When you boil your goals and values and priorities down to the very core, and you strip away all the non-essentials, can you identify your ONE THING? Cut through the clutter and see what it is that you’re really living for.
>> Please follow along in Luke10:38-42. You can read it online here.
This July, 1,800+ souls gathered together for a week of worship and Bible study and relational bonding at the YMCA of the Rockies camp up in the mountains of Estes Park, CO. This was FLY 2013, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations Youth Convention, held every two years. My wife Amy and I were grateful to be asked to speak this year on July 4, for the Thursday evening services. As I spoke to the men and boys in the Longhouse, Amy had an opportunity to speak to the girls in the Assembly Hall just up the hill. The theme of the convention was “Broken,” taken from Isaiah 53. The text we focused on for the evening was Isaiah 53:10-12.
Is this it? People struggle to find their groove with Jesus, I think. I mean, everyone has to decide what to do with the man who claimed to be the Son of God, and the Savior of the world, and the ONLY WAY to find peace with God. Everyone decides. Many ignore Him. Some fight Him. Church people analyze and study Him, and many people, both inside and outside the church, try to follow His loving example – the WAY of the Lord, without the “Lord” part. Do you agree with the majority of people in America that what really matters when it comes to Jesus isn’t Jesus Himself, so much, but the example he set and the lifestyle of grace and selfless service that he calls us to?
>> I encourage you to read the short account first in Luke 7:36-50. You can read it online here.
Pastor Monseth has been the dean of our AFLC Seminary for 42 years. He was my Systematic Theology professor and my good friend. He was also the father of some of the best friends I have ever had. When you love much, you grieve hard, and so his absence is felt deeply by our families and by our whole church Association. Fran Monseth died on Good Friday. Late at night, following an emotionally tangled Easter, my brother-in-law, Adam, sent the following tweet:
There it is. GOSPEL! HOPE! The exact minute we concede our loved ones are gone, the power of hope floods in.
For those of us who loved Fran so deeply, we grieve his passing with many tears. I hate it. He was like a second (or third) dad to me, he loved my wife and kiddos like family. And he let us know. His absence will be felt for the rest of our lives. My grief spills down my face, and it has for a week, and it shows no signs of stopping. But then, in every conversation, and in every story… Jesus. The Gospel. HOPE.
I’m straining at the keyboard to shout it to you. Whether you go to church or not. I feel this one to my toes. Jesus makes all the difference. On one side stands anger/confusion/hopelessness/defeat/despair/eventual cynicism and apathy. On the other stands HOPE. With hope comes forgiveness, freedom, purpose, and much joy. God is in the business of proclaiming HOPE in the darkest of places, in the darkest of moments, to the darkest of hearts. I want to be a part of His great story. Like Fran.
Those who ever had a chance to meet Pastor Monseth – or had the great privilege of knowing him well – will speak with conviction that he reflected the character of his greatest love. I’ve heard people say that we become like what we love most. It is natural to worship what we love most. It is natural for a student to become like their teacher. For boys to grow up to be like the dads they love. In this regard Fran reflected the love and character and values of his father, Pastor Fritjof Monseth. Even more, we saw JESUS in him.
I’m struggling to shake off the “churchy” language here – I don’t want my words to blend into the evangelical beige. To say we saw JESUS in Fran has some TEETH. It means real-world lives were changed, because Fran lived DIFFERENTLY than most people – even churchy people. Fran’s faith was bold. He was resolute. He loved God fiercely, and his family joyfully, and his friends deeply. He was full of the truth. He had huge swaths of God’s Word memorized, and his conversations were saturated with scripture. When I had the pressures of life weighing me down, I would talk to Fran, and he cared about it. He cared about our stuff like it was HIS stuff. He would pray with me, asking God to bless and protect and provide for us, with every understanding that his prayers would be answered, because His God is my God. And our God is trustworthy. Without Jesus, I would carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. With Jesus, I can rest. Fran reminded me of that a hundred times.
I was talking to one of the maintenance men on the Seminary campus where I live (and where Fran worked everyday as Professor of Systematic Theology and Seminary Dean), and we noted the consistency with which Fran loved people. I mean ALL people. Recognize the rarity in this. We don’t live like this, even if we believe we should… Or maybe I should just speak for me. I don’t love people the same – with Jesus’ kind of love – regardless of their stature or intellect or smell. I know I shouldn’t, but I tend to categorize people. Lord forgive me.
Fran looked everybody in the eye. His countenance and his words communicated “You matter to me and you matter to God.” This was true for the academicians he could call peers, and it was true for the everyday Joes, and even for the Seminary students who sometimes thought we knew better. Notably, it was just as true for the awkward and the offensive and the marginal people. Fran supernaturally loved people. He was like Jesus.
Do you get this? How remarkable and important this is? Pastor Monseth breathed out Jesus to everybody he had contact with. He affirmed the learned and the weirdos. I want to be that kind of man.
But then he died. He just died. It was a Friday morning. And then by lunch time, no heartbeat.
This is a spark that grows. This is the unique thing that Jesus-lovers experience that the rest of the world doesn’t believe truly exists. This is HOPE: God’s PROVEN power on full display in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is the future of those who believe. Like Fran. Jesus promised us in Romans 6 that our sins were put to death with Him on the cross, and in His resurrection WE who believe are (and will be) resurrected to new life in Him.
As Fran’s death approached he was preparing us – those who love him much – in the HOPE that we would need in days like today, the day of his funeral.
On the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, the Monseth family gathered at the family farm in Rogers, MN, to celebrate Easter together. Grandpa Monseth spoke that afternoon to the family about the hope of resurrection. He talked about the death of his dad, Fritjof, and how he grieved it. “But,” he said, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” Quoting 1 Thessalonians 4:13, he prepared his family. “When I go to heaven on Friday, I know you will be sad. But the sovereign God loves us. Remember the HOPE we have in Jesus. We’ll spend FOREVER together with Him. You’ll see.” Jesus makes all the difference.
He was preparing us, too, his students at AFLTS. In his last lecture of his 42 year career teaching at our Seminary, Dr. Monseth spoke to us about death and the nature of our transition to heaven as disciples of Jesus. In a profoundly fitting turn, Pastor Monseth ended class on Wednesday, March 27, with Job 19:25-27, which is likely the oldest statement in the Bible about the hope of the resurrection.
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
This matters! HOPE! No other religion offers HOPE like the assurance of freedom and life that Jesus gives us. His promises are so clear. I agree with the Apostle Paul, who wrote about this hope in Romans 1:16.
“I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe…”
ALL who believe. Jesus made all the difference to Fran. This confidence in the Gospel fueled his passion to share it. With everyone. With Doctors and weirdos. Because the smartest and the slowest, the kindest and the cruelest, the polished and the ragamuffins ALL fall short of God’s perfect standard. Every soul needs Jesus. Fran lived the Gospel message – the unshakable HOPE that is stronger than death: JESUS died and rose again to forgive everyone. Salvation and freedom and purpose and meaning and HOPE are universally available to EVERYONE who believes.
So today we gather in the chapel on the beloved campus where Dr. Monseth poured out his Jesus to thousands of students. Not just religious ideology. He gave us Jesus. Through the Spirit and the Word, Pastor Monseth helped usher in the Kingdom of God among us. And I know we will never be able to accommodate all the traffic. And I know the spaces of this campus will be filled to overflowing. But I know this is right, to be right here together to mourn as a family. And I think of the last time we gathered with Pastor Monseth as a family in this chapel, not too many days ago.
We gathered here for Ben and Dre’s new daughter – Fran’s latest grandchild. It was her baptism day. I had the great privilege of holding this new 8 pound life, and welcoming her into the family of God with the water and the Word. Everybody huddled around, and the kids had the best seats, right up in front. Blessings were read over her. And Grandpa Fran’s rich voice, full of love and conviction, rang out his blessing, calling upon Jesus to keep her and strengthen her and use her life for His glory. And in this little girl I see his legacy. Like I do in the family picture above.
Only when I look at these pictures, I see thousands of other souls leaning into the frame. Lives changed forever because Fran lived with the courage and conviction to tell them how they mattered to God, and how their sick souls and selfish hearts needed Jesus. And more than that… how Jesus was available to them. Today. Right now. How many souls will be with Fran in heaven because he loved the somebodies and the nobodies with equal compassion? I imagine a stadium full. Only they’re not cheering for Fran. They’re shouting their praise to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – Fran’s first love. The One he sees today face to face.
I think again of this little girl that Fran loved so dearly. I see her daddy hold her close with such joy and protective, crazy love. And I understand again the metaphor that God has given us. “I love you like that. I hold you close like that. I am your father, and you are my adopted sons and daughters whom I chose to be my own. When you love much, you will grieve hard, and so I will comfort you today.”
Jesus makes all the difference. Without Him we wail into the wind. But Fran knew Jesus. Peace. Purpose. Forgiveness. Freedom. Wholeness. Resurrection. LIFE.
I marvel at the grace of God. I think of Fran’s new granddaughter, and I see how His hand of blessing was surely upon Ben and Dre as they continued his family line. I imagine her growing in her faith, with the tender heart for Jesus that we see in her dad, and the beautiful boldness of her momma, furthering the exponential reach of her Grandpa’s Gospel legacy.
And I think what a wonder it is that in this season of deep grief, in the midst of deep faith, they named her HOPE.
Last night I watched “Blue Like Jazz” for the first time. It would be accurate to say I am a fan of Donald Miller, although I have to qualify that statement. I appreciate the ART of Donald Miller because it is honest and insightful. I do not look to Donald Miller for theological profundity. Likewise I found “Blue Like Jazz” the movie to be beautiful in some ways, because it was honest and insightful, but not because it was theologically profound.
So people are asking me what I thought. I’m conflicted.
Here’s what I like…
“Blue Like Jazz” tells the truth. “Christian” art (a label I am rapidly liking less and less) doesn’t always do that. In fact, much art slapped with a “Christian Art” label tries to paint a picture (in some case, I mean this quite literally) representing a sanitized world, safe for church people to enter without feeling too threatened or having their feathers ruffled out of alignment. Thomas Kinkade is perhaps the poster-boy for this kind of art, which looks one the one hand to be deemed “safe” for Christian consumption, but on the other hand, is actually very dangerous in its “sanitization” of our condition. In a brilliant critique of Kinkade’s work (read the whole article here), Daniel A. Siedell writes:
“The Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden is get our lives in order. Kinkade’s much ballyhooed ‘light’ merely adds atmosphere and glow, a pleasant touch to an already charming scene. And because it makes us so comfortable, it is a very dark light indeed.
Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home.”
This is a problem. Art has power to disrupt and challenge, but the Christian marketplace comes with its own set of rules designed to protect us from offense. Therefore, “Christian” art is almost never provocative to the degree that it might lead to actual life-change. It sooner leads us to be comfortable, while reaffirming our faith. And we need encouragement, us church people.
But don’t we also need to be disturbed and broken-hearted? God is in the business of redemption through the ongoing process of death and resurrection. The death part… it doesn’t look like a Kinkade painting.
Neither does “Blue Like Jazz” the movie.
In fact, “Blue Like Jazz” shows us the yucky side of churchiness without the transformative power of a life rooted and abiding in Jesus Christ. It shows the carnality and brokenness and narcissism of young adult lives given over to the pursuit of pleasure and identity and meaning when God has been rejected wholesale. The movie is dark and sad and tragic if you consider the eternal ramifications of the sea of lives surrounding young Don Miller. If you are planning to see this and expect it to have the feel-good (albeit disquietingly “safe”) vibe of “Facing the Giants” or “Soul-Surfer,” you might find “Blue Like Jazz” disturbing. Reed College is full of substance abuse and profanity and emptiness and sex. Lots of it. “Blue Like Jazz” isn’t unnecessarily graphic, but neither does it pull many punches.
I’m sick of Kincade. In this, “Blue Like Jazz” was a refreshing change. It shows brokenness. It made me hurt for the broken people, and hunger to be bolder as an image-bearer for Jesus. Broken people need Jesus. I have Jesus.
“Blue Like Jazz” wasn’t written for the “Church” market, so if you are looking for a movie that is, consider yourself warned. Instead, Taylor and Miller seem to be telling a story for spiritually curious people who want to know if God is real when the world is such a mess and the churches in many neighborhoods look more like social clubs for hypocrites than beacons of light and hope.
Here’s what I didn’t like…
“Blue Like Jazz” embraces a metaphor, woven throughout the narrative. “My dad says jazz is like life, because it doesn’t resolve…” Like much of Donald Miller’s theo-philosophical ponderings, neither does “Blue Like Jazz.” And I understand that we are works in process, and that art is often more effective when it leaves some questions unanswered. This leaves room for the consumer to wonder, and think, and search. But it is unsatisfying in a movie that asks out loud, “Where do we find meaning and purpose in life?”
There ARE clear answers to many of the questions Miller and Taylor are asking, but it is cooler to leave them unanswered. It is cooler to leave us to ponder on our own.
** MINOR SPOILER ALERT **
Sure, by the end of the film the young, restless Don Miller comes to some kind of ambiguous belief that God is probably real, and this Jesus stuff… he buys it. But there is little power in his transformation, because it is very hard to see what this transformation actually looks like. Except, of course, for a compulsion not only to ask forgiveness for his own hypocrisy and lack of courage, but also for the many failings of the Church, writ large. That may be cool, and more palatable to the jaded (or wounded) spiritually-curious viewers. But my heart aches for them to hear a better story.
A better story starts with an all-powerful and very present God Almighty, who is not only Sovereign and perfectly Holy, but full of mind-bending LOVE that obliterates our best attempts to understand it. That perfectly pure One created every soul who ever lived to be in a mutually joy-giving relationship with Him. But we, the creatures, spat in His face because we thought we knew better what would satisfy. We died that day. And every day since, man clamors to find identity and meaning and lasting pleasure, but none of it really satisfies us. Reed College exhausts us, and we feel the shame of it.
A better story would speak the truth of the Bible, that JESUS CHRIST came to save SINNERS, even the very worst. That He offers HOPE and JOY that really is lasting and satisfies our longing for identity, meaning, and pleasure free from guilt. This is THE true story the world needs to hear.
I don’t mean to saddle “Blue Like Jazz” the movie with the calling of the Church. God did not call Steve Taylor and Donald Miller to use this movie to make disciples. He calls me to do that, and you, too, if you love Jesus. But I sense a missed opportunity here. That’s all I’m saying.
“Blue Like Jazz” is smartly written, well acted, and cleverly rendered. It works. I see the need for movies and more art in general to explore faith while looking honestly at brokenness, although I remember the words of Paul to focus our minds and hearts on “whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) In order to focus on what is true – on the life-transforming power of the GOSPEL – allow “Blue Like Jazz” to do the work it is intended to do. Let it disturb you and stir compassion in you for the brokenness we live in.
Then get in the Word, read the Gospel, and do something.
If anyone can be considered a Superchristian, it’s the apostle Peter, right? He was a man of action. He was a hero. And we need heroes, don’t we? But we are risking a lot when we expect our heroes to be more than men. We are risking a lot more when we set ourselves up as a Superchristian to be looked up to by… the regular Christians out there.
Even Peter was an embarrassment.
A man of action. A hero. An embarrassment. And then… REDEEMED. The world needs a hero. Are you that hero? I hope you know better…
Should the culture around our church influence the culture inside our church? And if so, how much is too much?
The late, great Robert E. Webber, in his book Ancient-Future Worship, says the following:
Anyone who travels and visits churches will see that “program,” “theme,” and “creative” are the most dominant words of worship planning that force leaders toward designing culturally driven worship. My concern is that culturally driven worship will nurture a culturally formed spiritual life.
Whoa doggie. That right there is loaded. I agree with Robert Webber.And I don’t. Let me es’splain…
Culturally driven worship? What does that mean?
This reminds me of the false dichotomy that has often been leveled against “seeker sensitive” churches that are simply trying to remove unnecessary “churchy” barriers for people who don’t usually attend church. Calling those churches “seeker-driven” ministries insinuates that thinking about how an outsider might feel coming into church equates to making the comfort and retention of the non-church-goer the HIGHEST priority. Perhaps Dr. Webber intended to word this as strongly as he did, but I think describing the approach of most contemporary evangelical churches as “culturally sensitive” worship may be closer to the mark.
While I wouldn’t ever condone a ministry model that put people-pleasing above Biblical truth, I think the criticism of “seeker-sensitivity” often is unfair and counterproductive. In its truest sense, I believe EVERY SINGE CHURCH should be “seeker-sensitive,” or in Webberian terminology, “culturally sensitive,” to the degree that we make our churches a place that welcomes sinners to hear the whole truth of God’s Word. (1) God loves us and He created us to enjoy relationship with Him. (2) Our sin has broken that relationship and we deserve eternal punishment and separation from Him. (3) Jesus died on the cross to pay our penalty so that we could enjoy that redeemed relationship with God He created us for in the first place. And (4) He’s coming again in victory to judge all of mankind and establish a new heaven and a new earth. All to His glory.
I want people – anybody – who is willing to walk through the doors of our church to hear that message. I don’t want unnecessary churchiness to shot block the Gospel. I’ll encourage every church I serve to be unashamedly “culturally sensitive…” But that isn’t what Webber is warning us of. He’s warning of a worship ministry model that is “culturally driven.”
Dr. Webber says that a focus on program (service planning), theme (communication strategy) and creativity (artistic storytelling and response) will inevitably lead to “culturally driven worship.” And that in turn, our worship services/experiences will inevitably lead to a “culturally driven spiritual life.”
Robert Webber is wise. There is great danger in letting the culture drive worship service planning (i.e. “programming”) to the degree that we out-plan the Holy Spirit or creatively mask the simple and pure teaching of the Word of God with creative storytelling and culturally relevant analogies.
To that degree, I agree with Dr. Webber. It is possible for contemporary churches to reflect our culture to the degree that there is hardly any difference between a “church event” and any given Thursday night at Buffalo Wild Wings. Maybe less swearing…
If the contemporary church leans into contemporary communication models and reflects cultural trends totheneglect of clear preaching of the Word of God and the traditional pillars of the local church (prayer, confession of sin, confession of faith, reverence, etc.), people’s spiritual lives WILL be shaped in the image of the culture, where religion is personal and relative, compartmentalized, comfortable.
Not with a fox… One example: Some contemporary ministries seem to have been called to reach out to the “hot young and trendy” mission field. Sunday morning and evening worship events are led by Ambercrombie and Fitch. And I understand that the 20-something hottiesneed to hear the Gospel, too, so we ought to present a foxy female vocalist and guitar playing Zac Efron with skinny jeans to reach them. Makes sense. But what if someone came in to our church dirty, broken and smelling bad? How quick would we be – any of us – to befriend them and warmly welcome them to come again… or to come over for dinner? Culture is about image. The Church is about love.
Not wearing sox… I remember the day one of my great friends and fellow worship team members came to the evening service at our national youth convention to play guitar wearing a t-shirt sporting the old-timey image of a service attendant holding a fuel spout with a smile and a dialogue bubble proudly displaying the words, “I’ve got gas!” While his choice of apparel certainly reflected the Junior High culture we were steeped in that week, it was perhaps not the best choice to promote the deep reverence we hoped to model as we led the students into the throne room of the King of Angels. My point has little to do with fashion. It’s about reverence. Depending on your culture, worship leading in shorts, flip-flops and print T’s may fit like a glove. But remember that what we do is a high and holy calling. We usher the local body of Christ into His presence, to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and to interact with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Word. Too many casual references to pop culture, edgy jokes, coarse language (and yes, some ministries use off-color language to reflect their “authenticity” and “cultural relevance”), movie clips, or fill-in-the-blank can keep people comfortably “stuck” in the cultural paradigm they walked out of when they entered our church. Culture is about looking like we fit in. Church is about becoming set apart.
Not in a box… Some churches are admittedly “variety junkies” when it comes to worship programming. As they run with a theme each week, they pour their best creative juice into the planning bucket and mix it up until something attention-grabbing, something arresting, something MEMORABLE rises to the top. I’ll admit… I love it. In my perfect ministry world, I would forever work with a team of creative programmers who would craft memorable, God-honoring worship-inspiring moments that teach God’s truth and allow room for the church to respond. This leaves a congregation with a “what will church be like THIS week?” intrigue, and if it is handled well – and led by the Spirit – this can help keep people from “rote religious hoop jumping.”
The down-side, or danger, of a free-flowing “out of the box” worship planning paradigm is that congregations lose the many benefits of liturgy and the life-grounding repetition of the truth communicated through the corporate worship structure. Important traditional elements of the service, such as corporate confession of faith or time for personal confession, can get lost in the creative flow. Variety for entertainment’s sake has limited value. We mustn’t sacrifice age-old core functions of God’s church in our thirst to do something new. Culture is all about variety for the sake of entertainment. When the Church embraces variety, it must be for the sake of more potent communication (or celebration) of God’s truth.
So should I worry that so many churches want to program their services creatively around a theme… or not?
Again, I agree with Robert Webber… and I don’t. Look at his quote again. In his estimation, the words “programming,” “theme,” and “creative” were the most dominant words in worship planning for many churches. In a ministry where that is truly the case, I may agree with him. There is danger in that ministry stepping past cultural sensitivity into culture-driven worship models… and that does run the grave danger of promoting spiritual life shaped more by cultural norms than by the transforming power of the counter-cultural Word of God.
Perhaps the most dominant words shaping our local church worship experiences ought to be JESUS, love, sin, forgiveness, brokenness, healing, wrath, grace, truth, and surrender. It is the SUBSTANCE of our worship that must be dominant, not the METHOD. It is the essence, not the form.
However, this is a babies and bathwater situation. I plead with the Church to THINK as they program services. To communicate truth with a thought-through focus that will resonate after the benediction. To unleash their deepest and most beautiful creative efforts to speak the truth and celebrate the story of God.
Let’s look at the culture, but not look like it. Let’s invite the culture in and redeem it. Let’s creatively program services around a theme in a culturally sensitive paradigm that is driven not by cultural trends, but by the call of Jesus to go and make disciples… led by the Word and the Spirit.
Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers. That close to home.
The truth is… church music is terrible. And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring. But often… it’s kinda… bad. Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music. It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior. These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church. Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.
But great music might help.
As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all. I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field. Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art. Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful. I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.” I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team. I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.
And yet my ears are tired.
I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community. He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches. I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.
It was interesting. And kind of sad. I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again. I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song. I still wonder that today. And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.
Are God’s ears tired?
This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se. I just hunger for something fresh in church music that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time. And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either. Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me. Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy. It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?
I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3
“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”
I see three important elements here. Freshness. Skill. And Fervor.
Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship? If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…” You’d be almost right.
Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command. God wrote it. He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”
He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”
But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King. God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked. He wants us to play skillfully. When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about. Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.” In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One. Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.
And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord. YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God. But we are also exhorted to shout. LOUDLY. Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well. But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in? How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith? God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him. As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.
Freshness. Skill. Fervor.
The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.
I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful. I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting. And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations. Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”
Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor. Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands. Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare. And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Can you relate?
If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.
But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude. Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.
It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.
The trump card. The non-negotiable. The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus. And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.
I’ll end this with a story.
One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church. He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key. Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.
Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock. How would he feel in front of 300 more? Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus. One hurdle at a time, I told him. Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front. We prayed together. And Stan sang.
With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling. “I come to the garden alone…”
My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar. It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember. Stan sang an old song badly. But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.
Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish. More than art.
So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations. I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.
But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus. Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing. Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.
So you’ve been way up there on the mountaintop with God, right? So close. Your life has changed and it’s going to be different from this point on. From this mountaintop experience forward. You promise.
Can you relate?
This week over 1,800 people have been gathered in Estes Park, CO, for the 2011 Association Free Lutheran FLY (Free Lutheran Youth) Conference to worship, hear the Word of God preached and taught, and to grow in their faith. Friday night FLY wraps up, and 1,800 souls will descend from a literal mountaintop experience with God.
Buckle up. You’re about to re-enter life with the low altitude dwellers again. Life among the normal people. With all the same stresses and disappointments and temptations that seemed to be at a safe distance when you were up there – so close to Him. And you may be worried that the glory is going to fade.
Moses had a mountain top experience with God, too. Exodus 34. He would go up on the mountaintop (Mt. Sinai… not Eagle Cliff) and talk to God face to face, like talking to a friend, and when he came back down from his time being so close to God, his face would literally GLOW. Totally freaked people out. But everyone knew He had been with God, and it changed him. Moses was LITERALLY letting his light shine. Hide it under a bushel no. He was gonna let it shine.
How about you? Up there on the mountain with God. Are you gonna let it shine? Is your newly bolstered faith going to freak people out? I hope so. God’s love for us is so undeserved and so mind-blowing when we understand God’s wrath and our position as an enemy of the Holy One… and in that hostile state, Jesus suffered the humiliation and pain of the cross until he was dead. God died. As a substitution and atonement for OUR sin. Why do we walk around among the low-altitude dwellers as if that truth is just another facet of our complex personality? Shouldn’t it be THE DEFINING TRUTH that animates everything else about us?
But you… sure, your face is all shiny now with the nearness of God, but you know that normal is just around the corner. Listen, even Moses could relate. Look at 2 Corinthians 3:13…
“Moses… would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.”
In other words, his shiny face would eventually begin to dim at lower altitude. The evidence of the nearness of God would fade, and Moses didn’t want people to see it. He didn’t want them to see His return to “normal.” He wanted the glory. He wanted the nearness. He wanted to shine.
And you’re up there with God, hearing Him talk to your heart, singing to Him with newfound abandon. And you don’t want the return to normal. You fear the descent. You want to shine.
LISTEN UP, YOU ON THE MOUNTAIN WITH GOD! You don’t have to fear the descent. Jesus came and established a new normal. You can shine with a peculiar supernatural confidence that doesn’t come from you at all, but from the King of heaven Himself. There is a new covenant in Christ. We are image-bearers, and now LIGHT-bearers for Jesus. Powered by the indwelling Spirit.
And this isn’t just for the FLY attenders. I remember years ago sitting across the table from a friend at Applebee’s, trying to talk him out of filing divorce papers. “I used to be so close to God,” he said. He talked with his hands. “Now I’m way back down here, and I used to be way up here. I just feel like it would take me so long to get back up there again.”
Can you relate?
Here’s the truth that we have such a hard time believing… There is no mountain to climb. Jesus died. It is finished. The verse in 2 Corinthians 3 that I shared about Moses is preceded by this one, verse 12…
“Since we have such a hope we are very bold, NOT LIKE MOSES, who would put a veil over his face…”
With Jesus, everything changed forever. Now we have confidence to enter the presence of God and to stand before Him SPOTLESS, because Jesus is our Redeemer, and now He is our Advocate. He paid our price. We don’t need to offer sacrifice like Moses did. He WAS the Sacrifice. He IS the Sacrifice.
Check out verses 16-18…
“But when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same likeness from one degree of glory to another…”
WHOA! No veil! No shame! From one degree of glory to another… you just keep getting shinier. Don’t fear the descent. You have access to God RIGHT NOW in Jesus Christ. The veil is torn. He is the Door. He is the Way. Life is in Him, and it accessible to you right now. No mountaintop required.
God bless you when you sense the very real nearness of God. And God bless you when you can’t. Because the truth is, the old normal has been blown away in Jesus. The new normal is shining like the sun.
Why do we worry that God might only fuel people on the mountain top? God isn’t only with you on the high places. Jesus promised us, after all, “And LO, I will be with you always…” (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself there.)
You’re good to go. Since you have such a hope, you are very bold. There is no mountain to climb. Don’t fear the descent. Let it shine.
Needless to say this seemed totally inappropriate. I wasn’t even talking to her.
“I am not! You always do this. Get out of my… No. YOU are the one who… No.”
I just want to get through this grocery line, man. Buy my bananas and loaf of bread and diet tonic water. I just want to get through the day without arguing with a crazy stranger. It’s kind of a goal.
“Stop it! Stop it!”
She’s not looking at me. She’s looking glassy-eyed straight ahead. This is at first a relief. Then it only ratchets up the weirdness. She’s not talking to me… but there’s no one else around… so…
“This conversation is over. I’m hanging up. Goodbye!”
*facepalm* BLUETOOTH. Couldn’t see the tiny receiver tucked into her ear under her hair. I don’t like it, man. The world is full of people talking to themselves, and it’s getting harder to tell who hears little voices in their ear because of technology and who hears voices because they’re a few pickles short of a jar. I’d like to propose that bluetooth earpieces come with a little stick that extends over your head with a small, tasteful bright orange flag flying, so as to alert the world that you are hip, not simply nuts.
So we’ve established that there is “bad” talking to yourself. If you’ve ever been around true (as in, non-bluetooth enabled) talking to yourself, we can agree… it’s unnerving.
But there is another kind of talking to yourself that I am sold-out for, passionate about. It’s the kind of crazy we need MORE of in our churches. Last month I wrote two posts on sermon preparation (here and here). One of my friends left a comment and shared this quote from John Calvin:
“If the preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.”
Amen! I mean, as it applies to me. I wish no ill to befall my fellow pastors trying to serve their congregations with fresh insights from the Word of God week after week. I mean no harm to the Sunday School teachers who wrestle their gaggle of 13 fourth graders to attention each Sunday morning. In no way do I want injury to befall the bazillions of small group leaders who are trying to lead Bible studies week to week with no formal training, wondering if they are qualified to serve but gladly doing it anyway because they love Jesus.
I am you. All of you who handle the Word of God and try to share it’s power and insight with other people. So I’m writing as a fellow crazy person, believing that somehow God can use me and my limited intellect and wavering allegiance to teach His people. It’s crazy, because, who am I to be a leader, a teacher, an example? I’m a broken mess.
And therein lies the mystery and the genius of God’s Church. His Word is alive, and it speaks today. His Spirit is the true teacher. We human preachers and teachers and Bible study leaders… we’re just His servants, serving other servants. Not higher than. Not holier than. Side by side. All sinners in need of grace and all being reformed into Christ’s image for the sake of God’s reputation, not ous.
So as a fellow servant… who happens to teach the Bible some times… I want to let you know something about me.
I talk to myself.
I’m a rookie preacher, you know. A first year of Seminary under my belt in the next couple weeks. So as a preacher, I’m got a lot of learning to do. We all know the difference between a preacher who seems to be “up there,” just doing his own thing, and those preachers who are talking right to you. Like the Bible is piercing through the religious veneer and the “I’m at least as put-together as the guy next to me” front we wear to church, and messing with our heart itself. I only have one life, after all, and it’s already half spent. I don’t want to waste a minute giving random religious self help talks, or even disconnected exegetical Bible lessons that fail to pierce the fog between the pulpit and the pew.
I’m praying the the voice of God and the nearness of His Spirit are unmistakable when I preach. And that’s crazy. I’m nobody. But God uses nobodies all the time.
Maybe it’s because the “have-it-all-together” crowd doesn’t feel that reckless desperation for God to be behind the wheel. I don’t know. But I do know that God has tons of refining work to do in me. And the times, it seems, when my teaching makes the deepest impact or resonates with the greatest connection between my notes and the people facing me are the times when what I am teaching has grown out of a deep realization that God is working this truth out in ME. When His Word has broken through my walls and reached my inner self and shined the light on my dark corners… then I am ready to teach. When God has spoken to me, then I’m ready to speak to my fellow servants.
So if you’re me… a fellow teacher in the Kingdom, trying to rightly handle the Word of God and realizing how daunting that responsibility is, rember this:
It IS as crazy as you think it is that God would speak the truth of His Word through cracked pots like you and me. Lunatic fringe crazy. But that’s part of the genius of His plan. He knows that we’re a mess, and that leaves lots of room to teach us about His character and power and grace.
Don’t spend this one life you have making religious speeches. Get into the Word where God can break our heart and make it soar. Be moved and changed… and THEN teach. Not before. The church needs more preachers and teachers and Bible Study leaders who think it’s crazy that God would use them. That crazy keeps us desperate. And His power is made perfect in weakness, not in self-reliance. That’s why when I get get up in that pool of light in front of my friends and fellow servants, notes in one hand and Bible in the other, I pray and pray and I remember that I’m not up here simply to talk the talk in their direction…