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When I think of parsing the world into categories, I remember the words of Bob Wiley: “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Here I nod my head in affirmation.  Hard to be on the fence about Neil Diamond.

But there is a deeper division yet to be found among us – a starkly contrasted gulf separating one side from the other.  Beyond politics.  Beyond our opinions of Country Western music or our positions on relative morality vs. absolute truth…

A friend of mine wears a P.E.T.A. hat with a camouflage background, and in small print, the words “People Eating Tasty Animals.”  Thus the world is divided.

Meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.

To all of you vegans and tofurky lovers…  You edamame snackers and soy milk chuggers…  All of you sprout eating animal huggers… the culinary gap between you and me is so vast that I will probably need to consider this post cross-cultural missions.  Even so, welcome.

To all of you bacon eating, brat grilling, pulled pork dipping, BBQ savoring, turkey roasting, elk hunting, jerkey gnawing, steak chewing meat eaters out there… welcome.  We view the world through a similar lens, you and me.  A lens through which Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is like a Mecca to which an annual pilgrimage seems the least we can do.  We are kindred spirits.

My goal in this post is to be a peacemaker.  To build bridges of understanding and unity between the “Good Earth” crowd and the “Famous Dave’s” Afficianodos.  Like Jews and Gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, Red Vines chewers and the Twizzlers-Only crowd, I believe there is common ground to be found in Romans 14.

Often in ministry life, leaders run into situations where there is tension between divided camps.  And often these tensions arise over issues of Christian freedom.  This is nothing new.  Paul experienced this from the very start of the church.

Romans 14 lays it out.  Here we see two camps, clearly divided.  The meat-eaters and the non-meat-eaters.  But this divide wasn’t so much a lifestyle choice or a philosophical hang-up about the ethical treatment of animals.  This divide was about religious freedom.

The pagan Roman culture surrounding the congregation in Rome was marked by excesses.  Food and wine were habitual indulgences in the worship of Greek gods, and there were those in the church who thought Christ-followers should safeguard themselves from such sensual self-indulgence and maintain a more marked distinction from the culture around them.  These were the non-meat-eaters and teetotalers.  Paul refers to them as “the weaker brothers,” but not as a condemnation or repudiation. Rather, it was a statement of clarification – that some within the church felt it was dangerous to reflect the culture in any way, and therefore choose to self-sensor their culinary palate.

P.E.T.A. + religious conviction.

There were others, of course, who stood by the grill, aprons donned, ready for the next church BBQ.  They claimed the freedom of 1 Timothy 4:4 (which hadn’t been written yet, but the principle was established…)

“Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”

And this is why I say “Thank you, Lord, for this tasty meat every time I sit down to partake in some succulent grilled beast.

But I’m off point.  The basic gist of the situation here was this:  There were some in the church in Rome who felt it was perfectly acceptable to eat meat and drink wine (not to excess, of course), and there were others who did not feel that church people should eat meat and drink wine.  Paul calls the meat-eaters more free, and the non-meat-eaters less free. And then he speaks to both camps…

Now, I don’t know about you, but it has been a long long time since I remember a bruhaha erupting over the lack of tofurky at our church BBQs.  So vegans and grillmasters alike, we can breathe a sigh of relief here, to this degree… I’m not making a case for the ingestion of meat or for the merits of upping your salad intake.  Since the meat we carnivores pick up from the butcher in Cub Foods hasn’t been sacrificed to idols – as far as we know – this post and Paul’s metaphor will be equally valid to the carnivores and herbivores alike!

Common ground!  A small victory.

So if “to meat or not to meat” isn’t the question, what’s the point of Paul’s story here?  What’s it got to do with church now?  Here? Today?

I’ll give you a real life example.  I’m a Lutheran drummer.  (There are only five or six of us, but we are mighty. Parum-pa-pum-pum.)  When I took my first ministry job as a worship leader, I served a church with multiple service styles, and a diverse congregation. Equal parts wee children and white hair.  This was the early nineties, and our conservative Association of congregations was not particularly quick to embrace contemporary worship styles.  There was a concern that the popular sound and instrumentation would become more a reflection of the popular culture than a tool in the hands of the Spirit.  There was a strong feeling among some that drums should have no place in church.  These were the non-meat eaters.  The weaker brothers – not in the validity of their faith, mind you.  This is no accusation and no condemnation.  Simply put, they did not feel the freedom to incorporate “rock and roll music” into a worship setting.

Then there were those in the congregation who were eager to worship in freedom – not just freedom of the heart, but in style as well.  The contemporary sound was to many a “new song,” a fresh expression, new life.  These were the meat eaters.  The stronger brothers.  Not better than, not more spiritual.  Simply comfortable with a higher degree of freedom.

So what does Paul say here?  God wrote this, of course, so it is alive and brilliant and wise… worthy of much study and a long exposition. But for this forum, I’ll pull out six key thoughts in the “meat-eater vs. vegetarian” debates we find ourselves in with the church.

When there is a conflict in the church regarding Christian freedom:

(1)  Don’t judge each other.  Verse 3 of Romans 14 says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats…”  There is room for God-honoring differences of opinion in the Church.  Respect each other, keep the Gospel central, and allow for some of those differences in your church family.  We sharpen each other.

(2)  It’s OK to have conviction.  Paul reminds us in verse 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”  When we are dealing with the things of God, fence sitting is a cop out, and it dishonors the Lord.  Search the scriptures. Pray.  Make a decision that you belive is God honoring. And then hold to it HUMBLY.  Christian unity does not mean a lack of disagreement or differences in our convictions.

(3)  It’s not about you, it’s about US.  We die to self.  We live to serve.  Strong convictions do not override our call to love one another. Verse 7 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.”  For me, a carnivorous drummer in a church with a lot of white-haired saints, that meant truly caring for those friends of mine who felt the drums were abrasive – and sometimes painful in their hearing aids.  That meant limiting my volume, and bringing percussion and contemporary praise only with great sensitivity into the traditional service.

(4)  Love trumps our preferences.  If at any point our preferences or personal convictions cause spiritual distress or turmoil in the congregation… to the degree that spiritual harm is being done, it’s time to put down the steak knife and A1.  Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.”  Meat eaters – those who feel the greater degree of freedom – the responsibility for unity in the Body rests with you.  Are you willing to forgo the fillet mignon wrapped in bacon for a torfurky burger, if only for a season, for the sake of love?

(5)  Words matter.  Spiritualizing our preferences is sin. And so is allowing people in the church family to cast strong moral judgment in areas that are clearly matters of Christian freedom and personal conviction without humble but firm pressback.  Verse 16 says this: “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”  There shall be no vegetarian bashing here!  Nor shall there be any finger pointing at the wiener roasters!  In my early days, when I led worship in a contemporary form, I had absolutely NO PROBLEM with people expressing their opinions about the style, or the volume, of their preference for the great hymns of the faith over what they saw as the repetitive and shallow praise choruses we were using.  I had many great discussions about worship – and about the difference between form and essence.  But I drew the line when people spoke of the drums and contemporary worship forms as “worldly” or “carnal” or even “evil.”  No sir.  What about the loud clashing cymbals God asks us to praise Him with?? There is a stronger Biblical case to be made for playing drums unto God than for the necessity of Euro-centric muscial forms to be accompanied only by an organ or piano (strings and brass are allowed for special occasions or when played by Middle School students).  Convictions are welcome.  But pronouncements of one camp being the “God Team” and the other being “of the devil” are strictly verboten.

(6)  I have no chapter and verse to back this up, but for the love of everything holy, Tofurky is gross.  If I hadn’t just written #5 above I might even say it was of the devil.  I just might.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  (See #2…)

“I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may believe in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  (John 17:21)

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“tofurky eaters and lutheran drummers :: when conviction and freedom collide” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

 

Sure I was a little overweight.  That’s my point.

That being said, AWANA shouldn’t have tried so hard to break me.  I was only 10.  I wasn’t cut out for this.

We did some cool stuff, for sure.  There was the day we broke the world’s record for the longest banana split, laid out in the church fellowship hall like a long snake made out of PVC pipe halves and aluminum foil.  Hundreds of gallons of ice cream.  A truck full of bananas.  Hershey’s syrup in gallon jugs. Whipped cream and cherries.  Good times.

I also remember the relay race where we were given straws, and told to run the full length of the gym to a 2 liter bottle of A&W Root Beer sitting at the other end.  We were supposed to drink it as fast as we could through the straw we had been given, and then sprint back to our sweaty, belching elementary school aged teammates at the other end.  Do you know what happens when you sprint 94 feet, slam a bottle of A&W in 14 seconds of frenzied frothy sucking, and then run BACK across those 94 feet?  Three things are a certainty… (1) You will have root beer in your sinuses.  It has to go somewhere.  This will make you sneeze, which will hose anyone in the vicinity with a sharp spray of carbonated snot.  (2)  You will belch.  Long, sonorous, resonant belches that will echo off the walls of said gymnasium with an echoey fortitude that should garner the respect of any 7th grade boy.  Unfortunately, you will be surrounded by 74 other elementary students of both genders whose own fortuituos uncontrolled belching will drown out the magnificence of your own.  Add to that the sound of all the 3rd and 4th grade girls who are crying because they have root beer in their sinuses, and you have a cacophony through which the most violent of belches has trouble being singled out.  (3) Bloating.  Enough said.

So that was awesome.  High fives all around to the dudes who thought up that relay race.  Good times.

But the bulk of my memories  from my days in AWANA are more sinister in nature.  I still break a cold sweat when I hear a coach’s whistle blow.  Sure, they sold it to us as a “game.”  Sure, it was supposed to be “fun.”  But it was genius in its calculated simplicity.  Profound in its energy-quelling capability.  Rendering us limp and compliant, it became the favorite “warm-up activity” for all of our bible coaches.  Perhaps you, too, have been subjected to its soul-crushing  efficiency?  Many of you former Puggles and Cubbies and Sparks know EXACTLY what I’m talking about…

The Circle. *ominous tones here*

Basically, four students are fitted with flags hanging from a belt around their waist.  They are squared off at a co-equal distance from one another at four points around a large circle on the floor.  There they wait.  Breathing heavily.  Dreading the sharp blast of the coach’s whistle that will signal the start of their Ordeal.  The running of the proverbial gauntlet.

A clock ticks. Somewhere overhead, the distant screech of a bird of prey.  Muscles quiver. A whistle pieces the silence. It has begun.

What follows is basically 12 minutes of sprinting.  The goal is simple… be the last guy with a flag still attached to your belt.  We set off at a dead run, counterclockwise, scrambling and striving to grab the flag of the poor victim in front of us.  Meanwhile, we are being chased from behind from the captain of the track team.  I mean, if there were 3rd and 4th grade track teams… that’s who is behind you.  This is not a game of wolves chasing geese.  Oh no.  This is a game of wolves chasing more wolves. Carnivorous, snarling, hungry wolves.  Wolves scraping and clawing at that little red flag hanging from your belt, like the last vestige of your dignity.  The physical manifestation of your athletic prowess.

I hated the circle.

We played this game for 45 minutes.  Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. All roads leading to fail.

So this is coming to mind now as I start my Seminary year because I’ve been reminded again of a core, absolute, life-changing truth about the Gospel that I will give my life for.

Jesus comes to us.

Let’s make the AWANA Circle of Pain a picture of spiritual well-being.  It’s a giant circle, with all of your friends and family and preachers and teachers and youth group leaders and your brother who is agnostic.  They are all lined up around that circle ready to run – to prove their worth in the spiritual arena.  Except for your agnostic brother, of course.  He’s just siting there in the path – he’ll probably trip up a number of those who try to run by.  But everyone is there.  Breathing hard.  Clock ticking.  Waiting for Jesus to blow His whistle.  Ready to run to protect their flags – the true measure of our spiritual wellness in America.  The flag that shows everyone that we’re just as spiritual as the next guy.  We try just as hard as the guy in front of us.  At least we’re not like that guy behind us, struggling to catch up.  Everyone is getting tired, sure.  We’re exhausted.  But we can’t lose our flag.  We can’t show everyone our weakness.  Got to run a little harder.  Catch the guy ahead.  Try harder.  Strive.  More.

Hear this.  If you don’t know Jesus yet – really know Him – then don’t think this is what the Christian life is all about.  As if we all are measured against the morality norm of the church culture.  As if we have to run the race like we’re trying to beat the saints alongside of us.  As if its all about us doing this thing we have to do.

And if you DO know Jesus, you may need to remember this… it’s time to give up.  Get out of the circle.  The standard is not whether or not you maintain your flag anymore.  You have no flag.  Jesus took your flag with him to the cross.  In this race, you don’t compete against men.  Your standard is perfection.  The goal is unattainable perfect holiness.  You can’t win.  It’s too hard.  It’s actually impossible.

Jesus comes to us.

The measure of our worthiness has nothing – nothing – NOTHING to do with how fast we run the race.  We don’t need to try to catch up to the spiritual superstars running ahead.  We don’t need to fear the jaws snapping from behind.

Jesus brings rest.  Jesus brings life.  Jesus gives you an identity, a hope, a future.  Jesus ran the gauntlet in your place.  By His stripes – not your striving – you are healed.

AWANA leaders, hear me now.  You have my sincere thanks for the Bible lessons.  Thanks for the ice cream.  Thanks, too, for the uncontrollable belching and sinus headache.  But you did not break me.  You and your circle of shame.  A substitute has stepped forward to take my place.  I see him over there walking the circle – talking to everyone by name – collecting their flags.  The scramble is over.  I’m not running anymore, always struggling to maintain position, and never reaching the goal.  It’s over.

Thank God Jesus comes to us.

 
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“AWANA tried to kill me :: carnivorous wolves and the gospel” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

sin

August 11, 2011

August 7, 2011. Living Hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN.  Genesis 3  ::  James 1:13-15  ::  Romans 5:8-11

What is the consequence of minimizing the gravity of sin?  That’s the question we sought to answer with this week’s message at Living Hope.  The truth is, “sin” is sidelined by the culture outside the church, because it presumes a normative moral standard.  Our culture is instead more comfortable with Postmodernity’s individualism and moral relativity.  Even inside the church, we want to make our own rules.  Even in churches where SIN is preached without pulling punches, it sometimes seems to hardly make a difference in the lives of those in the pews.  God forgives, right?  Is grace so commonplace, so cheap, that it has dulled us to the effects of sin?

SHAME.  FEAR.  BLAME.  PAIN.  DEATH.

If we minimize the gravity of sin, we won’t be reliant upon God for the grace of sanctification and transformation, and we will not be holy.

Click on the tab below to stream the audio…

 


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“sin” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

 

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 to the neglect 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.


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“culturally driven worship? :: not with a fox, not wearing sox, not in a box” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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.

Crowder, Tomlin, Hillsong, Passion, Sovereign Grace, Maher, Brown, McMillan, Hughes, Redman, Gateway…

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.

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“church music is terrible :: how to make it better” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

snark·y

adjective / ˈsnärkē /  sharply critical, cutting, or snide

 

Fresh tomatoes have their place.  And that place is not in my mouth.

Mexican restaurants are the worst perpetrators, probably because they are simply awash in fresh tomatoes.  They put fresh tomatoes on and in everything.  Therefore, even when I order my burrito with “NO TOMATOES,” I still routinely find rogue stow-away chunks of tomato pulp hidden among the tender folds of my flour tortilla.  I can’t escape them. So I’m forced to eat my Chipotle burritos with great caution, carefully scanning each bite for refugee tomato chunks that have slipped in among the pinto beans unannounced.  Sure as shootin’ if I eat my burrito with abandon and blind trust… BAM. I’m going to bite into a chunk of unwelcomed tomato pulp and get a case of the jigglies*insert shudder here*

Here it is: my distaste for fresh tomatoes parallels my feelings about snark in the Church.  I have been known to enjoy hurling a sarcastic tweet into the wild now and again.  I admit it.  And I admit it with some degree of regret, because I recognize it as a part of my fallen nature.  More often than not sarcasm cuts deeper than can be justified.  I’m trying to change my ways in this regard.

Now when I’m listening to a brother or sister in leadership, or reading from a fellow Christian blogger or columnist, when I run headlong into a face-full of snark, it puts a bad taste in my mouth.  Like a chunk of fresh tomato. Uninvited.  Unappreciated.  Unwanted.  Ineffective.

Mark Driscoll just got a talking to from his elder board. Mark is a guy with whom I agree on a broad spectrum of theological issues.  I’m in his camp most of the time.  And I love his passion to minister to and engage the 20 and 30 something MEN of the Church.  No doubt, we need strong voices calling men to be leaders and fulfill their biblical calling to be the head of the home they are made to be – and to lead the Church with a mix of Spirit-led confidence and humble grace.

However, Mark does have a cocky side.

The dark side of strong leadership gifts is a propensity toward pride and rash decision-making.  As much as I have loved brother Mark over the years, this was a foolish thing to do.

Earlier this month, Driscoll posted the following question on Facebook:

Yep, he did. Yuck-o.

Now blogger/speaker Rachel Held Evans has publically taken him to the woodshed.  His elders have taken corrective action.  And Mark responded with a non-apology, but an acknowledgement that he lacked judgement and is glad to be under the authority of elders who will reign him in when necessary.

All of this is like a big, gnarly chunk of tomato in the proverbial burrito of my Mark Driscoll relationship.

I have written about this kind of “since I’m right you’re not worthy of respect” attitude in the Church before – check out the related links below this post. It matters to me because it matters to the church.  I don’t bring up the Mark Driscoll junk in order to join any bandwagons, or to make this debate about Mark and his ministry.  Rather, this is an example.  A real time example.  Mark has lost some credibility in my eyes.  His snark has a cost. He may have important things to say to the men of the church.  But this snarky tone is unwise.  Uninvited.  Unappreciated.  Unwanted.  Ineffective.

Because of an overload of pride and snark, Driscoll has lost the opportunity to effectively share the Gospel with thousands of people who will now write him off as an unkind, homophobic chauvanist.  I mean, there are plenty of people who already had come to that conclusion.  Now even more will tune him out, and that’s a net loss for the Kingdom.  When he speaks of the saving power of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf, he is clear, he is potent, he is offering the only hope we have of eternal life.  But now, how many will ignore (or worse, discount with prejudice) whatever he has to say about Jesus Christ… all for a moment of snark?

When you are a Christ-follower, and a leader in the Church, no less, the consequences are eternal.

Snarky = sinfully caloused to the spiritual reality that we are ALL sinners who need the grace of Jesus.  No exceptions.  There is a place for watchdogs in the Church, calling out “Danger! Danger!” when false teachers are threatening to steal from God’s flock.  Wolves among the sheep.  However, I am wary of those who make “watchdog” their identity – if they wear the title with pride – and wield their opinions with more snark than love.  We are to be motivated by awe and love, yes, rather than sarcasm and guilt?  Snark is unkind, and it raises defenses. A kind word turns away wrath, and even those we disagree with are more likely to listen if we engage them with respect.

My world will be that much closer to heaven when I see less snarky barbs being hurled between brothers.  If you intend to hurl tomatoes at other brothers and sisters in the Church, I’ll ask you to consider a less caustic approach to dialogue. And I’ll ask you not to get any of that pulpy mess in my Tex-Mex, thank you very much.

Talk to me…

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“yes, i’d like some sound biblical teaching with a side of discernment and extra intergrity… hold the snark” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

I was mowing the lawn and listening to a message from Rob Bell.  I remember the spot. I was between those two pine trees in our yard where it is hard to twist the mower into the right position without scratching up your elbows on the branches.  I remember it, I think, because sometimes when you hear something significant that grabs your attention and rings your proverbial bell (no pun intended), the moment is preserved like a snapshot.  I had to stand still for a moment.  The implications were deep and far reaching. With the muted hum of the mower fighting for my attention behind the earbuds of my iPod, Rob’s words rang in my head, and my heart began to swell in resonnance…

“The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”

I think… I think this is right.  I really do.  I think not only is is right, it is important.  In fact, I think the evangelical Church has often hurt the cause of sharing the gospel and loving people well because we’re too busy judging those who aren’t even on the team.

Let this idea ring in your mind a bit.  You – your church – are not called to pour out judgment on the unbelieving world.  How does that make you feel? Are you nodding your head in agreement?  Are you concerned – blood pressure rising – because this sounds like cheap-grace pandering to the lowest common moral denominator?  Or option three… you honestly don’t know what to think. Should the church proclaim the high moral values that the Bible makes clear, or do we save the moral judgments for the pulpit on Sunday morning?  Or… is there another way?

Just take note of how you feel. “The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”

If you have a problem with Rob Bell, get in line.  Thousands of blog posts and articles have and will continue to examine Pastor Bell’s theological positions with regard to orthodox Christian beliefs.  This is not one of those posts.  This isn’t about the man.  It’s about the idea.  “The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”

Why does this matter?  Because the world is broken. People are hurting.  Marriages are stressed, and as people who are far from God try to find peace through relationships, chemicals, distractions, and financial sucess, they often realize that in their core… when it’s quiet… something is still unsettled.  God wired us with a conscience and with a need for peace that can only be met by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

So many people are wounded, lost, scared, and faking it. They need God’s love, and they already know they don’t measure up.  They know this isn’t working.

So this becomes a discussion of church methodology, and personal evangelism, and just how we ought to relate to our coworkers and fellow soccer moms and little league dads and neighbors.  I believe that grace and love, in and because of Jesus, has more life-changing power than moralizing and finger-pointing.  If you want to assure that your gay neighbor will never set foot inside the doors of your church, just treat him with contempt.  If you want to be sure that the twenty-something administrastive assistant in the cubicle around the corner from you who just moved in with her boyfriend feels unwelcome to come to your church, be sure to offer your unsolicited opinion about shacking up.

Now before you think I’m a conflict-avoider who is advocating a jello-for-backbone approach to morality and culture, let me be clear:  I’m a huge fan of living out your convictions with clarity and integrity.  I’m not saying we should have no discernable values. On the contrary.  I am saying that I agree with Rob Bell here in that just BECAUSE we have strong moral guidelines – Biblical guidelines – we are not necessarily called to FOIST those moral guidelines on those who are not yet a part of the Kingdom of God through a relationship with Jesus.

Real-life parallel: Isaac, our 10-year-old, made the Texas Rangers this year.  Plymouth, MN, Little League style.  His coach is a man’s man, a leader, and is all about developing disciplined young men of character who also happen to be outstanding ball players.

Games start at 6PM.  Players need to be on the field at 5:10PM.  Players who arrive at 5:12… sit.  This is about Team values.  It’s about being there when you’re told to be there.  It’s about discipline.

As a Seminary student coming into the end of a crazy busy year, I haven’t been able to stay through every 2-hour game this season.  Often I come in half way through the 3rd inning to cheer on the team.  Never once has the coach chewed me out for lacking the proper degree of passion for the game or for having the wrong priorities.  Why? Because I’m not on the Team.  Now, I don’t enjoy the benefits of the Team either.  If I jogged out to second base some game-day afternoon, expecting to cover the infield for the boys, Coach would have some direct words for me, I’m sure.  But neither does he hold me accountable to the Team rules.  When coach yells “Hustle!” between innings as the boys take their positions, he’s talking to the Team, not to me.

Too simple?  I mean when we talk about morality and spiritual guidelines, aren’t there ETERNAL consequences on the line?

Yes.  There are eternal souls at stake. So we better get this right.  In fact, Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 5 that not only are we not to judge the unbelievers we rub shoulders with, we ought to intentionally build relationships with them.  THAT is the Biblical plan.  No bullhorns.  Relationships. No contempt. Love. We are not the world’s moral police.

Save your judgement for those inside the church who call themselves “brothers,” but refuse to live by the Word and the Spirit.  There is a place for judgement – within the relational family of the local congregation, where we sharpen each other in love, with humility, and with the goal of redemption.  Look at 1 Corinthians 5:12-13…

“For what have I to do with judging outsiders?  Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside.”

We can’t expect those who aren’t children of God to live like they are.  If we do, we risk alienating wounded, broken, hurting people who are searching for peace and don’t know how to find it.

It is true that Peter’s message in Acts to the unbelieving crowd in Jerusalem pulled no punches.  “You killed God.  Repent…” he said.  And it is also true that many spirit-led, Christ-honoring revivals have been sparked by the clear message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”  I know this is true, and I don’t discount that God uses clear Law and Gospel preaching even to reach the hearts of strangers and outsiders who have never thought they would set foot in the door of a church.  Sometimes, the Spirit leads, and the Law must be preached.

But I’m not talking about revival meetings and street-preaching miracles here.  I’m talking about Thursday afternoon. I’m talking about work tomorrow.  I’m talking about that guy who waits tables with you and is far more open about his personal romantic expoits than you’d ever want him to be.  Those people don’t need policemen to fix them first.  They need to be introduced to Jesus now – while they are yet sinners – because Jesus is pursuing relationship with them now.  As long as it is called Today.

The Word and the Spirit will do their refining work on the hearts of those who are on the Team.  But let’s not hold the crowd outside the fence to the Team standard.  Let’s invite them onto the Team first.

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“players, coaches, and dads :: a christian guide to finger-pointing” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

It was like a punch in the gut.

I couldn’t breathe.  I just sat in the pew next to her with my jaw clenched.  There were eternal consequences here, I thought.  I couldn’t belive this was happening.  I could feel her retreating from the church – retreating from Jesus.

He was a potential candidate for the now vacant Senior Pastor position in the church where I served as the Worship and Arts director.  He was being seriously considered for a call, and this was his day to preach.

She was a relative of a relative.  Visiting our church.  She NEVER went to church.  But this was her day. Prayers, the Spirit, and circumstance brought her here.  Could have been the most important day in her life, and she didn’t even know it.  She was wounded, hurting, lost.  She needed Jesus.  She needed “Come to me, all who are weary…”

He was a jerk.

It is one thing to preach the Law in all of it’s sterness to awaken the souls of the complacent and pierce the hearts of the defiant IN ORDER THAT they might receive the life-giving Gospel truth: Jesus has already paid our penalty, we have hope, it is finished.  It is another thing to revel in the preaching of the Law.  To wield it like a clumsy weapon, clubbing the saints and the searching alike.  As if guilt were a better indicator of healthy spiritual life than love.

I realized early in the message she would never come here again.  Truth be told, I had decided early in the message that if he took the call, I would not come here again, either.  But now I felt hope slipping away and angry walls being built, brick by brick.  He was railing. Railing against those who would defile their body with tattoos. Spit in the face of God by piercing their bodies, His temple.  Those who would wear their sin proudly like a badge of honor in their dark clothing and Doc Martin boots and heavy eye make-up.  How shameful they were. How disgusting their vanity and rebellion must look to God.

She shifted uncomfortably, uncrossing her legs to lower her Doc Martins under the pew.  Her plaid flannel sleeves weren’t long enough to cover the ink spilling down her forearm and onto her wrist.  She was ashamed.  Then she was angry. Then she was gone.

I have never – NEVER – forgotten the lesson of that day, but I’ve never written about it.  Here I am in a Lutheran Seminary, learning how to divide all of scripture into two distinct categories:  LAW and GOSPEL.  God has given us the Law to kill our self-reliance and to point us to the cross.  And as a fifth (sixth… more than that?) generation Lutheran, I’ve been taught that the Gospel without the Law is cheap grace.  People need to be confronted with their sin before they are ready to receive the Gospel.  True conversion involves repentance. We die to self before we are reborn.

But…

That “but” has big implications.  I have feared pushing against centuries of Lutheran orthodoxy and thousands of Spirit-led theologians who would warn me that in this regard, there are no “buts.”  Law, then Gospel.  LAW, then Gospel.

But…

Sometimes, people already know they are broken. Sometimes, people are aware that they don’t measure up. Sometimes people come to church expecting God to view them the way this clumsy, angry, mean-spirited preacher viewed them.  And to them Jesus says, “Come…”

Why is this? It is because He created us to be in a relationship with Himself, for His glory and our enjoyment.  It is not unholy or selfish to seek to enjoy God.  He crafted us with a longing to be satisfied.  And NOTHING satisfies like the enjoyment of God Himself.  As we express that enjoyment in worship, thanksgiving, service, obedience, and praise, God gets glory.  And the two great longings in the universe are simultaneously met.  Man hungers to be satisfied, God desires to be glorified.  And God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

So I look at the great God-story of the Bible.  And I see how it all points to Jesus.  And I believe it is the GREATEST truth in all of time – and that people everywhere need to hear it.  And I look at the beginning of the story.  And I see God there, “In the beginning…”  And I see the beginning of man.  And I notice something important…

Adam was created in God’s image, bearing His likeness in a personality and a desire for relationship… and God said it was very good. They walked together in the garden and had face-to-face relationship.  It was very good.  And this is the relationship mankind was created to have with God.  This was God’s intent from the start, and it is His desire now.

And all of this is solidified before Genesis chapter 3.

Why is it we start out as preachers and street evangelists, wielding our bullhorns and pointing our fingers from the pulpits, and we start at Genesis chapter 3?

“She took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

Tragedy.  Horror.  Shame.  Separation.  Judgment.  Brokenness.  Pain.  Death.

It is true.  Because of that day, and because of all of the days between then and now that man has spent serving himself instead of our gracious creator God, everybody takes their first breath on earth as a sinner.  Disconnected from that “walk in the Garden… and it was very good” relationship.  We are hopelessly broken and unable to make our way back to God.  And that is why Jesus’ death on the cross is the centerpoint of history.  And that is why people need Jesus – to be rescued from themselves.  And that is why well-meaning evangelicals swing their clubs of condemnation.  They want people who don’t even realize they need saving to be saved. So the Law must do its heart-breaking work.  To break up the hard-packed earth of the hearts of men, so that the Gospel seed might take root and grow and bear much fruit.

But…

Sometimes people are broken and they know it already.  Must we always skip over the first two chapters of Genesis?  Must it always be LAW, then Gospel?

The message I have heard for so many years often sounds like this… (1)  You are a sinner. Your sin is ugly, and it separates you from God.  There is nothing you can do to avoid eternal judgment.  You are condemned by your sin. (2)  Jesus came to pay the price for that sin. On the cross, your sin was crucified with Him.  When he rose from the dead, He announced once and for all that forgiveness has triumphed.  Because of Jesus, we are forgiven, and we can be with Him in heaven forever.

You know what?  This isn’t the whole story. I submit that when we LEAD with the LAW, we beat up already wounded souls.  Not every time.  But often. Way too often.  I propose proclaiming a message, over a lifetime of biblical preaching, that looks more like this:

(1)  God loves you.  He created you for a purpose. God is zealously pursuing a relationship with you, and He will rejoice over you when you turn to Him.  This is what we are here for.  To enjoy the love of God.  God is a pursuing God, and you are made in His image.  He wants to restore you to your created purpose.

(2)  Sin mucked it all up. God is Holy and can’t be around sin.  He is righteousness, and He cannot tolerate sin.  Therefore, your sin separates you from Him, and nothing you can do can change that.  You will never be “good enough” for God.

(3) In light of Genesis 1 & 2 – in light of your created purpose – God made a way to redeem your soul.  Jesus death on the cross was payment for your sin.  Repent of your selfishness and self-reliance.  God has been pursuing you because He longs to be in relationship with you.  Jesus is the answer.  There is hope for even you.

Evangelicals will face judgment for the souls they have driven away from God with their clumsy handling of the Law.

Yes, the proud need to be broken.  But not by us.  By the truth of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit.  And not all who hear us preach believe they don’t need God in their life.  Some come to hear because they simply have no idea how to find Him.  Some come to hear because they already consider themselves a screw-up.  Those people need to hear Jesus call, “Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”  And they need to know God is pursuing them.

Some of you are clenching your jaw right now.  You feel this is dangerous ground, and that I stand at the precipice of a slippery slope.  We cannot soften the full weight of the Law.  We cannot compromise. We cannot settle for “gospel-light” just because it’s what people want to hear.

I submit that your uncomfortability may come from the evangelical culture you have been steeped in.  What I am saying is rooted in scripture. God created us as deeply valued sons, born with a purpose first.  THEN sin broke the ideal.  First God created and it was very good.  THEN sin separated us from Him.  Some people will reject God because the church FIRST reflects His judgment rather than His love.  I believe more souls will be willing to hear the truth of their sin and their need for Jesus if they FIRST hear the truth that God loves them, considers them deeply valuable, and that he is pursuing a restored relationship with them out of his zealous love for us.

It’s not all about us.  It’s about Him. And when more souls are saved, and more hearts are set free and restored to their created purpose, God receives more glory.  He loved first.  It has been this way since Genesis 1 and 2.  Not just since the 3rd chapter, when we stood condemned by our sin.

So back to that day in the church pew, with my jaw clenched, and the tat-covered, lip-pierced girl sitting next to me…

I wonder what would have happened that day if the message surprised her, instead of confirming her suspicions.  “Yep, I am rotten.  Yep, the church is all about making sure I know that.  Yep, I thought this would be uncomfortable.  No way am I coming back to hear this stuff again.”

What would have happened if she would have heard how valuable she is to God?  That there is hope for her, and that she has been created by a God who knows her personally with all of her failings and rebellion, and still pursues her.

Tomorrow (Friday, May 13), a number of Christians on Twitter will be using the hashtag #4Giveness to connect with those outside of the church who have been pushed away from God by His people.  If this post resonnates with you, read this from my friend Chris Goforth, and join us tomorrow.

Too often the people of God have beaten people up with the Law as if WE don’t need it anymore, and it is meant to be applied as judgment to the sinners “out there.”  Too often we have stiff-armed people, making the gospel difficult to reach by way of a long trail of guilt and shame.  Jesus says “Come…” It is simple.  It is very good.

It is time to tell people that God is loving God who is pursuing them.

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‘we don’t need to beat up the broken and stiff arm sinners :: can i still be a lutheran?” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“What?  Shut up!”

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…

I’m talking to myself.


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“i talk to myself :: keeping the crazy close” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

You can’t show someone the gospel with a sandwich…

BAM. Here we go.  I’m stirring the pot. Somewhere out there, one of you is sick of the church giving lip service to love. You read that first line and just winced a little bit. In fact, this is the epitome of the gospel to you… loving people in Jesus name. Feeding the hungry. Hands-on love of the broken and wounded and penniless and hopeless. After all, Jesus talked about the least of these, right? And faith without works is dead, right? And the greatest commandment is “love God,” and we do that best by loving people, RIGHT? You remember this quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

It’s a great line.  Someone out there has written this quote in your journal, and it has changed your life.  The way you think about the Gospel and what you’re here for has been forever changed.  Praise God that you are hungry to serve Him and love people.  I mean that.  So don’t let this dampen the fire of your love…

Francis of Assisi was wrong.

Look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.  Paul reminds us (because we tend to forget) EXACTLY what the clear, unadulterated Gospel message is… the one Paul would give his life for:  (1) Jesus died for our sins. (2) He was buried. (3) He was raised on the third day.

That’s it. It’s a clear message.  No sandwiches involved.  Love and service are a natural and healthy RESPONSE to the Gospel, but can never be mistaken for the message itself.  Jesus penal substitutionary atonement for our sin, and His victory over death in the Resurrection are the heart of the Gospel.  It is a message that must be PROCLAIMED… it cannot be shown.

You can show His love.  You can show your love for Him.  You can show the world a different way to live, and you can give yourself away in love and service to others.

But you are not sharing the Gospel unless you proclaim it. You’ve got to tell people who Jesus is and what He has done, because THAT is what has the power to save souls.

If we do not proclaim the clear message that our only hope is faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone, then Christ ceases to be our substitutionary atonement and becomes merely our example.  Is it possible that the people we serve will misunderstand the heart of our faith?  That when we sign on to the Christian faith, we are obligated to earn back favor with God?  I see it on bumper stickers and church bulletin boards…  Christ died for you – are you living for Him?  WWJD?  Serve like Jesus.  Love like Jesus.  Live like Jesus.
It is an impossible standard.  Instead we must serve, love, and live BECAUSE of Jesus.
For those of you who are sick of watching hurting people suffer because the Church talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk, I empathize deeply with your holy discontent.  However, we cannot SUBSTITUTE walking the walk for talking the talk.  Maybe we ought to start with the walk… but we must talk, too.
Over the past several years the Emergent conversation has been reexamining Christian faith, and what it means to be a Christ follower… and what it means to be saved.  Somehow definitions that have for centuries been bedrock biblical truths have become mired in conjecture and postmodern equivocation.  Some now see salvation as something we work out and experience here on earth by serving the needy and the poor, caring for others, caring for the environment, etc.
The Emergent redefinition of salvation fundamentally wrecks the Gospel, because it takes away the gift and replaces it with an obligation.  The Gospel through this lens is a transfer from grace received to something we do.  Galatians 5:1 reminds us:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
I believe we experience salvation here and now, too.  But it is in and through the finished work of Jesus, who died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.  I believe we are called to love and serve the hurting and needy, to be good stewards of the earth, and to give our lives away in Jesus’ name.  But it is all a response.
Because HE loved us, make those sandwiches.  Feed the hungry ones.  But you can’t show someone the Gospel with a sandwich.  Love ’em, and then tell ’em WHY.
Our friend Francis of Assisi was off the mark.
We proclaim the Gospel.
Then we live in light of it.
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“francis of assisi was wrong :: use words” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.