Tag Archives: worship

Overcoming our Churchiness

Setting out to blog today, I suppose this one could be classified as a rant. I’m not sure what will follow these openning sentences because I’m airing out some personal frustrations while earnestly attempting to keep my thoughts constructive. At the same time, I remember the words God used to commission the prophet Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you… to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Not that I’m Jeremiah– and Lord, I hope to never be!!— but the point is plain enough. Sometimes you’ve got to tear things down and rip them apart in order to plant new life.

I’ve always lived with a tolerable level of frustration with the state of the church, such as it is. It’s like living with achy knees (which I do, by the way). You simply learn to live with it, work through it, and perhaps use the annoyance to spur on some kind of greater good. (In my case, achy knees constantly remind me to lose weight and keep my leg muscles in shape.)

There are certain churchy mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities which I live and work in everyday. Sometimes I even catch myself falling back into them. As a spiritual leader, much of my job is reforming the church away from these inhibiting qualities which have led us into serious decline, and shepherd us towards more authentic, Christ-centered, biblical mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities. Sometimes it feels like pushing Mt. Everest. Other times, it’s rapturous to see how easily many of us “get it.”

But I recently had something happen which ratcheted up the normal tolerable level of frustration to jabbing pains. When that happens, I rant.
Two Sundays ago at our Vacation Bible School celebration, we used some technology normally not utilized in worship. Our VBS leaders used PowerPoint digital projection to display the words of the VBS songs we sang all week. I’ve been a longtime proponent of our church installing digital projection into our sanctuary, for reasons I’ll unpack a little later. So, knowing there would be digital projection during our worship services that Sunday, I asked the leadership team if I could create and include a PowerPoint presentation of my sermon. There was method to my madness; if folks could see the full potential of digital projection, they just might want more of it. And yes, people loved it!

Yesterday, I followed suit. During my sermon, I used PowerPoint again. I wanted people to be able tune in more and see what they were hearing. I projected my major points, some Scriptures, and some images of things I was describing. Despite a few minor technical glitches that need working out, it was a success. I saw people paying more attention and taking notes. Better yet, I saw younger people with their heads up and eyes facing forward.

“Why PowerPoint and digital projection?” you may ask. We’re in a postmodern world. In our postmodern world, most people are visual learners. Immersed in an image-rich world of computers, TVs, vivid advertising, smart phones, and gaming, many of us connect and learn from others through our eyes. Arguably, so much visual living has diminished our capacity to learn and connect by using our ears. Nevertheless, more of us function and absorb information in visual formats.

Most traditional churches, on the other hand, still operate in the older “modern” world of auditory learning and communicating. We come to these churches and must hear the announcements, hear the music, and exclusively listen to a 20+ minute sermon. That asks postmodern visual learners to carefully focus on the primary medium of sound in order to receive the Word of God. No wonder I see many people with blank expressions on their faces or fidgeting doing other things while trying to “listen” to a sermon. In settings like these, I could be the most charismatic and profound preacher and still see people tuning out.

So, I began some much-needed, corrective steps last week and yesterday. A lot of people saw it as a welcome change. They commented how much easier it was for them to pay attention and walk away with more from the message. As a preacher, I was able to share more detailed, substantive information knowing that people would be able to see and follow along with my points. They could visualize how all these points come together into one whole. They could see the ideas I shared. In other words, it was much harder to get lost in information overload because I gave them a multi-sensory message from God’s Word.

But here’s what got my goat: the unhelpful negative comments from some well-intentioned church people. While I keep myself open to listen and learn to anyone, here’s what some people said:

“It’s just a gimmick.”
“I feel like I’m in a classroom, not church.”
“This is a dumbing down of worship.”
“This stuff doesn’t belong in our historic, sacred sanctuary.”

“You may be trying to get younger people, but going to chase away us older people with that kind of thing.”

I even had one person tell me that as long as I use digital projection, they would not come to our worship services!

Franky, it astonishes me how easily the church’s churchiness gets in the way of making new disciples of Jesus Christ. The use of technology is no gimmick. It’s not “church-lite”. I’m trying to stay in step with people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul who knew how to communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that people can both understand and retain. My interest in using technology in worship is not an ends in itself. I want to share the Word of God and form followers of Jesus, and I’ll use whatever means necessary to do it.
lost-sheepIn this discussion or in any other concerning the church’s ministry, there are two hallmark questions we church people must ask ourselves:

1) To what lengths are we willing to go to make new disciples of Christ?

2) How willing are we to sacrifice our own sensibilities and wants in order to reach new, younger people for Jesus?
Asking these questions illuminates one of the major barriers we face in making new disciples of Jesus. That barrier is none other than the churchiness of the church. What is churchiness? It’s the inflexibility of a “me first” approach to ministry. It’s the attitude that worship and ministry revolve around the wants and desires of church members rather than the vast neediness of a lost world. It’s the arrogance of assuming that the world must conform to our church culture in order to have a chance at being disciples of Jesus. To put it another way, it’s when the church thinks of itself more as a club who tends to the wants of its club members and less as a missional people of God who will stop at nothing to bring their world to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Whew… I got all of that off my chest. The rant is over.

But in all seriousness, I love the church I serve and the community I live in far, far too much to allow anything or anyone, myself included, to be a stumbling block to people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I also know I need to keep my own churchiness in check, too. I have a lot to learn in order to become a more missional and mission-leading pastor. Some of that means learning to take hits from folks who resist needed change to the church. But, I’m confident we’ll get there and that God is able to use us, even in spite of ourselves. After all, God will not rest until each lost child of God’s discovers how Jesus Christ died and was risen for them. I just pray my church and I can keep up!

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A Conversation with an Atheist

Grand Canyon 23Some of the things that infuse more meaning and joy into life are the unexpected connections and conversations I have with other people. My life has been made dazzlingly rich by the sheer diversity of people I know and talk to on a regular basis. If someone was trying to figure out where I stand, what convictions I hold, or which values are dearest to me by analyzing my family and friends, the only one thing that might be deduced is my love for people of all kinds.

On Saturday night, my circle was widened by a conversation with a man who lives on my street. I had seen him around here and there, and I think I had said “hello” to him a few times, but just as I was about to get into the car and run down to the grocery store, he said, “Hey, Chris!” So, I stopped to talk to him a bit, asked him typical chit-chat questions about his family, his work, etc., etc.

From there– and admittedly I’m horrible at recalling conversations line by line– somehow I got to mentioning something about how I’ve learned many different life lessons from God.

After that, he said something like, “Well, as far as God and heaven go, I like to think that we’re living in heaven right now, that heaven is now.”

I immediately thought to myself that if this life right now is heaven, we’ve been royally had by a cosmic sadist. Sure, life is wonderful, but far, far from perfect. It’s certainly nothing I’d call “heaven.”

So, I think I said something to him like, “Maybe God will lead us to something far better than this.”

To that he replied, “Well, that’s assuming that there is a God.”

That was when I knew our conversation was going to get far more complex and perhaps thornier than either of us had imagined. Here we were, a theist speaking to an atheist. From there we conversed back and forth on the question of God’s existence from the point of view of nature, the origins of the cosmos, and everyday human experience. For every idea I proposed to demonstrate the reality of God, he countered it with some kind of non-theistic scientific explanation. We were obviously getting nowhere fast with one another.

I then tried to shift our conversation to the person of Jesus and his resurrection. We talked about the historicity of Jesus’ life and resurrection with multiple and varied attestations to both things, sources like the gospel accounts, Josephus, and other ancient Roman histories. He questioned the validly of the sources, and honestly I wasn’t sure how familiar he was with them. So, I borrowed one more tried and true question which C. S. Lewis used on skeptics. Lewis said that Jesus claimed himself to be Lord and God. There’s no question about that from the gospel accounts. So, either he was a delusional lunatic, a liar, or indeed who he said he was. And if you look at all the things Jesus did and said with any kind of objectivity, you’d be hard pressed to conclude that he was crazy or a liar.

My new friend thought for a second, and then said, “Maybe Jesus told a good lie. Religion is the sum total of human creativity and imagination, designed to make human beings feel good and do the right thing, so maybe Jesus told a good lie in order to get people simply to do good. It’s like Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a good lie; it’s harmless, and yet it brings people enjoyment.”

“So,” I countered, “what you’re saying is that people like me and millions and millions of others are living in a delusive lie– albeit a good one!– that people have designed in order to help us be good people and do the right thing?”

“Basically, yes,” he replied.

“So, you’re saying, that my career, everything I believe, my livelihood, and what I’m prepared to preach to my congregation tomorrow, is a good lie on par with something like Santa Claus?”

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s not bad! If it’s what you believe…”

Hmm… after we wound down the conversation and said goodbye to one another, I began to taste a new found bitterness towards atheism. I’m not at all bitter towards atheists as people. In fact, I really like my new friend and hope to get to know him better. I’ve known and loved other atheists, too.

But this conversation helped me to see that atheism exercises a philosophical bravado, if not a degree of arrogance, to assume that the commonly held spiritual conviction of the other 90% of us who believe in some form of deity is nothing but a fanciful human creation which we’ve unwittingly convinced ourselves to call “God.” It escapes all reason to argue that  intelligent, sophisticated, sane, self-aware, highly educated people would be snared into a delusion as large as God. Have we been duped by the greatest and oldest conspiracy of humanity? An atheist would have to conclude, “Yes.” In that case, my passionate convictions of Jesus Christ are no more substantive than a child’s belief in Santa Claus.

Yet there’s also another heartbreaking problem with atheism: it robs people of their full humanity. We humans, as creatures who strive towards greatness and mastery, all have a basic need to fetter that power with humility by awing something or someone greater than ourselves. In other words, human beings have the need to worship. When we hear a stirring piece of music or stare wide-eyed at a classic painting, it’s not long before we start to revere the artist as the creator. Likewise, when we look up into the sky to see the immeasurable vastness and power of the cosmos, gaze out at the grand canyon, marvel at the intricate balance of our environment, caress a newborn baby, dive through a coral reef, or take in the symphony of birds and insects in a forest– all these things far, far greater in intricacy, beauty, and force than a piece of music or a painting– how can we fail, without losing an essential part ourselves, to acknowledge and worship their Creator? If there is no no one to thank, praise, and worship, then we have fallen into a sub-human cesspool of narcissism, nihilism, and cynicism. Those of us who believe in a deity can fall into these same forms of dehumanization when we fail to fall humbly on our faces in worship. From time to time I’ve seen dehumanization in myself from my lack of worship.

Thinking again of my new friend, I realize that clever arguments won’t curb his atheism. Any condemnation or condescension he senses from me will only repel him. I believe he will come around by the influence of two things: the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and by my loving him, accepting him, and serving him as an authentic witness and image of Jesus himself. In the end, love, which comes from God, and is indeed God, will be the victor over any shred of unbelief.

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Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Bible

Touched by a Piano

Over a year ago I began to fulfill a longtime goal: to learn the piano. As a lifelong musician and song writer with a proficient knowledge of music theory and performance in vocals, woodwinds, and strings, my lack of piano technique had been an increasingly painful sore spot. So over a year ago, I asked my church’s organist, Dr. Mack Statham, if he would take me as a student. After a while, he finally agreed. Since then, the journey of learning to play has been one of the most joyful and rewarding endeavors of my life. Of course, any piano student will tell you that learning piano can be just as frustrating as it is fun, but for me, that synergy of vexation and victory defines the essence of joy. While I don’t ever expect to be a concert pianist– God has me plenty busy as a pastor– I can little by little live into my dream of being able to sit down at a piano to play a piece of music.

I’m also blessed to be pastor of a church who thoroughly enjoys and celebrates God’s gift of music. They open any door for musical expression, and here, I have found a place to offer my musicianship in our worship of God. Plus, I’ve never seen a church with as many pianos as this one! Better yet, living next door to the church building grants me the luxury of going over at a moment’s whim to play my choice of one of those dozen different pianos.

But, a few nights ago, I had the time of my life playing one of the most gorgeous instruments I had ever laid my hands on. Here is how it happened…

Once a year, my church welds together our passion for music and mission work into one night and calls it “Missions and Masterworks”. Dr. Mack puts on the concert with all the proceeds benefiting mission work. I can’t think of anywhere else where Gershwin and malaria netting  for sub-Saharan Africa come together. But in our church, they do. For the last three years, Dr. Mack has been joined by his son Robert for a duo-piano concert. They rent two Steinway concert grand pianos and set them in our sanctuary, facing one another, looking almost like conjoined twins.

For the last two years, I eagerly await these concerts. From the moment the piano movers roll in the Steinways until the last chord is played, I am like a little kid in Disney World– wide-eyed, open-eared, ready to run and soak up every moment. It’s seems almost too good to be true having two gorgeous instruments like these with classically trained pianists who master their performance… all in my church!

But here is where my story really takes shape. Late Friday night, well after the concert was over and the lights were off, I walked over to the sanctuary where those Steinway pianos were still sitting. I had all the time I wanted to play them. With my etude and exercise books in hand along with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, I sat down in front of one of the Steinways to play… all by myself in the quiet of the night. The gentle, simple, intricately balanced, clarion sound of every key I pressed rose and resonated into the chancel area where they sat.

In a rare moment I shall not soon forget, that piano swept and held my spirit. It even seemed to carry along my mistakes with its gentle, graceful tones. It was as if that piano beckoned my hands and heart, sweetly calling, “Keep playing… Swim through my sound. Let me take the movements of your fingers, your hands, and your feet, and sing for your soul.” Novice of a player that I am, the piano seemed to help me play through passages I haven’t been able to play before.

I must have sat there in front of that piano for well over two hours. It was all I could do to leave it. But when the reality hit me of how tired I was and how early the morning would be, I knew it was time to go home. Getting up and walking away from the piano was like parting a good friend I might never see again. Yet as I walked home, those feelings of rapture diminished any feelings of grief. It was an experience, simple and yet deeply profound– one that will linger with me for quite a long time.

Being raised in a musical home by musician parents and grandparents, the appreciation and performance of music was a given. Not a day goes by that I don’t stop to deeply listen to some form of music and find myself singing or playing. My home is a musical haven now, filled with instruments, CDs, singing, and playing. Yet moments like that Friday night remind me how deeply spiritual of a thing music is. Music, I believe, was one of God’s first creations. It began the moment his first creatures raised their voices in praise or tapped their feet with any kind of rhythm or pattern. Humanity has revelled in its soul-stirring power ever since. It took a Steinway piano in a late night quiet sanctuary to remind me once again.

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