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New Year's Eve


Tomorrow is the First Sunday of Advent, which is the first day of the New Church Year. How about using real wine for communion to celebrate the New Year instead of using wimpy grape juice. Anyway, I just thought I'd point this fact out to those of you who aren't accustomed to observing the historic Liturgical Year. The Church has lived by this Calendar for centuries. Gradually, most Protestants have broken farther and farther away from the Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) and its annual celebration cycle. Now the Contemporary Church is mostly ignorant of this rich, supportive structure. Perhaps it would relieve some of the planning demands on leaders of the Contemporary Church, always trying to come up with new and improved structural models, if instead they leaned on the solid foundation of the Church Year and the endless creative potential it opens up. Here is the prayer for the First Sunday of Advent, p. 211 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Happy New Year!

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X-plicit: "Hookers and Robbers" by Charlie Hall


The following song is an invitation. It is the song of a Father who welcomes the worst of sinners into His arms. He does not expect us to clean ourselves off before coming to Him. He wants us to come as filthy as we are so that He can cleanse and forgive us.

This song also invites us to think about how our Father is being presented in our churches; the kind of God we understand Him to be; the kinds of songs we are singing; the kinds of words we are proclaiming. If they aren't as forthright and honest as this song (not necessarily saying you must use the word "hooker"), and if instead they are "G" rated, psychotherapeutic words of a touchy-feely, "O" Magazine subscribing, effeminate god-buddy, then we seriously need to rethink the gospel we are declaring.

An honest assessment of our human condition, like that addressed in the songs of Charles Wesley (see my last post) and Charlie Hall (below), gets at the core of who we are. It is this kind of honesty about our sin, past and present, and need of forgiveness that glorifies the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this radical, "X" rated Message that the Church desperately needs to hear: Come adulterers in your lies and hiding, come murderers with blood on your hands, come hookers in your nakedness and druggies high; come competitive, greedy business men, come envious, slandering suburban moms, come depressed, broken and suicidal. Our Father wants to embrace you as you are. Yes, our song, our sermon will repulse many (religious) people, namely the self-righteous, but that's what the Gospel does. On the other hand, it will bring in multitudes who have tasted for too long the world's unsatisfying bitterness; people who are longing for Someone to truly love them for who they are.

Hookers and Robbers
By Charlie Hall

Crack kids, track kids, hookers and robbers
The naked and hungry, mothers and fathers
Abuses, excuses, and guns in your hands
And I even welcome the arrogant man
I welcome you all to the biggest of feasts
A night of no shame
To pause and to breathe
This is a night of love's renovation
A feast I am sure that could change a whole nation

Me, I am not such an excellent host
I am one who forgives but needs it the most
I found the liar, the killer of hearts
And I ran away with a new way to start
I journeyed a road where a bright man appeared
He looked into me, and my eyes filled with tears
My breath fast and short and my heart burning deep
He gave me new eyes and a new way to see

So come as you are, as you are, as you are
So come as you are, as you are, as you are

I still defiled his great love ways
I felt such a famine when I ran away
I missed the presence, the voice like a song
I was nasty and dirty, I knew I was wrong
But he ran to me like a dream like a father
This love is not earthly this love must be other
He carried me home and threw me a party
A party so loud like the greatest love story
Oh my dear friend applaud now please
I've invited you heart to announce you are free
He takes your chains, busting you out of prison
Just open your heart, let your heart come and listen

Come as you are, as you are, as you are
Come as you are, as you are, as you are

Who could accept all your pounding and screaming
Your raging, your freaking, cussing, and beating
All while He holds you and always forgiving
This is the story of love and of living
Wipe off your tears and laugh just a little
Come break this bread, celebrate the Forgiver
Raise up a glass, a time to remember
Come break this bread, celebrate the Forgiver

Come as you are, as you are, as you are
Come as you are, as you are, as you are

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Some More Words of Wisdom and Warning from Harold Best


I just listened to Harold Best's final lecture from his visit a few weeks ago to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's School of Church Music and Worship (the SBTSSCMW, I guess). The title of the lecture is "Text and Music: Content and Context for Music in Ministry." Listen to it here, especially the last quarter of the lecture. I gave a few audibles while listening; laughs, sighs, oos, and ouches. This is some good stuff. I took the time to script out another excerpt. Let me know if you make any noises while reading (or listening). But let me first set it up by saying I don’t totally agree with everything Dr. Best says concerning music and truth. He believes music is “the most relative thing in human utterance, when in point of fact the important aspect is the text that the tune carries.” I have to believe there is at least some objective truth and beauty in music, simply by nature of God’s creativity. I do agree, though, that music is a servant and not a master, especially in terms of church music. The point Dr. Best is driving home is that “music is not the worship,” and that it would serve the church well (pastors, worship leaders, and the whole congregation) if it were taught and led in a right theology and practice of worship and to use music in the proper context, i.e., to understand music for what it really is, namely a servant to the Word of God. Best is a very passionate speaker, and at times rabbit trail-ish, so I [bracketed] some directives. Enjoy.

________________________________

If it’s true that "texted music" has this wonderful ability to take total relativity as to truth [music], and the absoluteness with regard to truth [text], and couple them together so that in a way you don’t ever want to separate them again, and if the heart of worship resides not in the worship team but in the congregation, and if the true worship team is the congregation and not the worship team, which of course it is, the congregation is the worship team, then you have to say the congregational song is the heart of church music. It’s the absolute center. It is the foundation of church music, to which then all other forms of music are subject and related and in harmony but nonetheless contingent. That’s the only way you can deal with the question of text and content, and music and context…

A lot of church people use the idolatrous…saying, “The music brings me to worship,” and the congregations sucker into that because they haven’t yet been informed about a theology of artifact [the proper role of music], and the worship leaders and the pastors do not preach a theology of creativity and artifact to the extent to which we are taught to believe that music is the result of worship and not its cause. That’s dangerous! [What he is saying is that it’s dangerous for us to think that it is music that moves us to worship, instead of worship causing us to sing and make music]. And we are so submerged below the danger line, with regard to the causal power of music in our worship practices, that if it’s not a heresy it should be, and if it’s not near blasphemy it should be, and if it’s not idolatry it is.

I will quickly say that about music, church music, throughout all history. I’m talking about the contemporary because we’re living now. But I grew up in the old platonic [theoretical and not practical] wonder of “truth equaling beauty,” whereby I was taught that beautiful music is equal to the presence of God. And you’re brought up into the paradigm that effective music is the presence of God. In both cases text is ignored; in my case aesthetics [the appreciation of beauty] was worship, and in your case results are worship. With that in mind, we all have to repent of something.

I am ever so sorry that in this culture the word “worship” and the word “music” have come to mean each other. And I am ever so sorry that the only way worship takes place in most churches is to begin with a musical package which either will fuel the idea that the music is the worship, or it will fuel another idea that music leads to worship, or it will fuel the idea that this is the place where worship takes place. And then there’s a sermon, then there’s Scripture, and then there’s the offering, and so on and so forth.

Now, some of that’s being reformed. There’s no doubt about that. The younger people leading worship today - I have to use that term, even though they are not biblically allowed to do that; there is no such thing biblically as a worship leader; there is a minister of music; there might be a song leader and a song service; those old evangelical terms are far more biblically accurate…this is a liturgy of music, it’s part of the larger shape of worship; but let’s allow the term in its inaccuracy to exist because it’s being used all the time, and even, ironically, it’s institutionalized by this seminary [Southern Baptist] by calling this the “School of Worship and Music,” which is a very dumb thing [the class laughs]; but it’s done, and so Chip [the head of the SBTSSCMW], with this beautiful spirit that he has, these incredible skills, a man whom I admire to the core, is responsible to carry the burden of the seminary while trying to teach music, because the seminary has fluffed off in its responsibility to build a theology of worship among its senior pastors; therefore the minister of music is the guy whose job is on the line, if the job doesn’t get done and people aren’t attracted, they’re the guys that go, because they haven’t led worship right; they haven’t done the right thing.

And you poor people; you know, I wish Al Mohler [the president of Southern Baptist] were here, or anybody else who’s president of seminary; you guys [students and young worship leaders] are being put on the line in the name of the Holy Spirit through the worship of artifact [the worship of music] in ways that are just unkind and uncivil and unfair.

Um, I don’t have any feelings about this [the class laughs], but I really, I really, I really hurt for you guys. And I pray that in your worship leading - let’s go back to that term and use it - you will understand the wonder called "texted music," but that you will understand that you have to work your head off reconstructing, or deconstructing, the marriage of text and music, to the extent to which the Word of God becomes preeminent and drives the music, and the music itself sinks into that wonderful John 13 liturgy of washing feet. Music’s role is that of a servant; it is kenosis-ed, it is emptied out. And I would like to hear more worship teams that are emptied out, to the point where instead of overwhelming the congregation [musically] they under gird them.

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Catalyst One Day: One Man's Observation


Catalyst One Day was an eight hour gathering of a few thousand pastors and church leaders (and maybe some secular business people) put on by the fellas from North Point Ministries in Atlanta, GA. This particular event was held a couple days ago at Granger Community Church in Granger, IN, the town in which I live. Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel were the speakers and Steve Fee led a few songs. The purpose of the gathering was...well, I'm not exactly sure. I can't find a stated objective anywhere in the materials they gave us. I think it was a leadership conference, you know, like a John Maxwell thing. But at the end of the day, based on what I experienced, I would say that the purpose of Catalyst One Day was to give everyone present a bunch of pragmatic principles to grow the size of your organization.

What I found most irritating was the lack of biblical support for anything and everything they asserted "works" and is "effective" and produces "results." Additionally, the goal of all of these methods and pragmatism was never stated. Now let me give reason for my aforementioned criticisms.

Andy Stanley's first talk was called "Gaining and Sustaining Momentum." The thrust of his speech was that if you want to successfully create and keep momentum, which he defines as "forward motion fueled by a series of wins," then everything you do must be "new, improved, and improving." Now, let me just say that I went into this conference very objectively. In fact, I was really looking forward to hearing Stanley. This was my first time ever hearing anything from him (I've never read his books or listened to any sermons by him or anything). I have heard of so much good that has come out of North Point over the years and have sort of celebratized Stanley in my mind. So when I heard him say, with no biblical support and no stated goal, that everything you decide to do as church leaders must be "new, noticeably improved and continuously improving," you can imagine where my heart went, which longs for the incorporation of ancient practices and historically informed worship, not primarily because that's what I found "works," but because that is what I have found best facilitates proclaiming the Gospel, combating the culture of self-seeking entertainment, developing and qualitatively growing biblical community, and the list goes on.

But no, during and after Stanley's talk, in addition to wondering why He gave no biblical support, I was left with the following questions: If we must continuously come up with new and innovative methods, doesn't that cause the demand on us to continually increase to outdo our last program, project, or product? When does it end? Isn't God eternally unchanging and not "continuously improving"? To what end do we "improve": Growing in number by attracting lots of people? Shouldn't the source and standard of our "improvement" be Christ and His righteousness? Shouldn't the goal be reaching as many people as possible with the Gospel and seeing lives transformed by the power of the Gospel? What is the product; the most attractional, cutting-edge technology itself? Shouldn't that just be a medium to proclaiming the Gospel?

None of these questions were addressed (and he can't justify not addressing these questions by having a short "Q & A" time after his talk; one of the first rules of argument is to defend your assertions by answering anticipated objections before they are stated). Now, I know what Stanley's response would be, as well as most of yours, "In a conference filled with a bunch of pastors and church leaders, it is assumed that the goal of all of this innovation and continual improvement is to more effectively and relevantly minister to people. I would argue, however, that without someone like Stanley clearly stating that goal, and not only stating it but spending adequate time showing us what that looks like, most of the people present (represented mainly by church leaders of smaller, struggling churches who look up to the mega-successful ones like Stanley and other celebrities) will perceive the unstated goal as growing the size of your church. And that is what they'll strive for.

Think about it, let me quote a couple excerpts from the bios of these guys printed in the conference packet: "North Point Ministries is now one of the fastest growing and most influential Christian organizations in America. Each Sunday, more than 20,000 adults attend services at one of NPM's three campuses in the Atlanta area." "Steve Fee...[has] been featured at Passion and Catalyst conferences, and also as worship leader at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, one of the nation's fastest growing churches." "Craig [Groeschel's] creative leadership skills are changing the way church is done worldwide. Under his leadership, LifeChurch.tv has become one of the country's first multi-campus churches, with over 50 weekend worship experiences at 13 locations throughout the United States."

Tell me, what are we "less successful" pastors going to think after reading this and then listening to these "gods" give unsupported pragmatic principles with no stated goal? I'll tell you what we will think: We will think that success is measured by the number of people we attract and continue appealing to. This is typical Contemporary mega-church methodology, and it is initiated by their inability to measure the true spiritual growth of their customers. Okay, I'll tone it down.

Biblical "continuous improvement" is conforming to Christ's righteousness. The challenge for church leaders should be ensuring that their people are improving in this way. Read my post on "Measuring Qualitative Growth." There you will find (attempted) biblical exposition of what true Church growth should look like.

Let me say something nice. I enjoyed Craig Groeschel's simplicity and candor. Despite the fact that he only used two Bible verses (questionably in context), one to begin each of his talks, I could sense that much of what he had to say was biblical in principle. There was a short moment where Groeschel said (as an aside), "We're doing everything we can do, short of sin, to connect people to Christ." That was the closest anyone came to stating the goal of doing church ministry. Unfortunately it only lasted a few seconds.

I will also say that I appreciated what Andy Stanley said in his second talk, "Don't Be That Couch," in which he stated that we all have ugly, old couches in our houses (old, ineffective programs in our churches) that carry with them sentimental value due to years of emotional attachement. But the truth is, as attractive and effective as that old couch was at one time, in reality it is now an ugly, useless piece of junk. We need to identify those things in our churches, reveal to everyone who is attached to them the reality of their ineffectiveness, and get rid of them. So many churches nowadays, especially old and dying churches, are old and dying because they refuse to get rid of their old couches.

So if you have interpreted in what I have been writing thus far that I don't like cultural relevance through innovative technology and media, that is untrue. I think we should engage the culture in ways that meet people where they're at. But I also think the Gospel is such a radically different story than anything of this world, that it will be offensive and won't make sense to worldly people, i.e., until the Spirit circumcises their hearts. Where I think the Contemporary Church has compromised the Gospel is by accommodating to the stylistic preferences of the culture for the sake of entertaining them, giving them what they want, and thus growing off the charts in numbers. The new thing, in fact, since the mega-church is so huge now that they can't even facilitate their numbers in one location, is to notch their belts with the number of off-site, satellite campuses they can accrue. They don't raise up new Gospel proclaimers and plant churches. No, in order for a mega-church's numbers to become increasingly impressive, it launches multiple venues of the same church, broadcasting their celebrity preacher to each of them, and eventually gaining so much notoriety that their preacher is invited to speak at a conference.

One more thing, the only time the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the sacrificial atoning work he accomplished at the cross, was mentioned at the Catalyst conference was in a song that Steve Fee sang, "All Because of Jesus" written by Steve Fee.

I have so much more to say about this, but I'm sick of writing about it. I'd love to discuss this controversial matter. Feel free to totally disagree with me and comment. Call me an overly analytical pot stirrer with no love in my heart if you will. We're all beggers.

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Vintage Worship: O for a Thousand Tongues


In recent months I have been incorporating into our worship services moments that I call “Vintage Worship.” In a culture that seems to cycle through the decades bringing back the vintage in clothing, pop music, and even carpet (shag is back, you know), I decided to do the same with worship songs. Now, I realize this is nothing new, but I thought that putting up a special slide and really making this an intentional time of reflection in worship would create effective moments for our congregation.

The idea is to bring back an old hymn after researching it and doing my best to find out who wrote it, what was going on in their lives, what inspired them, etc. Just about every time I prepare for a Vintage Worship moment, I am astonished by what my research reveals. And then I share my findings with the church during our Sunday services.

One such hymn was recently revived by David Crowder on this album. Charles Wesley wrote "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" in 1739 to commemorate the one year anniversary of his conversion. It was such a big deal to him that he wrote nineteen verses! Obviously, it is impractical to sing all nineteen verses in congregational worship today, but two of the verses really stand out to me as powerful and worthy of sharing.

(verse 17)
Harlots and publicans and thieves
In holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.

(verse 18)
Murderers and all ye hellish crew
In holy triumph join!
Believe the Savior died for you
For me the Savior died.

This type of language (harlots, thieves, murderers) is rarely heard in churches today, especially in songs. We have no problem (at least some of us) talking about sin and forgiveness, but we like to keep things “G” rated. I wonder if when Wesley talks about “crimes as great as mine” he was thinking of the passage in Matthew 5 where Jesus says,

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.

You have heard that it was said, "Do not commit adultery." But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus' language is at least "PG-13," and the His Gospel message is definitely more offensive than anything "R" rated. It was probably closer to "X" rated in the ears and eyes of law-abiding Jews. Jesus raises the bar for the self-righteous, making it even more impossible for them to obey. And He rejects those who "have it all together" in the very act of accepting into His arms the naked and blood-stained. I am reminded in Jesus' and Wesley's words that I am in fact a murderer, thief, adulterer, and the list goes on.

I wonder how much of an impact this "X-plicit" Message would have on a genuine seeker or skeptic if instead of shying away from it, we honestly and openly proclaimed it in our churches. Would it more accurately portray the depth of sin and even greater forgiveness that is found only in Christ? Lyrics like this scream out, "It doesn’t matter who you are, what you've done, where you come from; you can be forgiven." Perhaps in addition to the filthy unregenerates Wesley is trying to evangelize in these words, "religious" church-goers could also use a good dose of his language in order to shake them out of their hypocritical, judgmental, holier-than-thou attitudes that many outsiders see in them. It seems to me it would be a good thing all around.

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Harold Best on Worship Theolatry


Harold Best, Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, recently spoke at the Institute for Christian Worship (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) on the subject of "The Glory of God in Contemporary Worship: A Shared Burden." In it you will hear an aging, passionate man stumble and fumble over his words trying to convey a message that even he says is impossible to tell. By the end of it you just want to cry. It's not that he is ill-prepared or under qualified to teach on the subject of worship (humanly, he is one of the most qualified), but rather it's as if in his closeness to the glory in the face of Christ, he is speechless or child-like. He began the lesson portion of his talk (about half-way through the audio file) with the following excerpt, which I definitely find worthy of posting if for no other reason than I wish we all, including myself, would stop making worship an idol.

________________________________

Who is God? What is He doing? What is central to what He does?

These three questions are infinitely important, and I mention them only to say this: These questions take precedence over what we call worship, or the question we ask, “What is worship?”, because as we know it, the evangelical church is riddled with the word “worship.” It seems to be the only subject there is: “What’s your worship style? How do you worship? What are your worship songs?” Worship, worship, worship, worship, almost to the point where it’s become a cuss word, i.e., it’s vainly repeated. And we, thereby, in talking about worship all the time, or a good part of the time, fail to ask the questions, “Who is God? What is central to what He does?”, because I think, I know I’ve been guilty of this, we tend to craft our definitions of God on our concept of worship. That is to say, our theology of worship becomes so central to what we have come to call worship, that then our theology, i.e., the study of God, becomes framed by the word “worship” and our worship practices.

There is an astonishing potential among us for whittling God down to the size and shape of our worship theology. When we do that we are committing what can only be called theolatry, i.e., we’ve made a god out of God that is less than He is, because it’s been crafted according to the parameters of something else, even though the parameters of that something else seem to have theological merit, namely a theology of worship. But if our theology of worship has been crafted without thought to who God is, what He does, and what’s central to what He does, then we’ve crafted a theology of worship which then frames God within that theology rather than our framing a theology of worship within the larger, mysterious question of, “Who is God? What does He do? What is He like? How then should we worship once we have uncovered and continue to uncover the counsel of God?”

I would argue that if we had more thought to theology and would understand the theolatry that our limited theologies of worship cause us to commit, we might not talk about worship at all. In fact, I for one would like to see the word disappear for a good decade, so that we would swear ourselves to a code, to an oath, almost, of silence about the word because it has come to master us. And as I have said in Unceasing Worship, we tend to worship about worship, or even tend to worship worship, because we are being shaped by something we’ve crafted that is less than the God Who we hope is overseeing our worship, but Who in the meantime might have been whittled down to fit inside the parameters of what we call worship.

And I say this without pointing a finger at anybody, but I get around enough to know, and I’ve heard enough dissatisfaction among young people (this is why young people are so important to me) about the strictured life of the body of Christ, of the assembly of believers. In some very loyal way, i.e., loyal to God through Jesus Christ, in some passionate way in love with the Lord and in love with, being with, each other, many of them are saying, “Something isn’t right yet. Something hasn’t been put together quite right yet. What is that?” And I hear that in any number of ways.

And when you think of it, I talk about whittling God down to the size of our concept of worship, where we find God within our worship, rather than finding out how to worship within the counsel of God, that our whittling goes even further,…where we define worship as a module on a given Sunday morning: “First we’ll worship and then we’ll…(so on and so forth).” I still hear that. Worship is that “front time” followed by whatever follows.

And then, amazingly enough, this sacramentalizing of music happens to the extent to which for many people (I’m not saying necessarily the leadership; it’s the impression the leaders give, not what they believe) music is worship. It is the worship. And I know from talking to many, many worship leaders that they don’t believe that: “Of course music isn’t the worship. We’re worshiping God.” But I’m talking about perceptions rather than orthodoxies. The perception that many worship teams, for want of the better word, give is not necessarily what they truly believe, but because of the power of music in there hands, and because of the power that music has in a pagan culture, where music is a more causal event than it should be, the impression is given that the music is the worship.

So we have this tripartite whittling: We whittle God down to the size of worship, we whittle worship down to a module, and then we whittle the module down to music being the worship. So we have God whittled, then the module, and then music as the real worship.

So the question is: “What overwhelms our worship? Is it God or artifact? What drives our theology? Is it a truncated theology of worship that somehow ends up defining God, or is it a full-blown theology of God Himself that defines our theology of worship? And then, is it our theology of worship that puts music in its place?

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Screwtape the Play


Last night my brother Matt and I saw The Screwtape Letters the play. This theatrical rendition of C.S. Lewis' book captures something that nothing written and just read could ever quite deliver. It was probably the communal element of being in the actual presence of the (two) actors, with all of my senses at work, that brought to new life Lewis' relevant truths with a few cultural updates.

In one word this play was convicting. I was convicted reading Max McLean's interview with World Magazine before I bought tickets. [For whatever reason the above link isn't working. Google "Screwtape World Magazine" to read the whole interview.] I was even more convicted actually watching Him act out his desire to create culture. And I was most convicted by the content of the play, particularly my own issues of pride that suddenly shone bright as noon last night.

Screwtape was one of the most creative displays of Christian worship evangelism I have ever taken in. Yes, God can be and is worshiped in secular theater. In fact, where is there a greater need for the light of Christ to shine than in this dark, public arena? (Wait! If your answer is the church, don't answer.) Screwtape was so good, so creative, that even the most anti-spiritual, secularist media were impressed. The Washington Post said that "audience members interested in spiritual reflection will certainly find food for thought—and mortification—in this dramatization. But the fiendish reality the production conjures is colorful enough to appeal to theatergoers of any, or no, religious persuasion." And I would take it one step further and say that the power of the Holy Spirit is present in this production to convict hearts hardened by both religiosity and anti-religious sentiments, including mine.

Go see this play if you can. It will be in Chicago until Jan. 4, and I'm sure it will be around elsewhere after that. I leave you with two quotes.

1. Max McLean in an interview with World Magazine:

There's a message in theater today: "There is no God, get over it." The worldview in secular theater is pretty dark. We do need people to produce [good] plays, to put the money behind it, to write those plays, to direct those plays because that's when the culture making happens. I would like to see more people thinking about "How do I create culture?"

2. C.S. Lewis in Screwtape's second letter to his nephew Wormword, his apprentice demon tempter:

My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian...There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy's camp and are now with us...One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate...When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours...Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therfore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of 'Christians' in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial.

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An Ancient Hallelujah


Michael W. Smith has a new hit song called "A New Hallelujah." I'm trying not to be too analytical about this, but if you're a musician/songwriter I'm sure you can relate to my natural bent toward critiquing new popular music. I really do give Smitty the benefit of the doubt, because his songs have greatly ministered to me and the church for years. Not to mention, respected songwriter Paul Baloche co-wrote the song with "W" and his wife. This song will most assuredly be a huge hit (the melody and music are excellent). I just have a few observations/questions about it. Maybe you can help me. Here is the video of "Mr. CCM" performing the song in Houston (lyrics below):

(verse 1)
Can you hear there's a new song
Breaking out from the children of freedom
Every race and every nation
Sing it out sing a new hallelujah

(verse 2)
Let us sing love to the nations
Bringing hope of the grace that has freed us
Make it known and make Him famous
Sing it out sing a new hallelujah

(chorus)
Arise let the church arise
Let love reach to the other side
Alive come alive
Let the song arise

(verse 3)
Africa sings a new song
Reaching out with a new hallelujah
Every son and every daughter
Everyone sing a new hallelujah

1. Notice there is no mention of God by name (other than the "-jah" part of "hallelujah" which means "God"). There is a pronoun "Him" in the second verse that refers to God, which follows the line about His "grace that has freed us." Really, the only problem I see in this is that it makes the song potentially religion-interchangeable. It worries me to see a "worship" song that people will certainly sing in Christian "worship" services all over the world, but which doesn't assertively and exclusively identify Jesus Christ, the true and living God, as the One to Whom we are raising a new song. I could definitely see Oprah endorsing a song like this, and I tend to steer clear of praise and worship songs that Oprah wouldn't have a problem endorsing.

2. Question: What does the second line of the chorus mean: "Let love reach to the other side"? I asked my wife, and her immediate response was, "the other side of the world." I hadn't thought of that. My first thought was that "the other side" refers to the spiritual realm, or the non-physical. You know, like when you die you go to the "other side," or like where the angels and demons battle. My wife is probably right, but even if it does mean "reach to the other side" of the world, why is that a "new song"? Hasn't it always been the call of the church to love people both near and far? Which brings me to number three.

3. A "New" Hallelujah? New? I'm fine with this if by "new hallelujah" the songwriters mean "new song." I'm a bit leery, however, with the modern church's fascination and need for the "new" and "fresh" and "cutting edge" material, etc. Why is it a "new" hallelujah? Isn't "hallelujah" the same as it has always been. Indeed the Persons of the Godhead have been hallelujah-ing each other from before the foundations of the world. "Hallelujah" is like "holy, holy, holy." Surely we write all kinds of new holy, holy, holy songs, as well as hallelujah songs, but the meanings of "holy" and "hallelujah" never change. I am convinced that it would serve the church even greater to get in touch with the ancient ways, get back on the ancient paths, "where the good way is" (Jer. 6:16), to join the world-wide Church in an ancient hallelujah.

4. Final observation: Man, he is one good looking dude.

That's all. Again, I mean no disrespect to the songwriters. I'm just being my usual self for better or worse. Thoughts? Peace and love.

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How to Get Maximum Fulfillment out of Christmas


I went to my favorite place in the world the other day, the mall (read sarcasm). Christmas decorations already up not only in the mall, but on the way to the mall on the street lamps, side walks, and everywhere else the eye wanders while driving. Christmas music playing in every retail store. "Jingle Bell Rock" is already stuck in my head. And it's the beginning of November!

So I got to thinking, it's no wonder by the time December 25th actually rolls around, we're entirely sick of the Holidays. You can't take your tree and decorations down quick enough after Christmas Day. It's as if the joy ended long before the actual day of celebration. And why shouldn't it? Why should we expect an event to hold our attention for two whole months in our culture of instantaneous gratification, where nothing captivates our minds for more than a moment?

Do you want to enjoy Christmas to its fullest? Here's what to do and what not to do:

1. Honor the Church Year. Hold off even thinking about Christmas until Advent, which begins November 30th. And when Advent rolls around, dive into it with your whole heart. Experience the emotions of anticipation, expectation, penitence, and hope as you wait anxiously for the coming Christ. I assure you, when Christmas Day arrives you won't want it to end. Heck, you'll probably want it to last at least Twelve Days. Isn't that an innovative thought, celebrating Christmas for twelve days. And when the twelve days of Christmas are over, swim in the vastness and the climax of the Advent/Christmas season, Epiphany, which is Christ's manifestation to the world, beginning January 6th. (We have a P.S. night planned to kick off Epiphany.)

2. Do not listen to Christmas music until Advent. And when November 30th comes, meditate on the greatest Advent hymn of all times (in my humble opinion), "O Come O Come Emmanuel," all eight verses. Go through the O Antiphons beginning December 17th as a family or home group and participate in this Advent season like never before (you can actually go through the prayers and readings straight off of Wikipedia, link above). Listen to Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God, the best Advent/Christmas album ever composed (fact, not an opinion). When Christmas day is here, scream "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" Bask in the wonder of His incarnation all Twelve Days. Keep your lights and ornaments on the tree, which means you probably don't want to set up your real tree until at least the second week of Advent if you want it to last. We just ordered these really cool Twelve Days of Christmas ornaments. Teach your kids the real meaning of the Twelve Days (after learning it yourself, of course). And on January 6th, sing "We Three Kings" at it's proper time.

3. Do not fall prey to the ploys of consumer retailers, who play their Christmas music and decorate all Christmasy this early in order to manipulate your feelings into buying all kinds of stuff that most assuredly will not fulfill the life of the recipient. Give out of a generous heart. Give creatively, not obligatorily. Don't ask what someone wants for Christmas. If you don't know them well enough to know what they want, you shouldn't be getting them anything anyway (Ooo, ponder that). If you absolutely have to give a gift to someone and you absolutely don't know what they want, give them a Starbucks gift card or money with love. Generosity is the key, especially in its truest form, birthed out of the same kind of pure generosity with which the Father sent His Son to save the world. Let's face it, most of us have way more than we need, let alone want. How about serving those in need this holiday season. I'm not sure (Wikipedia didn't pull through for me), but I think Old St. Nick was known for giving to the poor. He would drop coins (money) in shoes left outside of doors. I doubt the recipients expected anything, but I'm sure they enjoyed eating their daily bread a bit more easily the next day.

I assure you, if you follow these three steps, Christmas will take on a much deeper meaning than ever before. And believe me, you will not want the celebration of Christ's birth to end the day after Christmas. His incarnation will become more joy-filled and real to you than ever.

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A Peculiar People: Quote 2


In Rodney Clapp's book, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society, Chapter 7, "The Church as Parade: The Politics of Liturgy," begins with a rather shocking distinction between liturgy and orgy. He states that the early church could have referred to their worship gatherings as orgies had they intended for them to be privatistic and non-communal. "The Greek word that more narrowly designated religious experiences - in the modern sense of private and focused on the nonphysical - was orgia." That was not, however, how the early church worshiped. They referred to their worship as liturgy precisely because worship was to them a communal mission, they were a "people" (laos) at "work" (ergon). Clapp then reiterates, "Far from being a retreat from the real world, worship enables Christians to see what the real world is and equips them to live in it." And then he states his desire "that the worship of the church [today] leave off being orgies and return to being liturgies" (114-15). Modern history, however, has not made it easy for the Western mind to break out of the orgy (private and secluded) mentality. Here's the quote:

________________________________

What we need to appreciate is that liturgy before the printing press was quite vigorously a communal and social affair. It was a corporate enactment and celebration of God's presence. Augustine writes that people talked excitedly during his sermons. John Chrysostom mentions that his auditors cheered or wept, pounding their breasts. Other early church writers tell of gatherings that got rowdy when a presbyter or deacon omitted a portion of the rite. In other words, people participated. And they did not imagine their liturgy confined to a "sanctuary," segregated from the surrounding public. Early Christians met liturgically in tenements, forums, shrines and cemeteries. Worship could raucously spill out of a cathedral into the streets of cities and suburbs.

As Aidan Kavanagh remarks, in this setting worship was theology - it was the eminent form of "knowing God." Primary theology was done not in the scholar's study but in the liturgy, the work of the people. Primary theology was not reflection about God but an encounter and engagement with God. Theology in such a setting was plebeian in that it was done by the common people and not by academic elites. It was communitarian in that it was done corporately rather than in the solitude of the study. And it was quotidian or everyday in that it was done regularly, in a daily, weekly and yearly round of public liturgical practice.

Orthodoxy in the older and original Christian sense was "correct praise" or "right worship." The early church's stress was on faith "not so much as an intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions, but as a way of living in the graced commonality of an actual assembly at worship before the living God."

All this decisively changed with the advent of the printing press. Formerly God's Word had been fundamentally experienced in the corporate act of worship. But as books and Bibles became abundant and widely available, even the illiterate could see God's words tightly regimented and contained on the printed page. Eventually God's Word was too easily understood not as a presence especially (though not at all solely) encountered in liturgy but as something set down in horizontal lines that could be isolated and studied by the solitary individual.

Soon church architecture yields places of worship arranged like a page of a book, the people situated in rows of pews aligned like so many typeset sentences. Soon those who attend the liturgy are invited not into a dance in which all participants have necessary steps, but into a performance by a single person who expounds the printed text. The atmosphere of liturgy is no longer that of a bustling, rowdy activity where much is happening; it is now a classroom in which the pastor/instructor must be granted exclusive attention. The focus shifts from what people do together to what happens "inside" each individual. It shifts away from God's Word as a holy event to God's Word as a holy text. As Kavanagh observes, "The truth lies now exclusively in the text; no longer on the walls, or in the windows, or in the liturgical activity of those who occupy the churches." Corporate worship recedes, is no longer seen as foundational and fundamental. Now Christians can imagine their private, individual acts of worship - devotions or quiet times or daily offices - as foundational and fundamental.

Liturgy, in short, has been depoliticized. In a rush to individualism and privatism, we have gotten things backwards. Important as our individual devotions surely are, it is not they that are constitutive of the church. It is the church's actual gathering or assembly. There, in the ekklesia, we do the liturgy. The ekklesia is the body gathered to attend to its common identity and welfare or - as we can just as well say - to its political affairs. The liturgy is the work of the people that makes us a people. We are constituted, granted identity and unity, by gathering around the Lord's Table to enact the Word, by hearing and responding to the Word in Scripture.

(pp. 119-21)

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A Peculiar People: Quote 1


I have been reading Rodney Clapp's A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. The second half of this book largely pertains to worship and liturgy, and there are at least two large sections worth quoting, maybe more, so this will be a series of at least two posts, maybe more. Clapp is a fellow former student of Bob Webber, which is obvious in his writing. Perhaps that is why so much of this book resonates with me. Or perhaps it's becuase what he is saying is true. At least I think it is. I'll leave it for you to decide.

To set up this first quote, in Chapter 6, "The Church as Worshiping Community: Welcome to the (Real) World," Clapp begins by connecting culture with worship. "A culture," as he has argued, "is a way of life. It forms and shapes a people into a distinctive community....So it is not just an etymological accident that the root of the word culture is cultus, or worship" (94). He then summarizes the first half of this book, that from the time of Constantine through the Modern era, peaking in the Industrial Revolution, Christians have largely privatized their faith and worship. "What Christians did on Sunday was removed from what they did on Monday through Saturday. Worship was an opportunity to escape politics, business and conflict. Far from being a time of intense engagement with the world, it was moved to a 'sanctuary'" (95). Worship had become an escape from "real life," rather than being the real world itself. Clapp's hope is for the Church in these postmodern or post-Constantinian times to revert back to being the vibrant, missional community, the only "true way of life," that it was before Constantine and the last 1600 years of individualism. The problem is "the world prefers illusion to the truth" (98), which launches us into the following quote:

________________________________

The church is in fact surrounded, pressured from all sides to give up its faithful practices and renounce its confession. I think of the film Serpico, in which New York City policeman Frank Serpico refuses to go on the take. But so many other cops accept bribes, and resent Serpico's refusal, that he is the one made to "feel like a criminal." At one point, when he is on the verge of giving up, his girlfriend tells him the fable of a people who drank from a poisoned well and went crazy. Only the king did not drink from the well. He alone was sane. But now the crazed populace scorns their king's difference and declares him the insane one. Overcome, the king one night drinks from the polluted well, and the next day his subjects are delighted to find him as "sane" as they are.

Like that king, Christians have a source of water other than the world's poisoned well. So it is against great odds and severe resistance that we are called to a holy madness. As Robert Inchausti observes, "To be insane is to reject the given universals, and in so far as those categories are the accepted intellectual currency of the age that produced Auschwitz, holy madness is the only true sanity." And as I have insisted, the preeminent place and time for Christians to cultivate holy madness is worship. Craig Dykstra helpfully notes,

In worship, we see and sense who it is we are to be and how it is we are to move in order to become. Worship is an enactment of the core dynamics of the Christian life. This is why worship is its central and focusing activity. It is paradigmatic for all the rest of the Christian life....To grow morally means, for Christians, to have one's whole life increasingly be conformed to the pattern of worship. To grow morally means to turn one's life into worship.

Hearing the story of God preached, through the exercise of praise, Christians learn and rehearse what it means to be Christians. Liturgy is the primary responsibility of the church because without worship there can be no people capable of seeing and witnessing to the God of Israel. Just as capitalistic Americans could never become such exquisite consumers apart from the rites of advertising and credit cards, so Christians can never achieve the skills and vision necessary to be the church without attention to baptism and Eucharist.

After Constantinianism, beyond modernism, it is crucial that the church refuse the marginalization and privatization of its worship. Liturgy is not an escape from the real world. Rather, it is constitutive of the church or, as Aidan Kavanagh wonderfully expresses it, "the Gospel of Jesus Christ become a People."

(pp. 98-99)

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This Is Our God: An Objective Review of Hillsong's Album


Since composing my previous post about Mike Guglielmucci and his song "Healer" I have gone back and listened to This Is Our King a couple more times. I realized that before I had even purchased it, and during my first ten listens or so, I approached the album with a critical bias, namely because of my former interpretations of Hillsong albums as shallow in lyric and strong in melody. I have perhaps unfairly cast my negative outlook of Brian Houston's quasi-prosperity teaching and the commercial identity of his church upon the musical worship and songs that have come out of Hillsong.

In all fairness, my two recent listens, which I did as objectively as possible, revealed something that causes me to look upon it with much greater generosity. In my last post I said,

"Healer" is, in my opinion, by far the best song on the album. (Most of the others are not congregationally friendly, and/or are somewhat shallow, including one that is borderline unbiblical, but we won't get into that.)

In truth, many of the songs are congregationally friendly, and many of them are filled with powerfully true words and excellent melodies, the same strong combination that has marked Hillsong from the beginning. "Healer" is an excellent song, but "Stronger" is just as strong because of its cross-centered lyrics, its congregational ease, and its unique hymn-like melody. The title track "This Is our God" is a gorgeous song professing God as the sovereign Rescuer of the world, at Whose feet we will fall and worship. Another fine song is "Desert Song" about praising God in every season and sung by two of the most beautiful female voices I have heard in a long time, Brooke Fraser and Jill McCloghry. (You might remember the name Brooke Fraser from my post on her awesome album Albertine.) Back to this album, the upbeat songs are in typical Hillsong United flavor: hooky, punk-inspired melodies with youthy words. Nothing unbiblical, but not necessarily my cup of tea. (Admittedly, clappable songs are not easy to write, and United is doing a fine job.)

Now, concerning the one song that is borderline unbiblical, it's time to "get into that." The song is "You'll Come" by Brooke Fraser. It begins, "I have decided, I have resolved to wait upon You, Lord." It continues in the hope that God will come, and then the chorus:

You'll come
Let Your glory fall as You respond to us
Spirit rain
Flood into our thirsty hearts again
You'll come
You'll come

I say this is "borderline" unbiblical because it is not entirely wrong. Yes, in addition to God always being present with us, He meets us in a special way when we decide to come to Him in worship, invoking His Spirit. It is good to sing "Come, Lord Jesus, come; Holy Spirit, come." Jesus says, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13). It is biblical for us to ask God to come to us again and again in worship. On the other hand, the lyric of this song could potentially be misleading and lead people into a false understanding of worship. What this song conveys to me is that we resolve in our own hearts, tap into the well of goodness within ourselves, to bring something (an offering of worship) to God, to which He responds by sending his glory and Spirit to quench our thirst. There are a couple problems I see in this.

First, it is God who draws us to Himself in the first place by His Spirit. It is He who works on our minds and hearts so that we can decide and resolve to worship Him. Scripture is clear, "There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities" (Is. 64:7). Jesus alone draws us to God (Heb. 4:16; 7:19). Many of you will disagree, and I'm sorry you don't believe this. You see, there is nothing good in us that we have to offer God. It is Christ in us that is the hope of glory. It is the Spirit crying out from our innermost to the Father. The movement of worship begins and ends with God. (See my post "Triune Love.")

Second, continuing from the first, our decision and resolve to worship is our response to God. It is not up to us to try to get God to hear us and responsively send His glory. God draws us to worship Him by His Spirit through Christ. "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (Philip. 3:3). It all begins and ends with Him, the Author and Perfecter. When God reveals Himself, then and only then are we able to respond in worship. "You'll Come" has it backwards. God doesn't respond to us, we respond to Him.

I wonder if anyone else caught this while listening to This Is Our God. Overall, the album is good. I realized listening to it these last couple times, objectively, that many of the songs, in and of themselves, are excellent. It's a very Hillsongish album. I'm glad I gave it another go around. I may even lead one or two of these songs in church someday.

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