4 Reasons articles and lists won’t solve the church’s (or it’s inhabitants) problems

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Apparently, the church is close to meeting its end. At least, that is what anyone who has even the slightest presence on social media might think based on the countless articles about millennials leaving the church. You could also be led to believe that one or more denominations are about to meet their demise due to their willingness or unwillingness to embrace traditional worship, contemporary worship, (insert name here) theology, church coffee shops, small group structure, gay and lesbian membership, or any set of “demands” by one generalized age/race/culture demographic. It appears to be a bleak, bleak world for the life of organized religion, especially Christianity.

I’m calling BS (This is the moment where some people stop reading this because I used “BS”). It’s fine if you stop reading at this point, I’m still calling it and I have several reasons. I’ve been in the church my entire life. I was born into it. I grew up in it. There were times in my teenage years and adult years since that I’ve doubted it. There were times I wanted to leave but didn’t. There have been many family members and friends I’ve watched walk away from it. Some have come back to it, some haven’t. There have been many family members and friends I’ve watched come to it for the first time. Some have stayed, some haven’t. All of these people have different ages, races, careers, socio-economic statuses…there are a lot of differences.

And ultimately, that’s the point. Even if they are the same age and race, they might have different preferences. Even if they have the same preferences, they might be from completely different walks of life. So with that in mind, here are my 4 reasons you should stop reading or writing these articles.


 

1) No two people are the same.

Stop generalizingAs a millennial, there is nothing I am more tired of seeing than articles generalizing my entire generation. It’s asinine to believe that everyone in such a wide range of ages has an overwhelmingly strong preference towards any one thing in the church. Technology? Sure. I would concede that a vast majority of my generation likes their smart phones and Macbooks. But there is no way I could be convinced that there is one style of worship that is overwhelmingly preferred to another.

I know 14 year olds who love “I’ll Fly Away” and I know 70 year olds who can’t wait to hear new songs from Hillsong. I know people in their 20’s and 30’s who feel the need to say the Apostle’s Creed and take communion every Sunday and I know 40 and 50 year olds who would be confused if you asked them to “pass the peace”.

It’s 2015. The world’s population is massive and people are living longer each year. Individuality and conformity are simultaneously preached to the masses. Information is readily available at the literal touch of a button. People can come to their own conclusions and develop individualistic preferences better than ever before. If I have worked so hard to think for myself and be my own person, why would I be attracted to your church when you lump me into a cookie cutter mold with other people just because they share my birth year? The answer is, I wouldn’t.

2) Contemporary worship isn’t necessarily irreverent and traditional worship isn’t necessarily irrelevant. 

As I said before, I’ve spent my entire life in the church and thus, spent my entire life in worship services. In that time, I’ve experienced a wide variety of traditional and contemporary settings. I love both. I see value in both. I don’t like people bashing either. I have felt God’s presence in an auditorium filled with 5000 people, intelligent lighting, huge LED screens illuminating the words, and yes, even smoke machines. I have also felt God’s presence leading a choir accompanied by a grand piano and organ in ornate and intimate sanctuaries. And to hit my first point even more, both have involved a wide array of every demographic previously mentioned.

I’ve been moved by songs written in the last two years and I’ve been inspired by the the words and music of 15th century monks and 19th century composers. I can’t wrap my mind around this terrible misconception that one is “better” than the other. I’m not saying you can’t prefer one, but that doesn’t give you the right to disrespect the other. Liturgy can be nice but so can informality.

3) People named John don’t have all the answers.

John Calvin, John Wesley, John Piper, not even John the Evangelist. And neither does any other one person living on this Earth. I enjoy reading material by all of the above. I frequently study works by C.S. Lewis and Francis Chan and I’ll even read stuff by the likes of Joel Osteen and Rachel Held Evans. But none of them have all the answers.

They may not agree on interpretations but (almost) all of them are brilliant theologians. If they don’t have all the answers, if they don’t have the secret formula to universal success, what makes us think the contributors at Relevant Magazine hold the keys? Take everything you read about the church and about generalizations with a grain of salt, even this article.

4) You don’t need coffee stands or bookstores to attract people but having them isn’t sacrilegious. 

This is a complement to my second point as they often times coincide but they aren’t exclusive. Coffee stands and bookstores in churches are a growing trend and personally, I love them. They’re convenient and provide great opportunities for fellowship while supporting the church financially. Basically, they are an excellent missional resource. That being said, churches don’t need them nor are they “selling-out” by having one.


 

In the same way that we can’t generalize people, we can’t generalize churches. Are there contemporary services that don’t seek to glorify God and rather seek to aggrandize themselves? Of course. But we can’t assume to connect the two automatically.

We have to get to the heart of why we do what we do. Anytime I am working with others in ministry, the number one thing I say over and over is “This isn’t about us.” Whether you’re leading worship, participating in worship, going into the mission field, teaching Sunday school…I don’t think it’s something that can said enough. This isn’t about us at all. These articles attempt to lead us in a false belief that there is a secret formula but there isn’t.

What there is though, is God and His people. His diverse and beautiful creation. Stop looking for the secret formula. Put down the articles and appreciate individualism. Put down the articles and respect diversity.

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Music Monday 04.27.15

“Simplicity” Rend Collective

I recently wrote about the church’s habit of containing worship to a certain style. There is a well known struggle between traditionalists and modernists as to what is the appropriate kind of worship to use in services. I am very vocal about my middle-ground stance. I try to pull both ends of the spectrum to a place where we can appreciate the idea that worship isn’t about us, its about our desire (and responsibility) to glorify God with our talents. That brings me to this week’s Music Monday song.

I’ve used Rend Collective in this series before. They’re a great band who combines excellent music with a great depth of theologically complex and challenging subject matter. One of the lines from their song Simplicity actually serves as the namesake for this entire blog. I’ve written about the song before (not in this series) and it’s humble plea to be overtaken by Christ. It’s a plea from the singer that they would be stripped completely of themselves until the only thing left inhabiting their spirit is Christ.

Lord strip it all away, ’til only You remain

The song encapsulates everything I think worship should be. We need to step back from our pride, strip ourselves bare of ambition and insecurities, and lift up a broken song to the only One worthy of our worship. Our first and foremost love.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Containing Worship

I’m not going to lie to you. Sometimes, it’s really frustrating being a worship leader. I love worshiping God, I love seeing others worship God, and I love music. When all three of those come together in a single moment, it’s absolutely glorious. It gives me goosebumps to feel God’s presence and worship alongside other people. Then there are those moments when the goosebumps fade and I get frustrated. You know the moments I’m talking about. Fast vs. Slow. Soft vs. Loud. Older Hymns vs. Newer Songs. Band vs. Choir. Lighting. Audio. Visual. Effects. Atmosphere. Quality. Acoustic. Electric. Presentation. “Traditional is more reverent.” “Contemporary is more relevant.”

I’ve been around ministry and music long enough that I’ve been involved in more discussions, read more articles, and heard more debates than I can hardly stand anymore. I have the background and have had unique opportunities to be heavily involved in both traditional settings and contemporary settings. Through my experiences, I’ve met a slew of people with a variety of opinions on the subject. The vast majority of them have the best of intentions in their heart. They don’t necessarily believe that one is wrong per se, they just truly believe that one or the other is on a greater spiritual level. They engage in passionate conversations about the depth of which their preferred style reaches beyond the other.

When did worship stop becoming about worshiping? What moment in time did people start having the mindset that “worship” could even be stylized? I think it was around the same time we started treating “worship” as only a noun instead of both a noun and a verb. Worship is supposed to be an expression. It is supposed to be a deep and emotional expression of reverence for something of which the worshiper has great adoration. If we are to believe that is the case (and I very much do believe it), how can we define what style is appropriate for worship? Why would we limit our own ability to worship by placing unnecessary parameters around something that is supposed to be beautiful and intimate?

Now beyond that, and far more importantly, at what moment did we decide worship had anything to do with us in the first place? “The worship just didn’t speak to me.” “The songs just didn’t move me.” “I couldn’t get into the music.” “I didn’t really like the worship leader’s voice.” I’ve heard all of these and have been guilty of saying a few of them. What do they all have in common? The focus is always the worshiper. But the problem is that worship isn’t supposed to be about the worshiper, it’s supposed to be about whatever is being worshiped. When we come together for our church services and the music starts, our thought process shouldn’t be “OMG IT’S THE NEW ONE FROM HILLSONG”. Our thought process should be focused on the one who gives us a reason to worship.

I once had the most incredible privilege of taking a church youth choir I directed into an inner-city church in Chicago. The overwhelming majority of the choir was made up of white, middle to upper-class, suburban high school kids from a United Methodist church in Texas. The independent gospel church we were visiting was in the center of a predominantly black and economically downtrodden neighborhood on the western side of Chicago. From the demographic and regional differences alone, you know that the stereotypical worship styles of the two groups are on vast opposite ends of the spectrum. That night we worshiped together and it was electric. We sang hymns, we sang contemporary songs, we sang gospel songs, there was spoken word, there were scriptures, and there was dancing. There was a cultural and spiritual exchange between these two groups and it transcended stylized worship. Our worship transcended our preferences and became what it should always be, a deep and emotional expression of reverence for God.

On that evening in Chicago, worship was a verb. What might it look like if worship became a verb in our every week worship? What might we be able to accomplish if we get over our preferences and allow worship to take over our hearts. We must stop containing worship as a simple noun, inserting our preferential adjectives and limiting it’s true purpose. Go and express emotional reverence for God. Go and worship.

My Ecumenical Christmas

Yes, I know it’s January 27 and I’m posting about Christmas. I started writing this a while ago and had planned to finish it the week after Christmas. When that didn’t happen, I thought I’d just not write it but I just couldn’t make myself trash it. So here it is, one month and two days after Christmas.

Last year, as Christmas approached, I found myself without Christmas Eve plans for the first time in my life. Growing up, we always had a “big-family” Christmas party with the entire side of my dad’s family. It was always one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. As my siblings, my cousins, and I all got older, got married and had kids (myself not included on the kids), the party started becoming harder and harder to organize until it finally stopped.

It was during the same time (my college years) that I started working for churches as a paid musician so my plans switched from family Christmas parties to singing in Christmas Eve services. I enjoy church so it wasn’t anything I dreaded, actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. After college I started working my first “real” job in ministry at Christ UMC in Plano, TX. CUMC is a large church, large enough to warrant having seven services on Christmas Eve. So for the last three years, I spent my afternoon and late evening performing various tasks and participating in the services. I would also always take out a little time to attend a Christmas Eve party with some dear friends, a party that became very special to me.

This year however, I found myself with no plans. No Christmas Eve parties, no responsibilities to fulfill at the churches for which I now work, nothing at all. At first I didn’t know what to do. Then one day the week before Christmas, as I was looking at some old photos, I came across some pictures from a church performance during my old youth choir’s tour to Chicago. We sang at a predominantly African American inner-city church on the west side of Chicago and the atmosphere was electric. I remember thinking how awesome it was to watch two groups of people with very different socio-economic, political, and theological backgrounds come together to worship. That’s when I decided to have my ecumenical Christmas.

I decided to visit 4 churches around Birmingham representing a wide range of the theological and political spectrum. The night of Christmas Eve, I set out with my step-sister to visit Mountaintop Community Church (Non-denominational), Bluff Park United Methodist Church, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, and Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal). My goal was to experience various styles of worship…to gain an understanding of how different people choose to celebrate Christ’s birth. I thought it would be a nice evening filled with pleasantries associated with my favorite holiday. What I got was a renewed spirit.

There was something so sincere about each place I visited. Each church worshipped in different ways…some used guitars, some used organs, some used projection screens, some used hymnals, all had sermons and all had candles. What I found was that even though they chose different styles with which to worship, it all came down to the same thing: thankfulness for a God who chose to take on human flesh, bear our sins, and save each of us.

So much of the church’s energy is spent arguing things like who God loves or doesn’t love, how to get to heaven, how to avoid hell, what is a sin and what is morally appropriate, do we choose God or does He choose us, is it wrong that I used “He” to refer to God…the list goes on and on. But this one night I visited 4 very different churches and left each one feeling a renewed spirit about how the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator of all things and time itself took on human flesh for each person I worshipped with that evening. He took on human flesh for each person worshipping around the world that evening. And He took on human flesh for each person NOT worshipping around the world that evening.

I know that it’s January 27 and that this post has been mostly about Christmas but as I think ahead to the rest of this year, I find myself wanting to keep those feelings alive. As I prepare for Lent and Easter Sunday, I find myself thinking about the initial choice God made to come to Earth in human form. Christ knew His destiny was to end up on the cross. He knew his destiny was to take on all the suffering of this world in the most painful act of love ever displayed. Yet he made the choice to come anyway.

I think about all the different people I worshipped with that evening. I saw a wide variety of social, economic, professional, political, and theological backgrounds. I saw males, females, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, and ethnicities I would not have been able to identify without asking. I saw many different people coming together to glorify God for the greatest gift ever given and it gave me hope.

It gave me hope that the church universal would return to love. It gave me hope that the church universal would preach a gospel that is never contained by any parameters of a person’s identity. It gave me hope that the best is yet to come. It gave me hope that the church would, in the same way that the candles illuminated each building that Christmas Eve, do it’s job of shining the light and life of Christ to a dark and dying world.

 

“Christmas means you don’t have to be afraid of the dark ever again.” -Pastor Doug Ferguson (Mountaintop Community Church)

“The people most attracted to Jesus were those who could recognize their own inabilities best.” -Rev. Andrew Pearson (Cathedral Church of the Advent)

“We live in a world where everything is a problem needing to be solved when the real solution was laid in a manger 2000 years ago.” -Pastor Gary Furr (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church)

“Christmas is a time to trade in our pessimism and receive the life changing gift of joy everlasting.” -Rev. Mike Holly (Bluff Park United Methodist Church)