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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.

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.

The Gospel is the seed.  Their heart is the soil.  A congregation openly adoring God with freedom… that’s the heat lamp.

There is a discussion going on in the Church about the “power of worship.”  Some churches staunchly stand on the preaching of the Word of God being the central focal point of every worship service.  Other churches believe that it is often in times of corporate worship when God moves among His people most visibly in supernatural power.  Some churches intentionally pull back from much corporate worship in a setting where evangelism is the goal.  But the idea that worship is isolating or alienating for the unbeliever is being reexamined… and reexamined again.

My good friend Dallas Jenkins (Film-maker, director of Midnight Clear, and more recently, What If) recently produced a video story for Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, where Andi Rozier is an Associate Pastor of Worship.  If you’ve got eight minutes, this is a powerful example of worship and the Gospel at work together to change a life. Depending on your theological background, that statement could fall anywhere on the scale from “obviously true” to “dangerously misguided.”  Watch this, and I’ll follow up with a few thoughts…

My thoughts…

(1)  I believe in “Worship Evangelism.” In a nutshell, it is a belief that as unbelievers encounter and experience worshippers of Jesus Christ adoring Him with honesty and freedom, they will see and experience the nearness of God, alive and interacting with His people.  If you really want to flesh this idea out and explore it deeply, I’d encourage you to find and read “Worship Evangelism”(1995) by Sally Morgenthaler.  Although Jesus makes it clear in John 4 that unbelievers aren’t even able to worship God, I fully believe that when God’s people worship, they interact with the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Word, and the beauty of that honest interaction draws unbelievers toward God.

(2)  Worship doesn’t save people. Jesus alone saves people.  And Romans 10:13, 14 and 17 make it clear that salvation comes by hearing the Word of God, which contains the Gospel in all of its power and purity.  So yes, I think God moves in power and interacts with us when we worship Him.  And yes, I believe that being in the midst of a worshipping congregation can move the hearts of unbelievers to want to know more – to look more deeply into the message of God.  But we must not trip over that line… we must not ascribe some supernatural power to the worship experience itself, or we are creating an elevated “theology of worship” that equates our experience with the power and holy authority of the Word of God.

(3)  Life-change takes time. In a discussion with Dallas about this piece, he mentioned something that the Worship Pastor, Andi, said that didn’t end up in the final video.  “We’re about life change, and worship leaders need to remember that it’s not always something that happens over 30 minutes, or 30 days, or 30 months, or even 30 years.”

Great perspective.  God can blow the doors off of someone’s heart in an instant if He so chooses.  But often, people who really, REALLY experience God’s power in a life-changing way are led through a PROCESS, not simply brought to an instant that changes everything.  Process… investment… relationships… and the truth. People are stubborn, and me more than most.  We shouldn’t expect “our ministry” to change a soul in one hour-long moment.  God is the heart-breaker and restorer, and He often chooses to plant the truth like a seed, and over time, allow the truth to take root.

When I lead worship, it is an honor to help that seed along with a little toasty goodness from the heat lamp…

As a Worship Leader, I am quick to say HE is the seed planter, and His Word is the seed carrier, and His Spirit is the seed deliverer.  My job is to give the congregation of believers in our church an opportunity to respond to God with adoration and honest thanksgiving for His love and grace and unchanging character.  Because the Gospel is the seed.  Their heart is the soil.  And I’m just flipping the ON switch…

When you watch Rob’s story, or when you read the ideas presented here, what do you think?

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“worship evangelism :: seeds, soil, and heat lamps” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Lately I’ve been pondering the nature of several “babies and bathwater” scenarios with regards to Christian faith and leadership.  I think this is a natural outgrowth of my commingled passions for sound doctrine and unity in the Church.  Walking this line requires nuance, careful thought, prayer, grace, and honesty.

Knee-jerk reactionism and mud-flinging are perhaps more gratifying to our carnal side.  But the “immediate gratification” option is rarely the BEST option.

In any case, today I want to begin a series of posts that deal with nuanced topics in the Church.  Maybe this will be my first and last post in the series.  🙂  Time will tell.

The Emerging Church

Sure.  Maybe this is cheating.  I’m literally posting an assignment from my Basic Principles of Theology class with Dr. Fran Monseth at the Association Free Lutheran Theological Seminary, where I am currently enrolled full time. 

The bottom line is that I want to provide thought-provoking, biblically sound, and helpful information to those who are interested.  I think many people who read my blog regularly have questions about the Emerging Church – both what it is, exactly, and why we should care.  Therefore, I’ve provided a link for you to be able to download my brief examination of the Emerging Church, it’s philosophy and theological trajectory, and a biblical response (PDF).  Because this is a complicated and nuanced issue, there is really no short form way to cover the topic as a blog post.  The context of my studies here are conservative and apologetically Lutheran, so you can use that filter to understand my vantage point as we talk about the influence of the “emerging” or “emergent” church conversation.

I don’t claim this to be anything spectacular.  It’s just a paper.  But it may be helpful.  So, for those who are curious, here you go…

Click here to download  >>  THE EMERGING CHURCH _ jskogerboe

Discussion is welcomed and encouraged in the comments below.  I hope this brings some clarity and prompts you to know what you believe, and why that matters.  Thanks for reading.

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“of babies and bathwater (part one) :: the emerging church” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Mark Driscoll knows the Emergent Church… or Village… or Emerging…  um, Conversation? …better than almost anyone.  He was there at the start.  Watched it unfold and grow from the inside.  And he left it as it left Christianity to pursue new ideas – a higher evolution of thinking about spirituality and how Jesus might have a role therein.

As I’ve been preparing to write a Seminary paper about the short history and current theology of the Emerging Church, I listened again to Mark Driscoll’s address to the 2007 Convergent Conference, hosted by the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  If you’ve got an hour and a half, it is an OUTSTANDING picture from the inside of the start of the Emerging Church movement and its theological dangers.  I’ve posted it here if you’re interested.

As I listened and learned and thought about the implications for ministry today, Mark focused his attention on an issue that has me by the throat right now…  CONTEXTUALIZATION.  This post is a summary of his thoughts, blended with my own, in the hopes that we would be passionate preachers of the truth RIGHT NOW in this culture – neither bowing our doctrine to the whims of culture, nor stiff-arming culture as if to protect ourselves from it.

In the world… but not of it.  But still in it.  Right?  And not of it.

Basically this:  the local church exists (according to the Great Commission in Matt. 28 and the Greatest Commandments in Matt. 22) to make disciples of Jesus Christ who love God and love people.  We (believers) have been born into this time and this place.  In this cultural context.  For THESE people.  Therefore, we must find a way to take the timeless truth of the Gospel (and the hard truth that we are all depraved sinners who need rescue and resuscitation) and CONTEXTUALIZE it for the culture we have been placed in by God in His perfect wisdom.  We’re here, right now, on purpose.

I see much energy being spent  by by church people in the pursuit of conflict rather than converts.  I see the liberal left wing of the Christian community, as personified by the open theism and narrative “trajectory” theology of the Emerging Church conversation, and the fundamentalist far right wing characterized by zealous dogma and self-righteous condemnation of cultural contamination in the church, as two hostile camps, each with their sights focused on the other.

In the middle ground are contextual cultural missionaries (like me), trying to find ways to communicate in today’s culture the timeless truth that we all need Jesus, and that his gospel message of hope is for us. Right now.  These pastors, teachers, evangelists, writers, and church folk with a burning heart for God and a passion for the lost souls that surround us are getting shot in the crossfire, and the Church (capital “C”) is suffering for it.

We must be people of the middle ground.  As Jesus prayed for us in John 17, not that we would be removed from the world, but that we would be protected from the evil one and united with other believers as we take the gospel to the time and place we have been sent to serve.  Contextualization of the Word of God.

This stands in contrast to the left and right wings engaged in a theological cage match…

In the far left corner we have those emerging theologians who believe that theology, and God Himself, is evolving with culture.  They are the syncretists, blending Christianity with paganism.  They hold a low view of scripture, and they are asking the same basic question that the serpent asked Eve in the garden…  “Did God really say…?”  They have two hands.  In one they hold DOCTRINE and in the other they hold church PRACTICE.  In the far left corner, BOTH hands are open.  Doctrine and practice are both open to change.

In the far right corner we have the cultural separatists and doctrinal purists who are more concerned with being contaminated by the culture than they are in changing it.  They are the sectarians, who see New Testament references to the “world” as synonymous with “culture.”  Ergo, “cultural relevance” = “worldliness.”  They hold a high view of scripture, but practice “sanctification by separation” from sinners and their interests.  They have two hands.  In one they hold DOCTRINE and in the other they hold church PRACTICE.  In the far right corner, BOTH hands are closed.  Neither doctrine nor practice are open to change.

I’m with Mark Driscoll on this one.  I don’t want to be a syncretist.  I don’t want to be a sectarian.  I want to be a SUBVERSIVE, infiltrating culture and speaking their language, with every intention of infusing that culture with the life-giving message of Jesus Christ.  We hold a high view of scripture, and we embrace the culture to the degree that we can identify WITH it and not be identified BY it.  While there are certainly elements of culture that are worldly, there are things we can receive, things we must reject, and things we can REDEEM in culture through the power of the Word of God.

We, the people of the middle ground, have two hands.   In one we hold DOCTRINE and in the other we hold church PRACTICE.  The cultural contextualizers (like me) hold doctrine tightly, like a treasure, with a CLOSED hand…  but our other hand, the one gripping our church practices and the way we’ve always done things, that hand must always be OPEN.

We present timeless truth using timely methods.  We seek to be Biblically faithful and culturally fruitful.  We CONTEND for the faith (Jude vs. 3 — “Defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to His holy people…”) against creeping liberal theology, and at the same time we CONTEXTUALIZE our message for the culture we live in (per 1 Corinthians 9, verse 19  —  I have become all things to all people in order that some may be saved.”)

That’s where I plant my flag.  Next to Pastor Mark’s.  And I stand with the greatest subversive, cultural contextualizer of all time, Jesus Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself in human likeness and humbled himself to save us from our sin.

If you have the time and want to consider all of this more carefully, please scroll up and listen to Pastor Mark Driscoll’s address to the 2007 Convergent Conference, hosted by the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary…

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“emergent vs. fundamentalist smackdown :: where christians and culture collide” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

There may be good reasons not to share the gospel at your next church gathering.

Let me unpack this a bit.  At Living Hope Church we are all about relationships. “Building relationships that change lives” is how we summarize the disciple-making process.  We believe that honest relationships are so central to the way God wired us (and the way He spreads the truth of His Word) that we make small group life a primary goal of our church.  We help people connect with a small group of eight to twelve friends – called a LifeGroup – who do life together.

But for many people – especially those fairly new to Living Hope – jumping into a small group that knows each other deeply and relates openly…  that’s a big hairy scary step.  In fact, that may just be enough to chase someone who needs Jesus away from our church forever.  That’s bad. We can agree that people fleeing our church in fear is bad.

On a Sunday morning, with a couple hundred people swirling about, it can be difficult to really connect with others in any meaningful way.  It is just too big an environment.  So we intentionally offer other small-environment options where people can interact and really start to get to know one another.

Starting Point Events.  Our goal in any given Starting Point Event is not to share the gospel.  It is simply to HAVE FUN.

FUN is a God-honoring goal.

I know that some might see this as frivolous.  How can we justify spinning our wheels just having a good time when some of those in our midst might be doomed to an eternity without God?  We can and we do because we see evangelism as a process, not an event.  Even more to the point, Jesus called us in Matthew 28 to make DISCIPLES, not just converts.  Conversion is our starting line, in many ways… not our finish line.

So we are continually in the process of developing long-term relationships.  And long-term relationships often begin huddled around a fishing hole, or standing over a grill.  And we recognize, too, that long-term relationships rarely begin by probing into someone’s spiritual condition from the word go.  Too much too soon may actually close doors.  If you say you’re going to do something fun, let it be just that.  FUN.  Fun is enough.

Check out the video below, and get a glimpse of last Sunday’s Starting Point Event for Living Hope.  Ice fishing.  Grilled meat.  Snow football.  Good times.

Just fun.  And no Gospel message.  No bait and switch.  Just ice fishing.  It was the Church being the Church, having Church, and enjoying the Sabbath in community.  A mix, by the way, of mature believers and a handful of non-Christians.  Healthy friendships and fun are attractive.  Period.  It very well could be that one or two of those guys might find their way to faith through a relationship that was started huddled over a grill on Pelican Lake.

What do you think?  Did we miss an opportunity to share the Truth with someone who needed it?  Or can you see the bigger picture… and do you agree?  Discussion welcome.

 

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“please don’t share the gospel :: fishers of men, yes… bait and switch evangelism, no” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

There’s this paradox.  It’s a pendulum swinging.  It’s a tug of war.  The truth about God.

God is Holy. God is Love.  God is Righteous. God is Merciful.  God is to be feared. God is to be adored.

You might be a church-goer.  Or not.  You might believe in God loosely, or you might embrace a detailed picture of God.  The God you imagine might belong to someone else.  Or maybe He is YOUR God.  But every one of you has a God-picture inside your mind, and what you think about God largely determines what you think about YOU.  So this God-picture matters.

“What I believe about God is the most important thing about me.”  – A. W. Tozer

My brain is only 3 lbs. of snarled jelly.  God breathed out the universe with a word.  It would take about 140 billion peas to fill Soldier Stadium in Chicago to the top.  That’s about the same number of galaxies astronomers now believe exist in the “known” universe.  Consider that our solar system whirls around only one star of billions in our galaxy.  And our galaxy is only one-pea’s worth in a Soldier Stadium sized universe full of galaxies.  Can you wrap your 3 lbs. brain around that kind of scope?  Nope.  Me neither. But God can measure the universe in the span of His hand.  (Isaiah 40:12)

So when we come to discuss who God is, it is wise to come humbly, recognizing that our deepest thoughts about God are utterly, hopelessly, comically incomplete.  But God does tell us who He is.  What He is like.  The Bible talks about the activity in heaven around His throne.  The angels and creatures surrounding the throne of God, in dangerous proximity to the radiant glory and unstoppable power of God, and they never ever stop repeating… “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come…”

God is “OTHER THAN US.”

This Sunday as we were preparing for our weekend gathering with our Worship Team, one of the singers on the team said to me, “Holy means ‘other than…’  Every time we sing about God being Holy, I think about that.  He’s ‘other than…’  He’s separate.  I’m just repeating in my heart, ‘You are not like me, God.  You are so much more and so other than me…'”  Thank God for lead-worshipers who embrace humility like that.  She is right.  Both in Hebrew (qodesh) and in Greek (hagios), the Bible’s words for “holy” mean “to be set apart.”

If you go to church, ask yourself an honest question about what you hear about God week to week.  Is the picture of God in your church All-Powerful / Separate / Other-Than?  Or is He reduced somehow to love and grace and your help in time of need?  Is God your friend or is God your God?

The pendulum is swinging for me again.  There is a danger in churches with a deep concern for human souls (read “evangelical,” “seeker-sensitive,” or “outreach-oriented”) to present an approachable God.  A mercy-first, ask questions later God.  Because we want to walk with people across that line of faith.  We know God loves them, and we love them on His behalf.  We ache to see God’s Kingdom expand and souls who were selfish and broken and hurting become whole again and in love with a Savior.  But is the open-arms, big-tent God picture obscuring our view of the Holy, Righteous, Other-Than God.  Is our picture exactly that?  Just “our” picture?

I think the hyper-grace oriented environment many churches seek to offer has robbed us of a proper view of God’s justice and vengeance and holiness.  But God Himself has surrounded His throne with the ringing refrain:  Holy! Holy! Holy!  God’s HOLINESS is the core of His nature.  Yes, God is love, and He is full of mercy, but He does not simply welcome one and all first and ask questions later.  God’s holiness first demands that sin must be accounted for.  Because our sin separates us from God at our very first breath.  He is other than us.

When we humanize God (which is often a step toward deifying man), we lose the breathtaking view of God’s holiness that is required for us to understand and properly grasp the WONDER of the gospel.  That God Almighty, Creator of whirled peas – all surpassing otherness – would stoop to love us.  Three lbs. of flawed self-righteous nerve gelatin.

And the Answer is JESUS.  Perfection, holiness, all-powerful righteousness bleeding out in pain on a cross in place of me.  In place of you, too.  That God’s perfect “other-than” justice might be satisfied.  Breathtaking mercy.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.  (2 Corinthians 5:21)

So I’m getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I want to tremble when I think about God.  Because I tremble when I think I might be getting more comfortable with Him.  God my provider, my personal counselor, my friend.  He is those things to me.  But He is other than me. Amazing grace.

What is your God picture?  Is your church’s God picture honest? Do you understand how awesome it is that other-than God became a same-as man… for you?



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“separated at birth :: whirled peas and God’s holiness” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

I wrote an artice in October 2009 called “Rick Warren is not the anti-christ ::  seeker sensitive cow tipping” that generated heavy traffic and a long string of comments.  I tried to make the case that, whether a church is “seeker sensitive” or “traditional” or “contemporary” or “fundamentalist,” there are sacred cows (untouchable ideologies and methodologies) in most local churches that could stand to be let out of the barn – for the good of the Church as a whole.  It was a call to unity – not sloppy doctrine – but true Biblical unity around the core truths of the Christian faith.  Lots of opinions were shared about church, and how to “do church.”  But the money quote from my critics was the following:

“The church is for believers, not unbelievers or seekers.”

Wow.  Really?  In your heart of hearts, is that what you really believe?  All this is for us, about God loving us, to encourage and save us.  Just for us.

I understand that you can make a Biblically supported argument for gathering together an assembly of the saints for the purpose of worship and revelation of scripture.  Absolutely.  But there is also ample Biblical evidence for making accommodations for unbelievers in your gatherings.  In a discussion about the gifts of tongues and prophecy, Paul addresses this in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 22, which starts with, “…if unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your church meeting…”

And is this not what we all should be longing for?  For unbelievers to come in to our church meeting?  To me, it almost seems ridiculous to think any other way, in light of Jesus’ two most compelling directives to His people: (1) The Great Commission in Matthew 28 to “Go and make disciples…” and (2) His emphasis on both loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves as the two greatest commandments near the end of Matthew 22.  Were these commandments given to us only as individuals, or as a collective?  In other words, if your church decides that the gathering of believers together in church is only meant to serve, encourage, exhort, and facilitate worship for the already convinced, then the only way to fulfill these commandments is to do so as individuals, OUTSIDE of regular church activity.  Do you believe that?  Does the Bible teach that?

My Pastor tells a story about his first visit to Starbucks… a few years ago, now.  Starbucks.  Perhaps the most inviting environment on the planet.  And yet Bob had never been there before.  He didn’t know the lingo.  He felt surrounded by people who knew the routine – insiders who knew their way around.  They knew the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, espresso vs. latte.  Bob was an outsider.

As he stood in line, listening to the insiders order their venti half-caf double shot hazelnut macerena’s with whip, his palms began to sweat.  Am I going to make a fool of myself?  Slowly, he worked his way forward to the counter, where he was just able to blurt out… “Coffee!”

What kind sir?

“Uh… Black!”

Tall, Venti, or Grande?

“Um… regular?”

Thankfully, Bob left with a delicious tasty beverage, and a sigh of relief.  And, he’s even become a huge fan of Starbucks coffee.  He can order with the best of ’em now – no meds needed.  And you know what made all the difference?  He went for the first time with a friend. A buddy walked with him through the line.  Introduced him to Starbucks.  Otherwise, how would he know the greatness that is the Starbucks coffee experience?  Bob might have NEVER gone in there on his own.  It wasn’t his crowd – wasn’t his scene.  Sure he went in seeking a great cup of coffee – he was pretty sure he could find one inside the doors of Starbucks, but going in on his own was a little daunting.

Please tell me this parable (true story) has connected the dots for you.

At Living Hope Church, believers gather to worship – to learn – to hear the word of God – to receive encouragement and exhortation – to be reminded of the Gospel.  But the Church isn’t for believers.  The Church IS believers.  And as a Body, our focus ought to be OUTWARD – on the nervous, uncomfortable, lonely, broken outsiders who need far more than a good cup of coffee.  They need to meet Jesus.  And how will they ever meet Him if they aren’t introduced?  And how will they ever be introduced if the local church puts a huge “insiders only” sign in the front door?

Local church – preach the fullness of the Word without compromise.  Let God’s truth penetrate and pierce.  He does the saving after all.  But for the love of God (and the love of people), make your church welcoming to the outsiders among you.  The stakes are sobering.  And thrilling.

“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others.  Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.  Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”  – Philippians 2:3-4

Where do you fall on this? Is your church eagerly inviting outsiders into your gatherings, walking with them through the process, or do they just mess it up for the insiders?

 

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“is church for believers or unbelievers? :: starbucks, the gospel, and outsiders among us” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Christian hair has taken on new meaning. What follows is an honest, amused ramble through a minefield of questions I have about the current state of worship leading and those who lead worship in our contemporary Christian churches in America.  For full disclosure:  I am one.

I actually grew up using the term “Christian hair” as a somewhat deragatory, yet playful descriptive term for the over-eager bouffant coiffure of the professionally religious.  Think Benny Hinn meets Roy Orbison meets an oscilating fan and a gallon of Aqua Net.  On steroids.  Bingo!  Christian hair.

Now the scene has changed.  And while the aforementioned variety of Christian hair can still be spotted occasionally in the seventy+ crowd at Denny’s and on TBN, there’s a new ‘do taking the hip church scene by storm.  It’s equal parts, “heck yeah!” and “did you mean to do that?”  I affectionately call it “The Pete Wilson.  For full disclosure:  I totally love Pete Wilson.  His blog is fantastic.  His ministry is biblical, powerful, and Spirit-led.  And his hair does things my thinning mane of glory dreams about as I sleep.  Further, he’s a Senior Pastor – not a worship leader – so he’s out of bounds for this discussion.  And yet…

Fellow Lead Worshippers, help me understand…  What’s with the hair? I’m not talking about simple personal style choices here.  You can effectively lead worship with almost any kind of hair… spanning the panoply of the style choice rainbow.  From the sleek simplicity of  Carlos Whittaker to the crazed fro-tee combo of David Crowder.  And yet…

I’m in a minefield here.  I can feel it.  I’m asking deeper questions about heart conditions and motivations which are not so deftly disguised as style questions.  Skipping stones off the surface to see what lies beneath.  Fellow Lead Worshippers, help me understand…  Without an accusing tone – without any self-righteous pride – and without a sense of smug superiority masquerading as humble opinion – some of what’s happening in our contemporary churches makes me go, “hmmm.”

Several years ago I was asked to be the Worship Coordinator for the national youth convention of a conservative church association.  As our Board discussed some of the feedback that had come back from the previous convention, we were literally asked to consider hiding the worship team behind a screen, so the focus could remain on the Lord during worship.  We politely declined the request – but the fact that it was suggested I think establishes a POINT A for the extreme conservative position when it comes to contemporary worship leading:  We would prefer no contemporary leader at all (“After all, there’s no ‘Worship Leader’ position in the New Testament…”), but if you must be up there, please lead quietly… and off to the side.

POINT Z on the style scale is usually found in the “Seeker Sensitive-ist” of contemporary churches.  And I don’t use that term with even a hint of negativity.  Rather, as a means of identification.  These are churches who have invested a healthy sum of resources into a projection system and theater lighting that rivals even the hippest of pop-culture bands touring today.  Here’s an excercise for you.  Look at the picture at the top of this post for 10 seconds and see if you can positively ID the scene as a Country Music concert or a high-tech contemporary worship setting.  Go!

It wasn’t until I spotted the bouncers in the front of the stage that I was sure this was an entertainment venue and not a contemporary worship setting.  Although, if Tomlin was leading, the bouncers MIGHT be necessary, so…  Well, point made.

On the style scale between the ultra-conservative POINT A and the hippest of techno-pop POINT Z churches, our church is probably at about the QRS level.  A mix of hymns and choruses and creeds and prayers, both loud and quiet, both tender and rocked out.  No suit coats.  No designer jeans.  No Christian hair… and no Christian hair.  We sometimes wear Levi’s.  We like to dim the lights when we use video clips.  But no lasers.  No fog machines.  No flashpots or strobes.  We are trying to be authentic in our worship, honest and complete in our presentation of Biblical truth, and welcoming to both the seasoned church attender and the non-church types who are simply curious about Jesus.  We think this neighborhood will connect best to about a QRS on the hipness scale.

And I guess there’s my question for those of you farther down the alphabet.  For you XYZ types.  Are we trying to inspire the Church to focus their attention on the Lord?  And if we are, how exactly does the hip hair and the designer jeans and the breathtaking lightshow NOT distract the worshippers?  It’s an honest question.

Before I became a worship leader by occupation, I attended an amazing church – a large church with several thousand attending each weekend.  Their ministry had a HUGE impact on me as a worship leader, not because it was flashy, but specifically because it was not.  It was authentic.  It was excellent musically.  And it was SIMPLE in it’s presentation.  Lights down before the service.  Lights fade up as the service begins.  Simple wash of the platform.  And then worship happened with deep reverence and genuine humility.  And just regular guy hair.

I don’t claim to have a corner on the market of what is the BEST way to lead worship.  I’m just a dude leading a group of Jesus-loving artists who lead a Jesus-loving congregation.  And I always watch what other leaders are up to.  I learn from you.  Constantly.  But I wonder sometimes why you do the things you do.  If you saw me, you’d have a pile of questions, too, I’m sure.  So from one brother to another – from one Levite to the rest a y’all with a ton of grace- help me understand the grandiosity and the flash.

Where does your ministry fall on the style alphabet?  And more importantly… WHY?

 

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“leading worship with awesome hair :: God, humility… and lasers” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.