Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

I just finished the book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath.  First of all, I highly recommend the book.  It’s an excellent treatment of the issues surrounding the Reformation and all its major players from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer and others.

One of the things it talked about was how Protestantism, outside of the Lutheran and Calvinist camps especially, as been so remarkably adaptable to different times, different countries and different cultures.  For sure, there have been eras of missteps in missionary efforts where too much emphasis was placed on transplanting a Western European style of Christianity into countries where the cultural norms and such are vastly different.  But the overall history of Protestantism has been one of amazing malleability.  And to most Protestants, this is a sign of it’s vitality and a source of great strength.  Aside from being centered around a sermon, you can encounter scores of different styles from country to country or even within one city.  You might walk into a Baptist church that’s very “countrified” with Southern Gospel style hymns and right down the road walk into another with all the high church pomp and circumstance you’d see in a Catholic service.  And right down from that would be one with a kickin’ rock band leading worship, congregants in jeans and t-shirts and the pastor sporting a faux-hawk.  And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the predominantly African-American congregations.

On the other hand, worldwide, Catholic and Orthodox churches are largely the same.  This was especially the case prior to Vatican II and the Mass being in the vernacular.  You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass was spoken in Latin and was in the same form.  Even with the vernacular, because the form of the Mass is consistent, most experienced Catholics can follow the service fairly easily even with the language barrier.  And this consistency is viewed by Catholics as a sign of strength and vitality as well.  They feel they adapt in more subtle ways to each culture (such as Mass in the vernacular) but that the more consistent liturgy and emphasis promotes unity and cohesiveness in the Church.

And this adaptability vs consistency thing doesn’t just apply to different cultures and countries now.  Outside of high church Lutherans and Anglicans, Protestantism is nothing if not willing to change.  No matter what era Protestantism finds itself in, there seems to be a near constant desire to change and seek to be “relevant.”  This is especially true of the last 30-40 years or so, since those first hippies started coming to Christ during the Jesus Movement, but whether it was John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney and Dwight Moody, the rise of Pentecostalism or the New Calvinists, this is has been a hallmark of Protestantism.

Catholicism (and to a similar degree Orthodoxism) on the other hand has been marked by its ties to history and (little “t”) tradition.  Some of the rites, creeds, prayers, music and other facets of Catholic worship have been around since the earliest days of the Church.  Many others have been in consistent use in Catholic services for centuries.  There’s a connectedness and a feeling of being anchored in something bigger than oneself but more importantly, bigger than “right now.”

To be honest, I’m torn over which is the best approach.  I’ve mentioned my feelings numerous times…how I lament the lack of historicity and the sense that we’ve lost something in all this manic striving to be culturally hip and relevant.  I find a depth and richness in traditional, liturgical worship that just seems lacking in much of contemporary styles.  But at the same time, I realize that everyone is not like me.  No matter how much you explain to some people the richness and deep meanings of the liturgy and its ancient roots, they don’t get it.  And it’s not that they don’t get it because they are non-Christians unattuned to the things of God.  These are wonderful, growing, sincere believers in Christ.  They might be able to appreciate elements of traditional worship from time to time, they prefer the more casual, modern style.  They feel like they connect with God on a more personal level in that kind of setting and that their relationship with God is much better partly because of the willingness of churches to loosen up and not be bogged down with attachments to songs and styles and cultural trappings that are no longer a part of modern life.  I even felt that way myself at one point, but as this blog attests, that’s changed with me.  It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-done modern worship service, I just have different tastes and different things that matter more to me.

What do you think?  There are pros and cons to both approaches I believe.  What is more important…cultural relevance in worship style or a connection to the past and our Christian brethren from times gone by?  As long as the Gospel is being taught and people are being discipled and matured in the faith, should the form in which those things are conveyed matter?


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Lent is a season of repentance. It’s a time to focus on drawing close to God. What it is not is a season to be morose or to beat oneself up about past sins already confessed and forgiven. As with many things in the Christian life, there is a balance to be found here between taking our sins as seriously as God does and not indulging in a form of self-flaggelation to try and make sure God knows just how sorry we are.

This song by Margaret Becker I think really captures God’s perspective on this. It’s titled “Just Come In” and is from her 1988 album Immigrant’s Daughter:

What do I see
You draggin up here
Is that for your atoning?
I know you’re sorry
I’ve seen your tears
You don’t have to show Me
What makes you think you must
Make that go away
I forgot
When I forgave
I wish you would

Just come in
Just leave that right there
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

You think you’ve crossed
Some sacred line
And now I will ignore you
If you look up
You will find
My heart is still toward you
Look at the sky
The east to the west
That’s where I threw this
When you first confessed
Let it go now

Just come in
Just leave that right there
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

I will forgive you
No matter what you’ve done
No matter how many times
You turn and run
I love you
I wish you’d come

Just come in
Just leave that right there
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

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Six Flags Over Jesus

“Yeah, that’s good. I guess I was thinking a little less theologically and more practical philosophy of ministry stuff. For example, missional is the opposite of attractional. The attractional church puts on the dog and pony show to get people in the door. Being a sacramental church seems to free us from the need to put on some other program. I’ve been feeling very whiny lately about the way modern evangelicalism has put a lot of pressure on po’ widdle me to provide a full service church for religious consumers. In a sacramental church I imagine I could say, “Look, I’ll minister the Word and sacraments. Y’know, the stuff that gets you to heaven? You want any of that other crap you can do it yourself.” ”

This was a quote from a Lutheran pastor on another blog. It encapsulates well one of the issues I have with the modern evangelical church model. I’ve been involved with various contemporary evangelical churches for over 20 years now. And as my previous mentions on my religious mutt background attest, they aren’t confined to one denomination or any denomination at all. These churches span the spectrum including Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist (my parents’ church, not mine), United Methodist, non-denominational charismatic and non-denominational non-charismatic. To varying degrees, all of them have a sort of “all things to all people” approach. Now, don’t take that to the nth degree or anything. All of them are solid, Bible-believing churches well within the evangelical mainstream doctrinally. And these churches are run by and attended by many, many people who love God. But their ministry approach definitely reflects this notion.

Here’s the problem: it is an exhausting and expensive model to maintain. Almost every one of these churches have activities and “ministry opportunities” going on all week long. There are home cell groups, men’s ministries, women’s ministries, Bible studies, children’s church, nursery, Sunday Schools, singles groups, divorce care, puppet teams, drama teams, a contemporary service, a traditional service. The sheer amount of manpower to head up all of these things and keep them running year around can be staggering. Factor in that when it involves someone that has the gift of teaching or another specific talent, and that there aren’t necessarily a ton of those people in a given congregation, the burn out potential is rather high for the handful that get called on all the time to run these things.

Then there’s the praise band, the orchestra, the choir, the audio/visual team, the props team. The bar has been seriously raised in this regard over the years. Not only do you need people with the expertise to do all this stuff, but also, it’s not cheap. Lighting, sound gear, video equipment, computers and software…the stuff you find in many contemporary churches rival what you’d see at a rock concert a few years ago.

And what is the effect on the congregants? I don’t want to paint everyone with one broad brush, but this game of oneupmanship between churches (state of the art technology, elaborate children’s ministry classrooms, etc) tends to create a consumerist mentality. We shop for a church based on superficial concerns. Rather than settling into a church where true fellowship happens, we get lured by the sheer deluge of opportunities. Collective activity replaces real community. Cool and “relevant” (the most tired and overused word in Christian circles) presentations and videos overshadow that which has sustained the Church for 2000 years: the ministry of the Word and the sacraments.

Also, the net effect of the money and manpower that it takes to keep all these plates spinning and working to their full potential is that there are a lot less people-hours and dollars going toward the church reaching past its own four walls and just ministering to itself and instead reaching its community. How often do we hear conservative Christians rant against government welfare programs and the taxes needed to sustain them while pulling up every Sunday to a concert hall with a pint-sized Six Flags Over Jesus right next to it?

What if the church focused on having a reasonable worship and educational space that is conducive to the sacred (read: you’re allowed to have it look pretty and have an aesthetic that denotes that it’s a place of worship, not a warehouse, gymnasium or someone’s oversized living room), resisted the temptation to just keep building and building rather than church planting and then focused those resources of people and money toward serving the community they live in? All kinds of possibilities come to mind but some ideas would be: weekly free car repair for single women/mothers, free tutoring services for kids in a disadvantaged area of town, organizing volunteers to help the homeless, linking up with existing ministries like Habitat for Humanity, putting our pro-life beliefs into practice by starting a program and fund to encourage women locally not to abort but to give their child up for adoption (and having many more Christian families consider this other than when they can’t have biological children), organizing and funding free health clinics for the uninsured.

I could go on for days. You could probably think of many others. These are the kinds of things we could be doing…if we weren’t taxing ourselves with programs, ministries and expenses that leave us tapped out both financially and physically. And I will guarantee you, if we started handling church this way, concentrating on being (as the quote put it) missional and sacramental rather than attractional, the reputation of the Church and Christians in this world would be much, much different. You don’t draw people to Jesus by your amazing technology and Swiss Army knife ministry approach. People are drawn to Him the same way they always have been, through love and serving.

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Stuggling to Worship

I was attending the Methodist church this past Sunday and chose to go to the “traditional” service because I like the new pastor that teaches there and at least I get to hear some old hymns. All started out well with one of my favorites, “Praise To The Lord, The Almighty.”

But then we got to a point in the service where the music director typically makes a medley of hymns together that we sing. Today he decided to focus on heaven as the theme since the pastor’s message was on the Scripture text, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The song line up was a trinity of perhaps my least liked popular evangelical hymns:

“I’ll Fly Away”
“When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”
“When We All Get To Heaven”

I struggle so much when songs like this are sung. And I don’t think I’m alone. As I scanned the congregation, I noticed a fairly consistent pattern. The older folks (those 60 and above, which included the music director) seemed to love it. They had smiles on the their faces and sang with some gusto, nodding or lightly bouncing to the music. Anyone under 50, and especially those 40 and under seemed at best subdued and at worst bored. The melodies and time signature just have that bouncy, happy-clappy hoedown feeling to them that sounds dated in all the wrong ways. In fact, the whole middle of the service, from a musical perspective, just not doing it for me. In addition to the above medley, the choir did the Southern Gospel classic, “Midnight Cry” (a popular song about the rapture coming any moment) which just made it worse.

But beyond the music itself, I struggle with the lyrics and subject matter. I struggle for a couple of opposing reasons. For example, a couple of verses from “I’ll Fly Away”:

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

Is it unreasonable to feel that a mindset like “just a few more weary days and then…” and “no more cold iron shackles on my feet” when referring to this life is a tad pessimistic? And I guess for me, when I’m in church on Sunday morning, I want to worship God. It’s great to hear messages that encourage or convict me and help me grow, but my real purpose for being there is me offering myself, my worship to God. In a sense it’s great to look forward to eternity with Him, but it doesn’t feel like a worship song to me. Compare the lyrics of that medley to the opening hymn we did today:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,
The King of creation
O my soul, praise Him , for He is thy health and salvation
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near
Praise Him in glad adoration

Praise to the Lord,
Who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth
Shelters thee under His wings , yea, so gently sustaineth
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him
Let the ‘amen’ sound from His people again
Gladly for’ere we adore Him

To me, that’s a song of worship…talking about God, what He’s done, His attributes and majesty. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” just doesn’t compare to that. And that doesn’t even touch the explicit Left Behind style rapture theology of it and “Midnight Cry.” I just found myself straining to connect with the songs at all. Perhaps some of it is the age thing mentioned above. The closer you get to the end of life on earth, the more aches and pains and troubles you’ve accumulated or seen, the more you long to just get out of here. But when you’re young and have a lot of life ahead of you, you look forward to living it. You want to see your kids grow up, get married and have kids of their own. You want to do exciting and meaningful things for God down here. You’re not just waiting for the rapture or to “fly away.” It’s great to look forward to heaven one day, but sometimes people seem like they are “so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good.”

Now, for that opposing reason. Setting aside the feeling that none of the hymns in that medley above really seem “worshipful” to me and taking them just as songs with a message…is there something wrong that I don’t feel more moved by them? At all? Shouldn’t I view myself as a “stranger and alien” here? I mean, I do want to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus. I do look forward to a time where I’m not fighting this constant internal war with myself over sin and I get at least some answers for all the evil and pain and misery that does exist down here (though being an American mitigates how much of that touches me directly). As I was singing these songs and trying to connect, trying to understand what the older folks were getting out of them, I felt guilty that it simply wasn’t happening. No matter how hard I tried to resist the “I hate these songs” urge within me and absorb the message, it didn’t work. They seemed escapist, defeatist, trite and unmeaningful. Yet I felt like as a good Christian, I shouldn’t feel that way.

Anyone else feel this way at church sometimes? Struggling mightily to squeeze whatever you can out of the service or the music or the preaching, largely failing, and all the while feeling guilty that you’re not “more spiritual and can see God moving in it? What do you do about it? As I continue to struggle with the desire to be in a more traditional, liturgical worship environment, but having to consider all of the needs of my family and settling for something different for the time being, this is the hardest thing I deal with. And I don’t want to feel this way every Sunday. I just want to worship God and connect with Him.

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