It was almost 20 years ago now. We sat around a stack of pizza boxes, yellow legal pads and number number two pencils in hand, and we agonized over language that would clarify our purpose and our values as a Worship Ministry team at a church in Bloomington, MN. It was painful.
But it was fruitful. This was the brotherhood. My team of Levites. Worship leaders and lead worshipers and partners and my best friends. We wrangled and argued and refined and prayed and read the Bible and fought to find the words that would guide us in worship ministry over the next decade and a half. Further, it would come to be the guiding document for the worship ministry in a new church plant that I would join a few years later. We have co-opted these words and leaned on them as a guiding path for ministry in several capacities since, including the worship and arts ministry of the church I am serving as Pastor as of this year, St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Though I am a lead Pastor now, the first 20 years of my ministry life were spent leading worship ministry teams.
When I speak to churches about worship ministry, I strongly advocate entering into the process of developing and clarifying a team-wide biblical ministry purpose, and values that reflect the overall mission and values of your congregation. Clarifying words give the ministry team a TARGET. It’s hard to measure whether or not your ministry is accomplishing it’s goal if the ministry has no clear idea what that goal is. But the process of writing our purposes, mission statements, values… ouch. You sweat blood. So I’m not talking about banging this out in a couple hours over some delicious Papa John’s on a Friday night. Nope. It will probably take you months. And lots of frustration. And a few blessed light-bulb moments. And prayer.
But then, when you get to the end of the process, and the whole Team is on board and committed… the synergy and the unity and the depth of fellowship in that ministry is hard to put into words.
For more than 15 years I haven’t changed a word from what we started with in those pizza box sessions in Bloomington. Not a single word. Because I BELIEVED in them, and I believed God had granted us clarity, blessing, and direction. I still believe that.
However, purpose statements are only valuable to the degree that they point you to a biblical target that reflects the heart of God and is rooted in the truth. Purpose statements ought to be developed CAREFULLY, and PRAYERFULLY, so that they coalesce a ministry Team around a clear and truly God-honoring rallying cry. To the degree they reflect scripture, they will be helpful. To the degree that they misdirect away from scripture, they will be harmful.
So here we are. More than 15 years later. And we needed to make a change.
I guess this was born out of a season of looking at our theological positions under a microscope. Having just launched a new website for St. Olaf Lutheran Church, our deacons and I have been dissecting and finessing the wording on our site in the “who we are” and “what we believe” sections. As I went to post our Worship and Arts Ministry Purpose and Values, I realized something that flew under the radar for all these years.
Our original purpose for worship ministry looked like this:
“We exist to model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that result in transformed lives.”
My focal points in this statement have always been on (1) both modeling AND facilitating worship, and (2) transformed lives. In other words, we don’t just lead worship, we model it. And secondly, we expect God the transformer to change people into His image if His Spirit is moving as we worship.
But we need clarity when we express theological positions. And here’s the rub… I realized that in these words we had actually taken on responsibility here as a Team that we were never intended to carry. Because worship is always RESPONSE to God the initiator, “worship expressions” don’t RESULT in transformed lives at all. That is assigning power to the act of worship that it does not and can not hold.
So, lo these 15+ years hence, I have made a change. Our purpose statement now reads, “We exist to model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that REFLECT transformed lives.”
BOOM. The power of the GOSPEL changes people. Worship is the response.
This is a very unique time of life. Nine weeks from now I will graduate from the Association Free Lutheran Theological Seminary. If God wills it, I will soon be serving a congregation as a pastor, but today we don’t know where. Nine weeks. These seasons in the in-between are formative. They stir deep thoughts, and honest prayers in us. I’m examining what kind of pastor I hope to be. How God has wired me to serve Him.
These are my top five pastor non-negotiables:
1. I will delight in God. My ONE THING.
No matter what, I must fufill this purpose. God made me to delight in Him, to find my joy and my peace in Him. To honor Him in all things. To seek refuge in Him. To lean into His strength. To claim sonship in Him through the blood of Jesus, shed for me. And to fear Him. And love Him. Whether or not I ever pastor a church, I will delight in God. David wrote about this in Psalm 27:4. His ONE THING was close communion with God, and he wanted it forever. If I don’t live in close communion with Him, I can’t pastor. Ministry is overflow. Ministry is love, and I can’t generate that by sheer willpower. I won’t fake it. So this is first.
2. I will be the husband and dad my family needs.
Amy and the boys need me to be a husband and a dad. I will honor them, lead them well, and protect our relationships above all others. With God’s help, I will live in the tension between the needs of ministry and the needs of family with peace and freedom and joy. If my family is a wreck, my heart will be, too. So this is second.
3. I will speak the truth in love.
Preaching and teaching the Word of God. All of it. That is the life-blood of the Church. The hard words that convict, and the jaw-dropping promise of mercy and forgiveness and FREEDOM found in Jesus alone. I believe the Bible is absolutely TRUE, and inspired by God, and it lives and speaks to hearts right now, today. It is the voice of God, and it saves souls. My primary ministry priority in any congregation will be speaking the truth of God’s Word in the depth of love that He has for all who hear it. And He is shaping me; I am loving this call to PREACH and teach now more than EVER. So this is third.
4. I will love people.
God loves people. When Jesus spoke about the most important commandments, he said LOVE GOD and LOVE PEOPLE. This is the boiled-down, nut-shell, laser-beam focal point of our life’s calling as followers of Jesus. So whether or not I am ever a pastor, God asks me (and equips me) to love people. Especially then, as a pastor. How awesome is this? My job is to LOVE people. And especially those who are hard to love. And those who need it most. I can’t believe I get to do this with my life. So this is fourth.
5. I will build relationships. For years I have said “Ministry is RELATIONSHIP.” Disciple-making means proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, so that those who believe it will enter into restored relationship with God through faith in Jesus. That’s first. But we are also called to be relationship-builders with people. Both within the local church (doing life together!) and within our communities, familes, circles of influence. Anywhere we bump into PEOPLE, we are relationship-builders. Because real relationship opens doors. It reflects the love of God, and it allows for the kind of honest conversations that lead to sharing our God-story. As a pastor, I will teach, lead, and model the high priority of intentional relationships. So this is fifth.
There are a thousand ways I am willing to be flexible as a pastor someday. Someday soon, we hope! But these five I go to the mat for. These five are priority. My first things.
This is the Thursday night service with all the men at FLY 2013, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations Youth Convention, held every two years in Estes Park, CO. My wife Amy and I were grateful to both be asked to speak this year. Amy spoke to the girls in the Assembly Hall, and I was with the guys in the Longhouse. This is my message to the guys on July 4, 2013.
The theme of the convention was “Broken,” taken from Isaiah 53. The text we focused on for the evening was Isaiah 53: 10-12.
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.
The primary difference between Moms and Dads, as far as I can tell, is the length of leash with which we are comfortable letting our kids run. While 99% of the time Dads know that their children can run far afield with no more than a few near misses, the occasional potential debilitating accident, and a brush with death now and again, we can all say a collective “THANK GOD” for Moms during that other 1% of the time… when it really matters.
As the father of boys – five of them – my leash is even longer than the average guy. Boys have gotta take an occasional ER run in order to experience the fullness that life has to offer. No pain, no gain, right? Boys don’t climb to the treetops because it just looks so safe up there. Boys don’t launch their bikes and skateboards off ramps, steps, and railings because they shy away from risk. Boys don’t try to light stuff on fire because they simply long for serenity. No sir. They are as addicted to adrenaline as they are to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And somewhere in the heart of every Dad is that 12 year old daredevil explorer we used to be. We understand. Climb that tree, kid. I’ll drive you to the hospital if you break an arm.
However, there are moments. We Dads know that there is a threshold. We know because we’ve had to cross it a thousand times ourselves. These are the “big boy” moments along the road that lead to growing up. We can see it in the eyes of our children, and we remember. They are the times when we wish the incline wasn’t quite so steep and the roller coaster wasn’t quite so aggressive. Sometimes the hard path is a necessary one. Sometimes the hard path may not be entirely necessary – but good, nonetheless. These are the times when we must look our boys in the eye, and with all the compassion we can muster, utter the words every child needs to hear once in awhile…
“Man up, Nancy.”
Sure, there are people out there with kids actually named Nancy. I don’t think that makes it any less effective.
Real life example: This past weekend I drove my 11 year old son Isaac to meet up with a youth group from our church on their way to a weekend retreat across the border in Wisconsin. I had to drop him off at a suburban Applebee’s where the van would pick him up about 15 minutes after I left. His bags were packed, the list was double checked, Bible securely stowed, sleeping bag and pillow in the back of the Jeep, and Ike was a bundle of energy. I could tell that his adrenaline habit was being fed right now. Heading off to a retreat away from the family, out of state, no older brother with him this time. His first “on his own” outing with the youth group. He was stoked.
But his eyes were sending mixed messages. Flashes of trepidation between the smiles. Traces of concern peeking out the corners of his eyes, betraying his “I can do this” adventurous gaze out the windshield.
“Are you nervous?”
Pause. “Nah. I’m excited.” Pause. “I mean… first time I’ve really done this.” Pause. “Seth’s not gonna be there…” Pause. “But it’ll be awesome.” He said it like a declarative statement, and then his face looked at me like he had just asked a question.
I grabbed the bill of his baseball hat and jerked it around with a grin. “You’ll do great, Ike. You’ll have a blast.”
That was it.
Sometimes the “man up, Nancy” moments – the big boy moments – don’t require many words. I knew he’d be OK. And this independent moment was both good and necessary. He knew it was worth a few butterflies. The best rides are, right?
Someday I won’t be dropping him off at Applebee’s and waving goodbye for the weekend. Someday it will be a college dorm. Then he’ll be the excited one, and the tears will be mine. Amy will likely be giving ME a much needed “Man up, Nancy,” when that day comes.
The point here, after all, is that I am not primarily seeking to shield my boys from pain. I have friends and family in the Marine Corps. who tell me “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” My boys love it when I quote the Marines.
Pain avoidance is not our job, parents. Character development is. Maturity is the goal. These objectives are long term and require stretching. Sometimes, the hard path is the best one.
Isaac and I never talked all of this through. But I knew that getting dropped off at Applebee’s with his pile of bags to wait by himself for the Youth Group van was a big boy moment for him. And when he came home, among the hugs and high-fives, I was sure to look him in those just-a-little-bit-older eyes of his and tell him, “I’m proud of you.”
I always want to be a better dad. When I finally achieve “best dad of all time” staus, I’ll still want to be a better dad. Today’s post is meant to inspire us dads to be intentional in our dadliness.
My friend Carlos Whittaker (known in the Twittersphere as @loswhit, father of viral video star ‘lil los, and the uber-creative behind ragamuffinsoul.com) continues to be inspiring on so many levels. But I gotta give him props for this one as a top five on the all-time greatest dad moves of the 21st Century.
I don’t have girls… I’ve got my own hockey team of boys, but no mascara, barrettes, no pink, no lip gloss. However… if I were a dad of girls, I’d be all over this stuff. Carlos’ daughter just turned 8. As a Taylor Swift fan, she wanteded to host a Taylor Swift party.
But in the words of Carlos, “if you know the Whittakers, you know that did not mean Taylor Swift cups and plates from Walmart.” No sir. They invited a pile of her friends over and produced a video, complete with make-up and hairstyling, lighting effects, plenty of dancing about and general frolicking in wee cowgirl boots. Dads, whether your home is full of Barbies and ballet slippers or cluttered with baseball gear like our home is, we can all learn something from Carlos here…
Don’t wait for the moments. Make the moments. Amen.
If you want to drop Carlos a note about this, find his original post here and check out ragamuffinsoul.com often. He will inspire your faith, fuel your creative energy, and encourage you.
May we dads be intentional in our parenting. A little planning goes a LONG way, guys. God bless you and of all our kiddos.
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)
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.