the students that attend the youth group. That’s how older Christians are to live with the next generation.

2. We are too focused on ourselves.

This is often done at the expense of those in the church we’ve been called to serve. Because we’re some consumer minded we don’t encourage those around us like we’re called to in Ephesians 5. Yes, Ephesians 5 tells us a number of different types of songs we’re to sing (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs) but at the end, Paul says as we do it we are, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That means we must look beyond ourselves to the betterment of the body laying down our interests and passions so the church can grow.

I also think this is the primary reason people don’t sing in church. They’re either too embarrassed by their “bad voice” or they don’t want others to know how their voice sounds. It’s still too focused on yourself instead of encouraging those around you by praising God with your voice.

3. We all have unique and individual preferences.

We are all called to be a part of a body. That means we all have unique contributions to give to the church and all have a job to contribute to the betterment of the body. This means that we need to sacrifice our own wants and desires for the better growth of the gospel in our lives and the lives of those around us. I have a unique style of music I enjoy listening to and a specific style of preaching I best relate to, and I have yet to find a church that has everything I like, including the one I currently serve in. What I’ve looked for in a church is a place that I can serve. As I’ve heard said before (and I don’t remember where, so I’m sorry for not giving the credit where credit is due), “worship is a war, but it’s a war against myself.” Any time I come to worship God I need to fight against my fleshly impulses and selfish desires and wants for the good of the church I’m in.

4. We don’t love.

Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled, “The Mark of the Christian.” What is that mark? Jesus in John 13 says it’s love. Not our definition of love where there is no calling out for wrongs, but God’s definition as laid out in 1 Corinthians 13. We’re called a family, a new family that runs deeper than just flesh and blood.

I naively thought that the “worship wars” that I’d read so much about were done and gone, and it so often to me feels like some people in the church have missed the memo that worship is about so much more than a style of music and is about God. It’s almost like the story of people who lived for decades without hearing that WWII had ended, and had been living in fear most of their lives. I pray that the church can move beyond individualistic preference and on to a family mindset.