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Is Evangelicalism Jumping The Shark?

Fonzie_jumps_the_shark-2The world burst into red and gold sparkling lights as we stepped out of the van. We had arrived.

It was our first time in Las Vegas and we were staying at the ‘legendary’ Four Queens hotel. Bursting through the doors, we dropped our bags immediately. We were on our first real tour and, in classic planes-trains-and-automobiles style we had to move on early the next morning.

So, two hours was all we had. Two hours to get our first glimpse of Sin City. And two hours was all it took to learn a little something about Post-recession Vegas on that first visit.

I learned that you can quickly evaluate the intended clientele of a Vegas casino based on two things.

  1.  As you walk the brightly-carpeted paths in higher end casinos the card-tables are often the first thing you see.  Sharply-dressed card-dealers smile invitingly in every direction — begging you to spend your money with their professionally detached-but-inviting demeanor. The ‘cheap’ casinos, on the other hand, prefer to let it all hang out with an array of slot machines no further than a few feet from the front door and the constant rattle of coins-to-machines.
  2. You can also accurately guess where a casino falls on the kitsch-to-classy scale by whether or not they advertise the affordability of their most lavish dish. A $3 Prime Rib Dinner is too true to be good, or, at least I know that now.

In any case, our particular hotel turned out to be the kind that favoured coins to cards and discounts to deliciousness so we quickly checked in, dropped our bags in our rooms, and met in the lobby to explore the crazy world outside. We stepped out onto the legendary Fremont street and —ducked!—as a squealing man flew only a few feet over our heads on a zip-line.

Now knowing to look up we were greeted by the forty-six foot face of none other than Gene Simmons, his elongated tongue wagging across the sky in every direction. The ceiling of the covered street doubles by night as a gigantic LED screen and KISS was the evening’s feature. And while CGI flames licked the extended tongue of Mr. Simmons made-up face, I learned that Las Vegas is permanently ‘jumping the shark’.

Here’s a bit of pop culture history: It’s 1977, and Fonzie — who has by now become a caricature of himself and the focal point of “The Happy Days” — needs to show off his water-skiing skills. He does. And it’s completely anti-climactic. So now it describes all kinds of shows that are past their prime. Creative endeavors that become become caricatures of themselves, dependent on unsatisfying gimmicks, cheap tricks and shock value to maintain a sense of relevance.

Vegas exists to entertain. The gambling and sparkle draw you in — begging you to put money senselessly in the middle of the desert. The skyline is littered with cranes and half-built, abandoned temples to cold-hard cash. It’s a city crying out for today’s Kevin Costner — someone to draw the ghosts out of an economy in the doldrums and build a sparkly new field of dreams.

If You Build It, They Will Come

It wasn’t too long ago. My family and I were driving through something like a miniature Las Vegas, you know, the kind of town that tragically begins to believe that their only hope in the world is to add a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not to their otherwise beautiful scenery. Growing up near Niagara Falls, Canada we’re used to this sort of place but something in particular caught my attention as we left town. On the side of the highway we passed a colourful billboard for a new local church plant: “Offering a new, exhilarating worship experience for you and your family”, it said.

The message was clear: bored of your church? Come to ours!

Because who, other than well-churched Christians, is out there looking for anything like an exhilarating worship experience? If I had to guess, it’s other Christians from other churches. That’s it. So whatever it is this church is building, the “they” is an interest group, a club, not those outside the Church.

But I have to believe that at some point the pursuit of relevance in Evangelicalism was about reaching people through the culture. It seems to me now that it has become about maintaining Christian subculture instead. It’s the dog chasing its own tail. We’re out of ideas, a caricature of ourselves.

But if you build it, they will come… right?

Or is Christianity simply the kind of good news that is relevant regardless of its surroundings, like life-changing, earth-shattering, world-saving good news always is.

We’ve got the jackpot of a huge poker hand hidden in the back room, one where everybody who plays wins and the cards themselves are somehow grateful too. Meanwhile we’re busy talking about the $3 prime rib and high paying slot machines.

Yes, the good news of Jesus is free… and it’ll cost you everything. He wants a bride — not a trophy wife.

With all this relevance-chasing we’ve created a strange self-congratulating sub-culture. Insular. Separate. Easily ignored. Irrelevant.

If only we could genuinely find a way to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Relevant not because we’re trying so hard but because we live in the same world we helped to shape for the better.  Familiar foreigners.  Exiles busy making ourselves at home.

There’s this great story in the book of Jeremiah. The nation of Israel had been taken captive by Babylon. All the priests, the prophets, royal family —everybody who was good at anything—  all exiled far from home.  They cried out to God in desperation: “this is not where I belong!”

And God sends them what may seem a confusing message: “I brought you here for a reason. Make yourselves at home. Plant gardens. Pray for the Babylon’s well-being. Raise your families to do the same. Thrive as Babylon thrives.”

Make yourselves at home.

We’ve Been To The Mountaintop

After hearing a pretty incredible sermon by a pastor friend of mine, we wrote a song called “Mountaintop”. It’s all about another great Biblical story that drives this point home for me. Jesus takes Peter, James and John for a hike. Now, I don’t know if he explained himself or if this was some kind blind-fold and hand-holding thing, but either way what he does shocks these lucky three disciples.

They get to the top of a mountain and Jesus starts to change. Suddenly they’re there on this mountain and He’s blinding them in all his glory, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, these storybook legends of the Torah. Imagine what that must have been like, sunlight pouring from His face. It must have been incredible.

So, naturally, Peter starts to babble, saying things like: “I have an idea. Let’s stay here forever! We can build tents! A place for you to live with us!”  This wasn’t all that strange, after all. For a long time God lived in a tent, keeping His people company.

God interrupts. “This is my Son and I’m happy with Him. Trust Him.” The disciples hit the floor, terrified. They’ve heard the voice of God. They realize they’ve been hearing it all along in Jesus. The Son of God calms them down and takes them home — back down into the valley.

And Peter learned something incredible that day. Much later in his life, in one of his letters to the Church, he writes;

“And I consider it right to keep stirring you up with reminders, as long as I am in the tent of this body.”

- 2 Peter 1:12-13

The tent of this body. We don’t need a new tent — we are tents— not made of human ingenuity but at the very hands of God. We don’t hide God on the mountain, but take Him with us into the valley.

Where we make ourselves at home.

And the intended “they”, the world, they don’t need us to water skii … not even in these shark-infested waters. They don’t care about our new exhilarating worship experience. They need it, but God knows they don’t know it.

“They” don’t need a cultural invasion.
“They” need love.
The kind of love that spends itself for the good of the world, even its enemies. The kind of love that tears down temples of stone, only to have it rebuilt of living stones.
The kind of love that is infectious.
The kind of love that makes itself at home.
After all, if you build it, they will come.

 

SPECTACLE IV.3: APPLE HAS LEARNED WHAT THE CHURCH FORGOT

 They stood and applauded him as he entered the room.

And being the confident young man that he is, he sprang into measured steps filled with an ironic swagger, and grinned jokingly at his new supposed ‘family’ who aimed to make him feel as welcome as they once did.

And as much as he didn’t want to, he felt it. Welcomed, that is. Valuable — as though he truly mattered to these people who were previously nothing more than strangers.

My friend sipped his coffee — as long as I’ve known him he drinks it black — and told me all about how this community was eager to make disciples. They are people on a mission to make people on a mission.

Gathering under this common cause, they spend days with new members in the hopes of instilling a dangerous belief: the belief that the world can be a different sort of place and that we each have a role to play.

They gave each person a copy of a special book, a credo, the basis for their way of seeing and engaging with the world. “When I’m having a rough day”, a more experienced member said to him, “I turn to this book and I’m reminded why we do what we do. It never lets me down.”

My friend told me all about his new experience, this new club to which he ‘belonged’… and then he told me that it gives him the heebie-jeebies.

He almost quit.

You see, this guy loves Jesus, and this isn’t some new church — instead he got a new job at Apple.

WhyApple“It’s like a church I’ve never been to”, he said, sadly, as though both have got something figured out but don’t see the missing pieces.

Even still, it seems as though Apple has learned something the church may have forgotten:

If you want to grow sustainably don’t chase conversions, make disciples.

When I worked in the marketing world I learned rather quickly that the most effective branding happened on the inside of an organization, starting with employees and expanding to existing customers, and from there the ‘public’. In some ways the best marketing is the death of the salesman, or at least a dramatic rethinking of the gig.

In the Evangelical church we’ve turned that circle inside-out, becoming so focussed on conversion that we easily lose the plot. As a result people have often accused the Western Church of being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” We’ve acted like spiritual encyclopedia salesmen. Sure, we’ve never read the book but heck, it’s a steal of a deal.

But there’s an obvious problem with this: The Great Commission.

The great commission doesn’t encourage us to sell our book, or even our system of faith. It challenges us to actually become like our namesake, and encourage others to do the same.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

- Matthew 28:19–20 (ESV)

Go.

Make disciples.

It’s the difference between selling a product and actually believing it works — between believing in Christianity and being a Christian. Between being a customer/salesman and a disciple.

In the West we tend to think of discipleship only in terms of the teacher-student relationship, as though information alone changes us, even though we know it doesn’t work that way. But around the time of Jesus, in Galilee, they had a different approach. It was a formal role, a thing you became. A disciple’s aim was to become the rabbi, their teacher. They spent time with their teacher, following them from place to place. The goal was not to simply spout the same answers but to live in the same sort of way. And the criteria for becoming a disciple were pretty stringent, too. Discipleship was like the ‘ivy league’ of Jewish live.

Until Jesus.

Where some rabbis rejected the uneducated or uninformed, Jesus invited the ‘ivy league’ failures in. Turning young, simple, fishermen into fishers of men.  Making them disciples on a mission to change the world. Jesus actually believes you can live like this, and, thank God that by grace, you can.

This mission is called the great commission, meaning “a group of people officially charged with a particular function”.

This mission requires community.

This is one of the driving functions of the Church, and like the Church, this mission is a joint enterprise. But in a culture as individualistic as ours, the kind of community needed seems an impossible thing to hold onto. The absence of true community, life on life, creates a discipleship vacuum. “But”, you say, “Church-goers and even popular christian authors are just so consumeristic!”

Yes, yes they are. And since we’re talking about it, so are churches.

People often point to the fact that we live in a consumeristic culture in an accusatory fashion, and it’s true. But we can’t fight this consumerism without addressing the disease of which it is a mere symptom: individualism.

We’re made by design to seek worth outside ourselves — we’re worshippers. And  if every person believes that they are the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong (individualism), they will always seek worth in outside objects or experiences of choice (consumerism). We can treat the symptom, but we can’t ignore the disease. If we do, we’re accomplishing nothing more than putting a band-aid on a newly missing limb.

Individualism consumes ‘community’, placing value only on a ‘sense of community’. The experience trumps the thing itself. 

We often hear people talk about their sense of community, this notion that if they have friends, they must be a part of something like a church — claiming to belong to the universal Church in some way.  But this doesn’t work.

If the Church is the gathering of people from all walks of life into this great joint enterprise — the redemption of all things by the saving work of Jesus — than it’s more like a neighbourhood than an episode of How I Met Your Mother. Let me explain:

When you move into a neighbourhood you have neighbours you didn’t choose. It’s pretty simple. You know, neighbours like…

  • the grouchy old man who sweeps the sidewalk in front of his house daily and chases kids off of his lawn
  • the house full of college students who never seem to be at school
  • the professional whose BMW all too rarely occupies his driveway

Some you may befriend, others you may not, but the ‘community’ exists, just as the neighbourhood exists, as the sum of its parts — even if the parts themselves engage passively. The ‘community’ as an ‘outsider’ would see it is separate from the ‘sense of community’ experienced by those inside even though their actions contribute to its making.

But we church-goers, acting in light of our culture, learn to treat our ‘church of choice’ as a product or service in which we engage, rather than a visible community, and act as though our needs outweigh the needs of our neighbour. This approach is obviously a far cry from the self/neighbour love of Jesus. What about the grouchy sidewalk-sweeper? The workaholic businessman?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

- Luke 10:27 (ESV)

But we don’t just learn these habits by osmosis, but also by the influence of churches themselves. With our growth-and-metrics obsessions we all-too-often design our systems after successful corporations, using the “leadership model du jour” to justify impersonal systems in the name of numerical growth.

If the churches want to operate like businesses we shouldn’t act surprised when congregants act like customers.

So, how do we each address the symptom of ‘consumerism’?  How do we fight the disease of ‘individualism’?

Ironically, like Apple, we make disciples.  But unlike Apple, Christian discipleship starts with… love.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

- John 13:34–35 (ESV)

This is why the Christian church can accomplish something Apple never could. The gospel good news isn’t only that Jesus saves us from sin – thank God he does! – but also that He is calling us, and enabling us, to become like Him.

“If you don’t love the church you have, it will become the enemy of the one you want.”- Dr. David Barker

If you want to grow your church in a real and Biblical way don’t stress out about your youth programs or the style of your worship team. Don’t stress about your preaching style. It’s not that these things don’t matter — they do (that’s for another blog post) — but by playing that game all we do is exacerbate an already-too-prevalent problem. If we want our churches to grow it seems we must stop treating church-goers like customers and our worship services like a service/product..

Instead we need to get on with making and being disciples of Jesus. This begins by being personal and loving. To be people on a mission to make people on a mission.

Gathering under this common cause we may just instill a dangerous belief: the belief that the world can be a different sort of place and that we each have a role to play.

Why would we want to play by the same rules if it’s a different sort of world we want?

After all, unlike the world of big business, the great commission isn’t simply to fill pews with the faceless many and church coffers with the many faces of presidents, it’s to personally and lovingly make disciples of Jesus.

Little Christs.

You know, Christians.

SPECTACLE IV (Part 2): Miller, Marriage and Big Macs

Article_DonaldMillerContinued from Part 1:”Donald Miller, John Piper, Babyface and the Church”

Individualism is Independent, Informal, and In Charge.

When you get married you sign a marriage certificate.

When you have kids you sign a birth certificate.

When you partner in business you sign a contract.

Heck, you may be reading this on your mobile phone and probably signed a contract with the mobile company too. Mind you, you probably got a sexy iPhone 5s out of the deal.

Funny enough, it seems like we try to rewrite the history of the early church as though the Church is the only exception. But, think about it: based on the fact that we even have the Epistles, which were letters written by Church leaders with authority in the young organization, it’s clear that there was a very real sense of belonging to a formal institution, and considering that many early Christians still attended synagogue, formal worship services. The Church, in order to enact God’s mission for the world, was to function as an alternative society of a sorts and that included roles, relationships, and all of the formalities of every day human life. Their relationships in the Church, much like our relationships in real life, include both informal times together, and the formal events or corporate gatherings. The difference? Jesus is Lord all the time.

These kind of formal arrangements make us responsible for and to one another and our promises. Our most meaningful relationships are public, visible, and we willingly make them formal. Rather than assume that this cheapens our commitment perhaps we should consider that when it matters, we are happy to visibly, publicly put our money where our mouth is. We actively belong to the people we believe in.

We can’t approach the Church as individualists, and claim Jesus as Lord elsewhere. Individualism belongs to no one – independent and without submission. Christianity submits. Individualism says, “I am lord, I decide what’s right.” Christianity, “Jesus is Lord over all.”

We can’t endorse individualism in one sphere of our lives, and claim to belong and be accountable to a community in another. Our lives aren’t as compartmentalized as we might like to think — our ‘public’ life and ‘private’ lives are intertwined and interconnected. We are whole, embodied persons before God, and so our worship, legal, business and political choices are ultimately reflections of our character and beliefs. In other words, there is no such thing as “business is business”. You have a life, plain and simple. Not a spiritual life, not a work-life, not a family-life — just a life. It’s not complicated. And so to act as though ‘membership’ and submission are too formal for our relationship to the Body of Christ is no different than claiming that a marriage is too great a commitment to have meaningful sex. Despite our obvious efforts to do so, we Christians can’t argue both sides of that coin.

“I think, therefore I am.”
- René Descartes

So much of our trouble stems from the idea that we don’t think of ourselves as ‘whole’ at all. We like to assume our own mental mastery, living in the illusion that we’re more in control of things than we actually are. Like Descartes, we’d like to believe that we are, first and foremost, thinking creatures. But if a changed mind automatically meant a changed life then in this information age we should be the most visibly Christ-like generation in history. I don’t know about you, but I have my doubts.

mcdonalds-Big-MacThink about a Big Mac. We all probably believe that fast food is bad for us. We ate the information, but do we still eat Big Macs? You bet we do! That is, until something goes wrong and we experience the dangers of fast food in a deeper way, or we begin to habitually say ‘no’. Then, all of a not-so-sudden, things are different. This is because we’re shaped as much if not more by the negative experience and the positive habit as we are the information itself. Sometimes we can personalize the information, perhaps it inspires an emotional experience. Then, feeling ownership, we may try to do something about it and justify it as though it was a rational decision. At the end of the day, it’s still an act of will and habit that results in us living anything like coherent and consistent lives. This is an important lesson for the Christian disciple.

In his book Desiring The Kingdom, James K Smith argues (like St. Augustine before him) that we are not principally thinkers, but lovers — worshippers. We learn and grow not only by consuming information but by habit and the active directing of our will. In other words, we spend our days worshipping something or someone in everything we do. All-too-often we use our intellect to rationalize in confirmation bias towards gut-level-decisions we’ve already enacted with our habits — Miller’s right about this, but somehow missing that he’s doing the same thing himself, as we all are all of the time. These habits function like the liturgies of day-to-day life, constantly telling our heart, soul, mind and strength who is really in charge. Perhaps this is where ideas become identity and belief becomes belonging.

And this is exactly what makes Donald Miller’s questions about learning style and the “educational” format of the Evangelical worship service so incredibly important. To a certain degree it’s true that we have different learning styles. It’s true that our personalities have certain emphases in how we digest what we’re fed – but to create a hierarchy of human experience based solely on our own strong suit isn’t the answer either. I’ll come back to this later, but this is where Individualism makes us historically shortsighted – assuming that the modern Evangelical forms of worship are traditional, when, historically speaking, they are anything but.

A week ago I had coffee with a new friend who is a priest in a more liturgical Christian tradition and in our conversation he mentioned that he was trained to prepare and deliver twelve-minute homilies in a worship service. Look at the length of TED talks that have become so popular — eighteen minutes as a rule. I don’t know about you, but I’m surprised how much you can really learn in 18 minutes. And, as you can see by reading my blog, I’m not someone accustomed to brevity. It seems to me that the liturgies of the traditional Church are more considerate of our reality as whole, embodied persons and even varying learning styles, though possibly sometimes at the expense of cultural relevance and its impact on mission. We’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater yet again.

So what do our corporate worship habits say about us? What are we telling people about the nature of life and faith when they take part in our church worship services? A typical Evangelical service is roughly ninety minutes long and consists of three basic elements: music, an opportunity to give money, and a sermon – and almost a full hour is spent attempting to teach through a single sermon. The reading of Scripture aloud doesn’t usually fit the programmed event model. The eucharist – one of the few things that was prescribed in scripture – is all too often optional. That alone, combined with the idea that we aren’t actually changing as a result of stuffing more ideas into our heads, should get our attention. Are we producing disciples who live and act more like Jesus, or trolls for the blogosphere? Which am I? Which are you?

The form of the worship service – and by that I mean the entire time together as a corporate body – is, as a whole narrative, more influential in our spiritual formation than the sermon alone. The lyrics of the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, and the story subversively told in our forms drive home the subtle narrative of who is really, truly, king in our lives. While we say one thing with our words, with our habits I fear that, combined with the overwhelming messages of our culture, our Evangelical worship services say something else altogether: reason is god.

Of course, we would never want to say that out loud. But it’s possible that that’s what’s between the lines. This isn’t anti-intellectualism – far from it! To even accuse me of this would be nonsense. What I am saying is that we  aren’t just intellectuals with the occasional emotional moment. Or worse, just in need of using our emotional faculties to trick our intellect into paying attention and retaining something — musical worship is sometimes reduced to this kind of role.  The renewing of our minds is a real, tangible, thing. God wishes to use our reason – but we must remember that we are, at the end of the day, flesh-bone-and-brains humans.

And this is exactly why, with his kinesthetic learning style, Miller has me confused in where he seems to have landed. The act of singing in a group, for example, especially if you don’t enjoy singing, is a practice in being reminded that the world, or the worship of God, does not revolve around ourselves or our entertainment preferences (this is another problem we may have created, but that’s for another post). In standing, moving his body in a way that doesn’t connect emotionally, perhaps Donald is blessed with the ability to truly remind himself that Jesus is Lord in a way many of us aren’t. Where some could simply enjoy the music and the experience, Donald Miller could practice something like a spiritual discipline. This is a gift.

But this doesn’t excuse the pastor and worship leader’s responsibility to consider that for every Donald Miller there are many others like him, who endure the reductionistic form our Evangelical worship services sometimes take. We long for something more — all of us want a story to live in, to be reminded that we are part of something timeless, ancient, beautiful, relevant… and true.

Think about two of the most basic Christian sacraments – Baptism and the Eucharist (communion). They assume community. You don’t simply dive in the pool and consider it done — pragmatic though that would be — instead a family member stands with you, holds you, assists you, and embraces you in warm welcome. It’s a visible ritual that declares that you belong to Christ, and therefore to the family of God — adopted into the family of Abraham, David, and so on until you reach Jesus himself and Jesus, in turn, reaches out to you.

The Eucharist (communion), too, is to be shared, given, eaten, drank, received. What a beautifully simple reminder that we are human and that was meant that be.

Eat.

Drink. 

We all have this dependency on God in common, the independence of individualism an idolatrous ruse.

God didn’t give us an escape hatch from our humanity, but a new, redemptive way to be human, so that our fractured and broken nature could finally be whole. We want to feel it in our bones, pray it from our lips, know it in the renewing of our minds, sing it from our lungs, and see it in each other’s open eyes: Jesus is Lord. And for that we need other people. Unexpected people — each of them a gift from God. And so we need our family, the Church — broken and spread thin as she is. We need her songs, her prayers, her habits and her wisdom. We need to stand in worshipping together – where for a brief time, reality and timelessness are the same thing –  knowing we stand on the shoulders of humble giants who, in their humanity, made mistakes but nevertheless spur us on to whisper with every breath of our own human life: Jesus is Lord.

Tomorrow Part 3 – Individualism Consumes Community

 

 

SPECTACLE IV (part 1): Donald Miller, John Piper, Babyface, and the Church

Article_DonaldMiller

Once upon a time, in the buildup to the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, there was a Tweet.

This Tweet, embracing the limit to its characters, thoroughly enjoyed the combination of brevity and ambiguity, using it advantageously. It worked the Evangelical internet into a frenzy:

JohnPiper

 

 

‘Farewell, Rob Bell’, it said, playfully hinting at a darker message: “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”.

Love Wins was as of yet unreleased, but I remember thinking: this is no way to treat family, even when family is wrong. We are supposed to be like a family, aren’t we?

More recently there was a Blog Post in which Donald Miller explained why he no longer considers himself part of a local congregation, partly because he doesn’t like to sing or sit through sermons. With morning coffee in hand, I read through Miller’s confession. And it caught me by surprise: here was a well-known Christian writer asking important questions, yet coming to confusing conclusions on the topic of the very next article I was going to write. In fact, I had planned on posting that article that very day.

Obviously, I didn’t. Why?

I believe that disunity in the Church is one of the fundamental problems facing Western Christianity. And I, for one, don’t want to be a part of “the problem”. I hope to play a small role in pulling the Church together, not driving it further apart. That requires, I think, a loving balance of grace, wisdom and truth; a generosity of spirit and humility held in balance with the desire to know and embody what is genuinely true. I would like to believe Miller shares this hope, and so do many of you. So, if I am to say anything at all, I hope it serves to bring the Church together rather than drive the proverbial shovel into what looks like a deepening trench.

Now nearly five weeks later, I’m making the most of the well-known maxim that it’s better late than never. I’ve read Don’s follow-up posts and interviews (here, and here, and herein an attempt to better understand his perspective, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, and I’ve re-written this post seven times. Though he has come to troubling conclusions, Miller is asking some important questions about the way we do Church, and we ignore both at our own peril. Our conclusions shouldn’t negate the questions being asked. This conversation alone could be a significant contribution of Miller’s within popular Evangelicalism, even if he wishes to spark the conversation while claiming to play a healthier version of the prodigal son rather than bringing it up at the family thanksgiving (eucharist) table. Let’s be sure not to play the role of his self-righteous sibling while we’re at it, but instead remember that our Father runs out the door in exuberant welcome.

So, I write these posts in the hopes that they serve as a response both to Donald Miller’s thoughts and the rest of usI hope that we can take a good look at some of the ways that Individualism, one of the cornerstones of the Western worldview, has shaped our view of our proverbial family, the Church. And I should warn you: it hits close to home.

Individualism encourages us to see spirituality as a private and independent affair; suggesting we make an informal family of our own choosing, eschew authority and treat discipleship as something we do all on our own. Have you ever heard of a self-made apprentice? No, I haven’t either. If Christianity is to be practiced and not just preached, then it takes practice.

It also leads us to assume that ultimate truth is something we cultivate ourselves and that the ultimate authority on matters like these rests squarely on our own shoulders. Rather pragmatically, the Church becomes nothing more than a means to our personal ends, and if a local church no longer meets my personal spiritual goals, like any other consumer product, it is rejected, perhaps in favour of a different church or maybe our own ‘spiritual path’, if any at all.

In short, by it we reject authority and institution, consume (rather than co-create) community, and operate only based on what information we have – meaning we lack the gifts of perspective and history. The trajectory is a church unto ourselves and our culture. We’re endlessly starting over as if we’re the first.

Does this sound frighteningly familiar? There’s a business saying that’s made the rounds for years: “your system is perfectly designed to yield the results that you are getting”, and so some of the responsibility for this must lay with we church leaders and worship leaders. After all, one of the purposes of the Church is to cultivate an environment for people to become little versions of Jesus — this is the basic idea of discipleship. This, too, is kind of like what a family does. In a healthy family we should each thrive as persons and grow closer together, and if desired, produce little versions of ourselves. The Church exists, in turn, to cultivate little versions of Jesus – the hands and feet of the Body of Christ. That’s why we were called Christians in the first place – ‘little Christs’. Meanwhile, the New Testament church called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, and they meant it. This new way of being human meant that they were part of a new kind of family, a community, a Kingdom that changed the rules of the game.

This isn’t easy. Like Donald Miller and many others, I come from a somewhat complicated family. My parents divorced when I was thirteen years old, and for a time my newly separated parents lived on separate floors of the same house while my younger brothers and I traveled the staircase.

Was it strange? You bet.

Healthy? No. Certainly not.

Do I love them? Absolutely.

That’s the nature of families: we don’t choose them but we love them to the best of our ability.

A little while ago the leader of our church small group shared this story with us: After one of our evenings together as a group, he commented to his wife that he found it surprising that he loved spending time with our seemingly random group of people and that it was so unlike any other social circle he had. His wife wisely suggested to him: “maybe it’s because you didn’t choose them”. Our families shape our entire lives, but we weren’t consulted in who should be our mother or father — and you can thank God for that, too. I tend to think that our experiences, positive and negative alike, can shape us in healthy ways.

“If God is our Father, than the Church is our mother.”
- John Calvin

Without a family-like-community in the Church, the discipleship of our own design will ultimately be limited to our own objectivity — it will inevitably lack perspective. A community that is only of our own design would logically follow suit. Without the church as our mother we choose being an orphan over being a son, brother or sister, but perhaps only because in our individualistic culture, where family is a foreign if not painful idea to us, it feels much more familiar.

“…it is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself. The church is first and foremost a community, a collection of people who belong to one another because they belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus…it is the people who matter.”

-N.T. Wright

Babyhead&WoodyAs we grow in relationship with real people we did not necessarily hand-pick (as opposed to, for example, trying to relate to the idea of the universal church), we should begin to operate much like a healthy family (warts and all). Paul speaks of the Church as a Body – a single unit with Christ at the Head. I tend to think this is true of the local and universal Church alike. But an Individualistic faith feels less like a healthy Body than the Babyface doll of the Toy Story movies. Cute, but tragically terrifying.

Many people today find it difficult to grasp this sense of corporate Christian identity. We have been so soaked in the individualism of modern Western culture that we feel threatened by the idea of our primary identity being that of the family we belong to—especially when the family in question is so large, stretching across space and time. The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another. It may sometimes look like that, and even feel like that…But we need to learn again the lesson (to take St. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ) that a hand is no less a hand for being part of a larger whole, an entire body. The foot is not diminished in its freedom to be a foot by being part of a body which also contains eyes and ears. In fact, hands and feet are most free to be themselves when they coordinate properly with eyes, ears, and everything else. Cutting them off in an effort to make them truly free, truly themselves, would be truly disastrous.

-N.T. Wright

To what extent is our Evangelical way of ‘doing church’ more a byproduct of our Individualistic culture than a redemptive catalyst for cultural change? Are we producing healthy, loving Christ-like persons? It seems to me that a healthy community produces people with healthy personalities – self-aware, family-formed and with a sense of belonging – a willingness to need others. Individualism on the other-hand makes us self-conscious, self-made, self-righteous, and to quote Oswald Chambers, “all elbows”.

Which sounds more Christian to you?

Now, which sounds more like what we’ve become?

Continued in Part 2 – Miller, Marriage, and Big Macs 

 

Why Ham & Nye Are Playing For the Same Team

ham-vs-nye-debateI was tempted to turn this thing off so many times and I just couldn’t. 

It’s like calling your friends and arranging a game of football in a huge grassy field, only to bring a tennis ball and racket instead. If you’re going to stand and propose an argument about the science of Creationism, you must argue on scientific terms. You have to play the game by the same rules. For Ham to arrange an event like this and then build the majority of his argument on Biblical texts is just, well, unfortunate. Not because I don’t believe in the Bible – I absolutely do – but because he organized a football game, invited his friends, and brought a tennis racket.

Who wants to play ball after that? 

That’s a big problem when your game is supposed to be two hours long. Oddly enough, you could argue that that’s exactly what happened last Sunday… I digress…

Yes, there is a lot to be said for the fact that many of the principles of Science are rooted in Christian worldview assumptions – that the universe is orderly, and our faculties for reason can be trusted, for example – but that doesn’t change the fact that the intent of science is to operate only within observable, repeatable, and predictive data – and that Science can and must change its interpretation as the data changes (Nye actually made this point). This is something the Bible won’t provide. Not because it isn’t true, but because it wasn’t meant to. The data, in this case meaning the Bible, doesn’t, won’t, and shouldn’t change. It’s a beautiful story with surprises and all.

Much of this debate wasn’t scientific at all, but philosophical, which makes it about as bad a miscasting as Nicolas Cage in almost anything. And the irony of it all is that in one sense they are both playing for the same team. Both speakers seem to agree, in classic Post-Enlightenment fashion, that the principle emphasis of any data set, including the Bible, is that of material structure: “How did we get from non-matter to matter”? Both are attempting to extrapolate from their respective data an answer to the question “how was the world made?” But, this is a uniquely modern question:

“…we can often identify the questions the text addresses by familiarizing ourselves with ancient literature rather than by letting our culture dictate what questions the text addresses or how it answers questions…we cannot feel free to try to transform “in the beginning” into either a scientific statement or a theological treatise. It is not a covert reference to the Big Bang any more than it is proof of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing).”

- John H Walton, NIV Application Commentary

Though Ham is a 6-day creationist, believing that Genesis tells us that matter was created from non-matter in six 24-hour periods, and Nye is a naturalist, believing that nothing exists beyond the natural world, they are both asking a question that is, as best I can tell, different from that of the Bible’s human authors or the questions of their day. In his answer on whether he approaches the Biblical text ‘literally’ or ‘figuratively’ Ham referred to Genesis as a “typical historical narrative”. But ‘typical’ of what era? A modern work of history is most likely an attempt, at least in principle, to provide objective data. This is very different from the typical mythologies of the ancient near-east. We simply cannot forget that the Israelites had only recently left Egypt when Genesis was written, and this is a book written in the middle of a clash of narratives – this is Gods story for His people, and Genesis 1 a description of the functional ordering of the cosmos and mankind’s role within it. If God’s principle concern in Genesis was that this revelation of the Created order would stand as scientifically accurate within the cultural context of its day, given the ever-shifting nature of science, this would have required of us something like omniscience (the knowledge and understanding of all things) or, at the very least, regular updates to the text as we learn and our perspective on the natural working of things shifts.

Instead, God is clearly willing to work within our context, with us knowing only half the story, and give us a story to run with nevertheless. In the beginning of God’s story, mankind is given an important role to play within the well-ordered cosmos – and quite a different story from the chaotic God vs. Man stories of nearby ancient myth – we are to bear His image: reflecting his own Holy nature back to Himself in loving relationship, stewarding and working within Creation as it sings of his glory with every passing day. Paradise. Order. Care. Love.

This whole thing feels like an exercise in missing the point, which highlights the problem with debates like this. It too is a philosophical one: who gets to decide the nature of truth?

The very fact that the Bible’s ability to use Israelite modes of thinking poses such a problem for us demonstrates how significantly we have been influenced by certain aspects of our culture. We have been persuaded to believe that truth about origins can only be packaged in scientific terms; that the only cosmological reality is a scientifically informed reality; that if a cosmological text operates outside of the scientific realm, it ceases to be truth. We too easily accept the dictum that the only absolute is science. This presupposition causes us to think that the Bible’s authority would be jeopardized if its revelation fails to address origins in terms that reflect our worldview. This modern arrogance that insists that revelation must be packaged in our terms to be true betrays us, because even scientific thinking is in constant flux.

- John H Walton, NIV Application Commentary

It seems to me to be an important thing to remember: the truth of the Bible goes beyond our ability to contextualize it within the confines of literal, scientific terms. This isn’t a debate on whether the Bible is true or not (I fundamentally believe that it is absolutely true) it’s a debate on whether all truth is scientific and material. And while it seems a simple answer to me, I have to say that that would be a debate worth watching, I just don’t know that Ham and Nye are equipped to have it.

In the meantime, we watched them argue from the same side of the fence. Ham could have argued the merits of tennis in addition to football, but instead he awkwardly tried to play football with a tennis racket. 

 

SPECTACLE III: Why The Bible Isn’t Your Love Letter

Individualism, Image and Faith

Continued from SPECTACLE II: I Did It My Way

Have you ever been to a church service where the sound technicians aren’t skilled enough? It’s painful! We’ve all been there. When an instrument is too loud, even one that sounds good on its own, it quickly becomes a distraction for the listener and throws everything off balance. It detracts from the experience of the music for the listener and performer alike. So I begin today with a caveat: as I try to talk about how individualism effects us, I am not advocating that ‘individuality’ be muted completely but rather set in balance. As I pointed out in my previous post, there is a marked difference between affirming ‘individuality’ and blindly accepting ‘individualism’. Just like finding the correct mix of instruments and singers, even good ideas are much more beautiful when the parts that play together, play together well, and at a volume that best serves the whole. And frankly, it seems to me that when it comes to our present form of Protestant Evangelical Christianity, ‘individuality’ is getting awfully close to something like a bad and blaring 80′s guitar solo.

A few years ago a video made the rounds with churches positioning scripture as God’s personal love letter to each of us. Did you see it? As nice as it seems, something about it rubs me the wrong way. It’s not that I don’t believe God loves each and every one of us – I definitely do – but it seems incomplete and misguided. First, I should point out that it’s quite a different message from that of the Bible itself. Paul sure talks about a letter, and it’s a love letter from God too, but there’s a pretty major difference: this letter is for the world and it comes in the shape of us.

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

- 2 Cor 3:2-3

A love letter is unique in that the subject is also the recipient, it is both to you and about you. Reading the Bible with even a hint of this could lead you down the road of believing that you alone are the end-point of the Christian faith and that the Bible is God’s chosen medium to reach you. Once you’ve personally received your love letter, the task of Christ is finished. I believe this is rooted in the false assumption that The Bible is written from the same individualistic outlook that our culture promotes. It seems to me that while God is for you, he isn’t just for you. The Bible, too, while for you in a way, isn’t just for you – it’s the story of God’s faithfulness to us, His people, the Church. In Paul’s ‘letter’: the subject is God, we are the medium. The recipient: all the world. We, the Church, are to be known and read as the letter. The emphasis is on pointing the world to Christ. 

On the other hand, the assumptions of individualism treat spirituality as something that is added to our lives – a means for personal fulfillment and self-improvement, a way to improve our own self-image. Instead of Jesus saving us as persons into his Body, He becomes our ‘personal savior’, certainly, but perhaps in the way that a wealthy person might have a personal chef or a personal assistant: a friendly and personal cosmic chauffeur to heaven. Discipleship is similarly reduced to practices of self-improvement instead of Spirit-driven disciplines into Christ-likeness. Suffice it to say that our culture’s preoccupation with self-image is, for the Christian, potentially idolatrous. When serving our ‘healthy’ self-image trumps our role as image-bearers we are usurpers to the throne.

Let us make mankind in our image

- Genesis 1:26

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

- 1 Cor 15:49

We were made not to be endlessly self-aware and self-conscious — preoccupied with self-image — but to be bearers of the image of Christ — self-aware and Christ-conscious. This is represented in the two-fold nature to being made in the image of God: It is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive in that we are intrinsically and individually valuable to God. We are each loved by God (and hopefully each other) as persons. But it is also prescriptive in that the intent for humanity was for us to be image-bearers: we were to function as the image of God within the Created order. Like Paul suggests in 1 Cor, Jesus is called the ‘Second Adam’ for precisely this reason. He has restored us from our fallen nature and, by the power of His spirit, enabled us to live out this intended vision for humanity. 

Our lives aren’t simply canvases for self-expression but beautiful works of art in God’s lovingly designed mosaic.

If God is Trinitarian (three-in-one) then God is in perpetual plural/singular relationship with Himself. The relationship of self to community within the Godhead is a both/and relationship. It then stands to reason that to know God fully requires community – something our individualistic, ‘personal Lord and Savior’ Evangelicalism has quieted to a whisper.

Growing up I was often left with the impression that if I had been the only person ever born, Christ would have done this for me just the same. But this is based on a false presupposition: Biblically, fallen humans were never alone. Even before sin entered the world God could see that we needed companionship and community. To be in right relationship with a Trinitarian God required both self and plurality. C.S. Lewis offers a beautiful illustration of this in discussing the death of a friend: 

“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”

- C.S. Lewis

This hit home for me recently as I had the pleasure of attending a retreat for Worship leaders with some folks from WorshipTogether. On the first morning we shared in a beautiful time of quiet and singing together, simply singing ‘shalom (peace)’ in rising harmonic crescendo and calming unison. Within the exercise we were encouraged to remember that we don’t live alone in our heads but are embodied – that Christianity is a faith of incarnation, not transcendent escape. It struck me as our voices united in harmony that throughout the New Testament this language of ‘body’ is used in the same both/and way – I am a body (and more) and I belong to The Body, the Church, as a nose belongs to a face.

To bear the image of Christ is both to be and to belong. And it stands to reason that we ought to do with our bodies and the Body just the same as Christ did with his earthly one: spend it on others. Neighbour and enemy alike.  

 

 

 

SPECTACLE II: I Did It My Way

Individualism

Frank-SinatraFor what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
- “My Way” – As Performed By Frank Sinatra

Have you ever taken a look at the words of “My Way”? Maybe it’s just the sense of striving bred by a rising 6th progression, maybe it’s Frank’s velvety voice … I don’t know.

But it’s magical.
It’s moving.
It’s beautiful music and a captivating speech.
But, let’s face it, it’s a terrible way to live.

I was curious about what Sinatra himself thought about the song given that it became something of a philosophical pièce de résistance for the 20th century worldview. As it turns out, in a 2000 interview with the BBC, Tina Sinatra (Ol’ Blue Eyes’ daughter) said, “He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent. He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe.” The poor guy was ‘stuck’ being the poster-child for a worldview he wasn’t comfortable with himself, mind you, a fair bit richer as a result. So, what about the lyricist, Paul Anka?

“At one o’clock in the morning, I sat down at an old IBM electric typewriter and said, ‘If Frank were writing this, what would he say?’ And I started, metaphorically, ‘And now the end is near.’ I read a lot of periodicals, and I noticed everything was ‘my this’ and ‘my that’. We were in the ‘me generation’ and Frank became the guy for me to use to say that. I used words I would never use: ‘I ate it up and spit it out.’ But that’s the way he talked. I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys – they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows.” – Paul Anka,

Sinatra became, at least for Anka, a caricature of a man, a creation of Anka’s imagination and the embodiment of Western bravado. I wonder if this isn’t what happens to all of us when we put ourselves in God’s shoes… pale, broken caricatures of the Christ-image-bearing people we’re meant to be. We might be made in the image of God but all-too-often prefer to remake God after our own poor reflection. So as I sit to write this section of my series on Worship & Worldview, attempting to take a look at the the ideas built into the world we live in, I’m forced to first take a good look at myself. Ironic, right?

Why does this song still manage to tug at my heart strings?

Why do I find this kind of heroic bravado appealing, even if I know better?

I don’t know that I have all of the answers but the feeling suggests to me that as I write these articles I’m sure to have blind spots. After all, I live in this world too and for all my talk about how these ideas shape our faith, I can’t help but start by admitting that they’ve undoubtedly shaped mine. So with that said let’s take a look at our collective ‘individualism’:

in•di•vid•u•al•ism \ˌin-də-ˈvij-wə-ˌli-zəm, -ˈvi-jə-wə-, -ˈvi-jə-ˌli-\ noun

1a    (1) : a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount

(2) : the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals

b : a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests also : conduct or practice guided by such a theory

If you were born and raised in the West, like I was, this means that you were born into a worldview driven by a philosophical tradition deeply rooted in individualism. Our philosophy, politics, economic theory, and Hollywood stories all point to the same thing: the world revolves around me. And if you’re you, which you undoubtedly are, the world revolves around you, too. And your individual rights. And mine. And our individual liberties … and so on.

Now, each person has value independent of other persons and the right to exist. So therein lies one of the truths of individuality: each and every person is made in the image of God and is intrinsically valuable to Him. But there’s a difference between each person having value, and believing that all values originate with singular persons. This is quite the leap of logic and for the Christian, dangerous territory. Like he often does, C.S. Lewis explains this well with the familiar backdrop of 1 Corinthians 12:

The idea that the whole human race is, in a sense, one thing —one huge organism, like a tree—must not be confused with the idea that individual differences do not matter or that real people, Tom and Nobby and Kate, are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth.

Indeed the two ideas are opposites. Things which are parts of a single organism may be very different from one another: things which are not, may be very alike. Six pennies are quite separate and very alike: my nose and my lungs are very different but they are only alive at all because they are parts of my body and share its common life. Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.

On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are ”no business of yours,” remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

As Lewis mentions, Paul paints for us a beautiful picture of a body with many parts. And here’s part of why this such a beautiful metaphor – the parts of a body can’t live alone or at least not serve its purpose. And as we, the Church, are a body – the ‘body of Christ’ on earth no less and enabled by the Holy Spirit – it seems as though we are encouraged to foster mutual interdependence, to function – oddly enough given the meaning it has taken on – more like a corporation than sole proprietors of the faith.

This, of course, does not subtract from our individual personhood but rather suggests that our individual personalities can only be rightly understood, and grown like healthy branches of a vine (John 15)… attached at the root.

If we read The Bible as if every verse is written just to ourselves, or view worship only in light of our own personal expression, it’s not only dangerous but dehumanizing and potentially idolatrous. God noticed pretty early on that for we humans, it just isn’t right to be alone. We need help. We need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. So, if you wish, you can do it your way… even if Sinatra and Anka themselves couldn’t handle the idea. Instead I hope to stand side-by-side with brothers and sisters – on the shoulders of giants – and together we’ll try do it His way. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing on my own.

NEXT - SPECTACLE III: Why The Bible Isn’t Your Love Letter

 

Here & There : Song Study

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

- Revelation 21:

I HAVE A DREAM (IT FEELS LIKE HOME) ended with a wedding, the beautiful apex of a long engagement. The faces of all in attendance filled with wonder and anticipation as all creation gathers to celebrate the redemptive reunion of Creator and created. “Finally”, sighs bride, creation and Creator alike – “all is as it should be”.

No more death. No more sorrow .No more pain.

This is how our story will end. But today’s not a whole lot like that, is it? It’s not what was. It’s not what is. It’s what’s to come. We live somewhere in the middle, and we’re not exactly sure where.

TCH - HEART - COVERSo what do we do now? Sometimes what passes as Christian thinking leaves us feeling like the point to Christian living is dying, going off to a spiritual heaven when we finally kick the bucket. But this doesn’t seem right, or Biblical: The Bible seems pretty concerned with how we live and has an awful lot to say about it. And as for this life: it’s filled to the brim with joy and pain, mountaintops and valleys. It’s wrapped up in birth pangs and birthdays, death and resurrection.

And for the two years in between I HAVE A DREAM and HEART we saw our share of this — what people sometimes call ‘real life’. Joyous things like marriages, babies, the realization of something you’ve longed for – but then also terribly painful things like seeing a friend’s marriage collapse and a band mate and close friend of fifteen years (our bassist, Eric) get cancer at twenty-six. For over a year we toured with “life at home” looming overhead, wondering to ourselves what would come of it all and how we could help.

Thankfully, and by the grace of God, when we got together again with Eric to write HEART he had been cleared of cancer and was fighting to recover his strength — fighting just to feel normal again. And this is the context in which we wrote HEART and its introductory track, ‘Here & There’: we’ve been spared – there’s life in these bones yet. But what for?

This was the question on our minds when we set out to write an album of songs for worship and prayer that attempts to process what it means to be, and become, human.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

- Genesis 1:27

Right from the beginning God made us humans for a purpose. And that phrase, “in his own image” has some  incredible implications. It means that every person has an inherent dignity – that we are valuable. But, there’s more to it than that. What’s an image for after all? So that you might just know what something looks like! God placed us in his Creation much like any Roman temple architect would place a statue (For a summary of this particular observation check out the NIV Application Commentary on Genesis by John H Walton). He gave us dominion in the world with orders to be good stewards, to represent him well and a simple enough arrangement – but an arrangement we wouldn’t keep.

And so, we’re left with the consequences of a choice made. Birth pains, work, struggle, toil, sin – an obsession with dehumanizing ideas, an obsession over ‘us’ and ‘them’ an obsession with playing god. But God: He hasn’t given up on us. As we wrote ‘Here & There’ we were struck with the contrast of our finiteness and God’s infiniteness. That an infinite God would pull us through the mire, through this brokenness, to have infinite life and joy in Him — it’s a shocking concept. It’s a new way to be human, after all.

 “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” 

- 1 Cor 15:49

Jesus tells us we need to be born again if we’re to live this new way. If we’re to live His kind of life. And being born again, like being born the first time, has its birth pangs too. Like Paul on the road to Damascus it’s eye opening and blinding all at the same time. Sometimes it seems like God finds us in our darkness and flips the light switch, and though we kick and scream we ultimately calm to see that God is with us, not against us. 

Heart beat, little heart.
There You are, there You are.
I came kicking, I came screaming
I was so used to the dark

An infinite God, with just a whisper (Gen 1) calls light out of the darkness, new life from nothingness, a heart accustomed to cold not beats warmly to a familiar song. Like the man of dust we live and we die, but this Heavenly Man, this second Adam… He rises again.

You whispered “light” and lit a spark.
There  You are, there You are
I’ve been living, I’ve been dying
And Your heart beats ever on.

We become disciples of this Jesus, little copies, ‘Christian’ means ‘little Christs’ after all. This discipleship is, if a genuine pursuit of Christ, an endless road of increasingly selfless pursuits, and the call upward and outward has been echoing since the dawn of history. It is not simply about our transformation, but Christ. We aren’t the subject, but the medium. Worship is not just a moment in time. It is an opportunity to be a part of eternity – in being fully alive we glorify God, as we find our joy in this we are achieve our chief end. 

You were
You are
You are to come

Christlikeness is why we are here. It is what’s hoped and struggled for today and realized in full tomorrow. It is now but not yet. Still, we go on if only so that the world may know something of who God is, what He is like, what He has done for us. And all too often we can barely keep it together: grabbing at the tatters of His cloak if only just to be reminded what it means to really live, only for Him to turn and be wits us, as He is always with us.

If I’m barely hangin’ on
Here You are, here You are
I come crawling, I come running
Here You are with open arms
No, my heart’s not giving up
Here You are, here You are
You’ve been living in my dying
Now I’m dying for Your heart

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain – Phillipians 1:21

The heart is like Pandora’s box
With just a crack it’s opened up
To beat anew when all is lost
To run, crawl, come…. Home
You are to come.

-Here & There

In Greek Mythology, Pandora’s box once opened up and welcomed evil into the world. In the Christian faith, we know this welcoming was our own doing, and sin has left Creation and our hearts marred. But now, we open up this heart — this strong-will of ours — afresh. And like the Prodigal Son we are welcomed home and dressed in His finest cloak. We look something like a young son in His father’s suit. It doesn’t quite fit, but it just might someday.

It’s in our nature to be self-determined. It comes with the package. This new way to be human, it starts with a genuine will: the realization that we need a changed heart. It is this creative force of will that so often reminds me that we are made in the image of God, and in this new way to be human, constantly remade until finally the birth pangs of this age give way to the satisfied exhaling of the next.

“All is as it should be”.

Home.


 

Don’t Call Me A Worship Leader

Have you seen this video?

Yes, it’s an ad, but the fact is that it points to a very real phenomenon. Our words do matter. And I have a concern with the way that we use a couple of particular words: I don’t want to be called a ‘worship leader’ anymore.

In between working as Worship Arts Director at a church and The City Harmonic becoming a full-time job for me I ran a small marketing company. And if I learned anything at all in that time it’s that our ideas, our habits and our words really do matter. I learned that a lot effort and resources have been spent studying the mind – how we make decisions, what governs some of our instinctual actions, etc. Studies have shown that our brains live in something like a state of constant rewiring. The term they use to describe this is ‘neuroplasticity’: older, unused pathways in our mind dissolve and new ones, with repetition and focus, are formed. All the time. What we think about and say actually changes the way that our brains physically function. How we use our words has a direct effect on our response to stimuli. Like the video suggests, a small change in wording can radically alter the appeal and perception of just about anything. Suffice it to say that language effects how we view the ideas we attempt to describe and help us to form expectations of the world around us.

So what are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘worship leader’?

Now, I’m very grateful for the many resources – books, magazines and websites alike – that have emerged over the past twenty or thirty years, all of them aimed to equip churches in what’s commonly called the “worship renewal” movement or “contemporary worship”. But over time we’ve also seen a gradual shift towards the practical ‘equipping’ of musicians based on demand for tools just like this. And it seems to me that this and other factors have led to a very powerful word association — not just with music in general, but a particular style of music.

We Evangelicals have come to view the word ‘worship’ as referring to something like God-focussed music. And music is inherently emotional. So it follows that our understanding of ‘worship’ could then be reduced to the personal expression of a God-centered, emotional experience. This then shapes our expectations in a church setting.

We come to Church with closed eyes, I often describe is as “a grouping of islands in a dark sea”, seeking these individual and transcendent emotional experiences. This may, at least in part, explain why people increasingly feel as though they don’t need the corporate expression of church to worship God at all – they can pop in a CD and have emotional experiences like this at home or have personal ‘spiritual’ experiences wherever they like. But it’s kind of like skipping leg day at the gym – the end result is that we end up looking unhealthy despite all the time we seem to spend ‘working out’.

This powerful word association of ‘worship’ and ‘music’ could also cause us to disassociate other important and traditional elements of Christian worship services (reading the word aloud, engaging in teaching within community, corporate prayer, serving, the creeds, the eucharist, fellowship) as not necessarily worshipful because they aren’t always personal, emotive expressions. This doesn’t seem right to me at all.  And the reason is that the end of worship isn’t our experience at all. It is God’s glory – but how? Simply by us saying, or singing, so?

‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’

- Irenaeus

Tim Keller explains that worship is the “act of ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that energizes and engages your whole person or being.” Worshipping God takes place in the active redirection of our love away from ourselves or our ideologies and towards Christ — including emotions, but also will, intellect, action – our whole selves! This is true when we sing, but also when we sit to learn, or shake the hand of a brother, or take communion.  

Christian worship is incarnational (God-on-earth to redeem) not transcendent (we escape this troublesome old world to find God elsewhere).

It is formative (God changes us through our embodied practices) not just informative (we change ourselves as a result of God’s good ideas)

It’s embodied, not just expressed.

The fact is that as we gather together God’s presence transforms our lives, our spaces, our minds and hearts and our very selves from toe-to-top. Our meetings and liturgies in their entirety — and our shared mission when we leave — are like Kingdom trenches in a world at war with itself and badly in need of redemption. And so our ‘worship’ should reflect those same holistic values. The moment we intentionally or unintentionally prescribe a hierarchy of experiences (mind over matter, emotion over mind, actions over either) – we teeter dangerously on popular heresy. 

So let’s be sure to constantly remind ourselves, starting with something as simple as our words, that ‘worship’ occurs in actively embodying our beliefs day-to-day, moment-to-moment, and accordingly describes the entirety of our worship services. Worship includes the redemption of our emotions (music), intellect (teaching/word), soul/will (prayer/fellowship) and bodies (eucharist/communion). 

So, call me a ‘musical worship leader’, even just ‘musician’, but not ‘worship leader’.  Let’s “open up the doors and let the music play” – beautiful life-changing music! As we sing together, as we listen and be moved together, let the Holy Spirit be your sheet music. It’s worship after all.

But also sit together, make peace, pray together, sing: It’s worship after all.

Take and eat the body He gave for us, the blood spilt for us. Be reminded that God has given us bodies of our own to give. Its’ worship after all.

Hear the Word of God, learn, think, digest, respond. It’s worship after all.

Let our worship be seen, tasted, heard, and lived together and as we go out into the world. If ever I deserve the title of ‘worship leader’ I pray that its because I actually live this way.

Not because I play the acoustic guitar.

SPECTACLE: Worship & Worldview

Spectacle-worshipIt was cold, although not “Polar Vortex” cold. My family and I were crammed into our minivan and were two-thirds of the way through our thirteen-hour drive from Nashville to Canada just four days before Christmas. Every once in awhile messages from family with news of an impending Ontario ice storm would grab our attention but, as it was, all we could see before us was rain and road. One hour after another on one of America’s most boring drives. That is, until dark.

Besides the obvious (it was dark), the darkness was blinding – turning our minivan into a rolling death trap –  street lights, car lights, reflections of any light of any kind suddenly transformed into bizarre laser beams headed directly for the eyes – I was suddenly unable to see much of anything around me.

It was the smudge.

We’ve had this smudge on our windshield for something like four months. And like we all do all-too-often, we kept saying to ourselves – ‘we should do something about that smudge’ – but despite our good intentions we never did. In the sunlight you’d never even notice it but at night the driver’s point-of-view is blinded from everything but the foggy-looking smudge on the inside of the window.

Of course, it took us some time to remember that the smudge was even there. So we turned the windshield wipers on, using probably half a jug of washer-fluid: no change. We turned on the air conditioning and heat at the same time: no change. Next we blamed the fog, until we opened our windows and realized that there wasn’t any fog at all. Eventually we realized that the problem didn’t lie in our surroundings but rather how we saw them. I remembered the smudge. With a simple swipe of the arm I brushed the smudge enough that we could see and finished our trip safe and sound.

We kept looking for problems all around us, but even if any of them had been true, fixing them still wouldn’t have meant that we could see clearly. What it took was to step back and take a good look at the thing through which we saw everything else: the windshield. If we hadn’t we would continue to have a distorted way of seeing things.This is also true in how we live our lives at large: how our collection of ideas and assumptions about life and the world cause us to form our values and determine the ways we interact with God and the world around us.

This is often called a ‘worldview’ and everybody has one even if they don’t realize it or haven’t spent the time to think through what it might be like. This collection of ideas is often compared to a pair of spectacles, the lens by which we see and interpret the world around us. And its pretty likely we share ours with the people around us too. Cultures and societies have many assumptions of their own. And though Christianity certainly has beliefs in it, it might be fair to say that in the right light it is more like a worldview of its own than simply a one-size-fits-all-worldviews religious system. As is often the case, Lewis puts it beautifully:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

- C.S. Lewis

So how do you see the world? Yourself? The world around you? What’s wrong? How do we fix it? Have you even thought about it? What do you assume when you read the Bible, when you talk to your friends, when you vote or when you sing or write a worship song?

After all, many of us song leaders started out as teenagers with a guitar strapped on our shoulder and the best of intentions. We loved music and we loved Jesus and wanted to be involved in our church somehow. If we could sing and strum four chords or more all the better! Choosing a set of songs didn’t seem like such a big deal: we’d been doing it all the time in our garage band or for the high school talent show. But it turns out these things are kind of a big deal. Before you know it and of course depending on the structure of your church, you might find yourself forming what is essentially a liturgy and seriously impacting how congregants understand God and themselves. Nevertheless, we’re thrust forward and given a few websites and a book of chord charts. Even with the best of intentions and incredible effectiveness, worship training resources tend to be focused almost entirely on ‘what we do’ — these are the questions most of us are asking after all — and only occasionally do we address the assumptions that led us to do those things in the first place. 

 

So for us to constantly answer ‘how’ to do a thing without asking ‘why’ we do it this way seems fruitless. I began to unpack this thought a little in my post on New Years Resolutions: if we obsess with ‘what’ without ever asking ‘why’, we easily lose track of why we do things at all. I have to admit that I worry that may be exactly where we’re headed in the Evangelical church. Without developing a keen sense of the bigger picture we awkwardly cram Christian beliefs into the driving narratives of the world around us: conservatism vs. liberalism, enlightenment philosophy, materialism, pragmatism, commercialism, and so on. The blogosphere is on fire with examples of us attempting to cram our faith into strangely-fitting-philosophical-outfits and all the while Christianity is a story in its own right — with its own set of assumptions. 

So let’s get practical by taking some time away occasionally from being so darned pragmatic. Let’s take a look at the big picture together and talk through our cultural and personal assumptions and how they have shaped the songs we write, the assumptions we have when we gather for church, what ‘worship’ is, and so on. This series of posts will focus on discussing our cultural and personal assumptions and ideas and how they have shaped our services, songs and assumptions about worship, about ‘why’ we do certain things, and perhaps even at times ‘why’ we shouldn’t. So let’s take off our spectacles, take a good look at our smudges and do our best at giving them a wipe to the glory of God.

In the meantime, if you have any subjects you’d like to see covered in this series please comment below – I’d love to see the kinds of things that have got your attention and see if we can talk it out!

Grace and Peace,
Elias