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“Thank God for Innovation”

hillsong-conference-nyc-2013

Last week at the Catalyst Conference, Brian Houston, who heads Hillsong Church, referenced a couple popular songs written by his church. Each of these songs is either not sung or rarely sung by their church today. Here’s the quote:

You may be shocked to hear we don’t sing Shout to the Lord anymore at Hillsong Church. It’s not 1993. If you come all the way to Australia and you hope to hear ‘Shout to the Lord,’ your chances are slight. We don’t even sing Oceans much anymore.

Whether you find this surprising or not, here’s the explanation behind this decision:

When it comes to influence, predictability is our enemy. Because you never get influence from doing things the way they’ve always been done. You get influence from creating new ways…Thank God for innovation. Thank God for creativity. Spontaneity is our friend in the church.

The Church: A Space for Creativity

As you can imagine, once Brian’s quotes were turned into headlines, people cried foul.

What about hymns?

Do you even want people to know your songs and sing with them?

Those who feel like the church is too forward thinking call into question the mentality of moving on from songs of years gone by.

But the church must maintain itself as a space for creativity. After all, our God is Creator. His words spoke the world into existence. That same Spirit dwells within His people. And we are His ambassadors. It stands that part of being a Spirit-indwelled ambassador is through creativity. One of the great creative outlets seen within the church is songwriting. Churches should sing new songs because God has provided new songs through His artists.

If you get stuck in a “hymns only” mentality, you have crippled the artists God has given the church for today. God has consistently done some of his great work through the gifts of artists.

God spent close to forty days instructing Moses on the provisions for the tabernacle, and yet He created the world in six days. What we gloss over as boring details clearly had much importance to God. The tabernacle, though built by the hands of mere mortal men, was the perfect design and idea of God. We should then find it striking that something so highly important to God was given into the hands of artists.

Hillsong Church releases a new album more than once a year, so their church should be singing new songs, potentially more often than the average church. That is part of their own localized expression of the Christian faith.

But What About Hymns?

No one should complain when a church stops singing a song. I’ve had plenty of conversations about no longer singing a particular song. Sometimes it’s a lyrical concern, sometimes the leadership feels like the song is no longer connecting, sometimes a song was reliant upon a musician or instrument the church no longer has available. There are plenty of good reasons to shift what songs are being sung by a church, but being a church focused on innovation is not one of them.

Innovation and spontaneity are the reasons Houston said Hillsong no longer sings Shout to the Lord, but those are awful reasons. It says “this song no longer feels cool enough,” and you move onto the next “big” thing.

In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith examines what he calls liturgies, large stories we center our lives around. These stories orient our lives, bending the needle of our hearts toward a certain end. So if your corporate worship gathering liturgy is most influenced by innovation, the past has no service to the goal.

And this is a huge problem, because the Christian faith is a historical faith. How Christians practiced their faith a thousand years ago carries weight to the Christian believer today. Putting this altogether, the form and practice of Christian worship provides life-altering shaping for our lives. Smith says,

“When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom” (78).

More Balance, Please

This is where I think balance is needed. Churches need not worship innovation if it does not serve the end goal of discipleship through worship. Similarly, churches need not worship with hymns-only, forsaking today’s creativity.

The problem here isn’t Brian Houston or Hillsong Church, though they can become representative of the problem due to their size and influence. The problem is that innovation is often the enemy to discipleship, especially when we continue chasing the ever elusive “cool” thing. Predictable might not fill the seats with people ready for a show but it will help steep the seat-dweller in a liturgical format where they can “rehabilitate their loves” toward God’s kingdom.

There’s a great challenge here of balancing new and old, of balancing big and small, of balancing innovation and predictability, but it’s worth the effort because it often changes people on a level deeper than they understand.

What do you think about this?

Should a church be focused on innovation or predictability?

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I’m Not OK

im-not-ok

It seems that for a few weeks every year I get in a funk. A “is-this-really-all-life-is?” kind of funk. A funk where I ask “who am I and what am I doing with my life?” but I struggle to land on an answer I like. A funk where nothing satisfies.

Sometimes this funk is hard to notice. Recently I found myself being short with my kids, uncharitable to my wife, and unmotivated in my aspirations. I started to wonder if something was wrong. On the surface, life was great. I still worked as many hours as usual. I exercised as much or more than usual. But none of life was particularly enjoyable. About two weeks into this I realized, I was in a funk.

As a pastor, when I engage with people who are in their own funk I try to emphasize the gospel. I tell them that they don’t have to earn anything. I tell them that who they are in Christ is the only thing that matters, and out of that identity true life is found.

This focus on identity is something I honed in on in my book, believing that if people could understand the implications of imputed righteousness it could shift how they navigate life. And while I stand by my words, and my focus on identity, I wonder if too much focus on identity in Christ makes for disciples prone to disillusionment.

If you only rely on identity in Christ to be a cure-all pill, what happens when life doesn’t seem right? “You’re supposed to be ok, you are in Christ!” you tell yourself.

The Gospel not only says you are made right in Christ (imputed righteousness), but it dares to say that you’re not ok, you’re a lot worse than you could have ever imagined. So my question of “is this all there is?” is actually spot on. It admits the truth. The Gospel says something is wrong, but it is being made right.

And that process of being made right is where the funk happens, but something better is promised.

I’m still in that funk, it hasn’t resolved. I’m not quite sure what the answer is. But I do know this:

I’m not ok, and that’s ok because better is promised and it is coming.

(Image: Evan Rummel)

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Worthy of Suffering

About 6 months ago a team of men I’m involved with launched a devotional app for Apple devices. Today I’m sharing one of the almost 100 devotional posts you can read through the app.


suffering man

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin (local religious leaders), rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Acts 5:41

The entire chapter of Acts 5 deserves a look in order to understand the magnitude of verse 41. The apostles, led by Peter, were preaching about Jesus all over town, generating quite a following. This, for obvious reasons, irked the religious leaders. So they arrested the apostles.

Thanks to the help of an angel the apostles are set free from prison and make their way into the city to again preach about Jesus to anyone who will listen. And again the religious leaders find them, this time they are upset because they thought the problem had been resolved.

The apostles are arrested again and brought before the Sanhedrin, a local religious governing body. They are asked not to speak about Jesus anymore, to which they reply, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Not exactly following marching orders, as the Sanhedrin had hoped.

Ultimately the religious leaders know they can’t charge the apostles because the local people will riot. Instead, the apostles are flogged, and told not to speak about Jesus, but they are not charged with a crime.

The apostles respond to this beating by rejoicing for being counted worthy of suffering.

Just let that sink in.

No crime. Flogging punishment. Rejoicing.

These men were arrested though they had broken no law. These men were threatened for speaking about Jesus. These men were charged with nothing, and yet they are brutally flogged. And despite this incredible suffering and agonizing pain, they chose to rejoice.

Some days the greatest suffering you face is 5 minutes of extra traffic on the way home from work.

These men were charged with nothing and were flogged for it.

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

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Shifting to Weekly Communion

communion

Starting this Sunday our church is going to take part in The Lord’s Supper every week. For the entire life of our church we have only partaken of the bread and cup on a monthly basis, so this is a fairly dramatic shift in practice for us.

Scripture speaks to the importance of Communion but there’s a multitude of approaches churches have in terms of how often to partake. Some don’t ever partake, some once a year, some for special events, some once a month, and others every week.

A book could easily be written on the subject of Communion and it’s other namesakes the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table, the Lord’s Supper, but today I want to summarize in brief why we’re putting The Lord’s Table into our weekly gatherings.

Here’s the 3 stand out reasons for our shift in practice:

Sacrament Over Sermon

In most churches, the sermon is given the greatest weight. Some of this is positive: it elevates God’s Word, it encourages us to submit ourselves to His Word and the messenger God has placed in our path. But there is something we need more than a sermon, it’s the sacrament of Communion.

I can’t break down what I mean by sacrament in depth, but let’s simply call a sacrament a visible sign of grace. Brian Zahnd builds on this emphasis by saying:

“Christian faith is more about connecting our lives with Christ than it is about gaining spiritual information. Making church more about the sermon than the sacrament is a move toward secularism…What the sacrament of Communion does that the sermon cannot do is offer the worshiper a direct encounter with the life of Christ” (Water to Wine, 147).

Active Response

Many have brought the critique toward worship in church today by calling it passive. They see a band on stage in a dark room with loud music. While we do our best not to create a corporate worship environment like this, there’s no question that the stage vs. seats dynamic of a church gathering can create a disconnect. Coming forward to The Lord’s Table, however, is not passive, it is active.

By making it a weekly practice of responding to God’s Word by standing up, walking forward, partaking of the bread and cup, we begin to teach ourselves that the way of Jesus is found in taking up His life, surrendering our own.

Habitus

Habitus is a sociology term meaning that we each have dispositions or tendencies that frame the way we engage the world around us. Put more simply, you make very few conscious, deliberate decisions in your daily life. Instead, you often do things a certain way because you have established a tendency in that direction. And in fact, this has everything to do with the importance of weekly partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

A weekly practice of sharing in the broken body and shed blood of Christ pushes the partaker toward a habit of living in light of Christ’s sacrifice instead pursuing life by their own merit, for their own gain. It’s a gospel-empowered habitus.

James K.A. Smith, in his exceptional book You Are What You Love, focuses on the importance of consistent practices that form our habitus. He says, “The church—the body of Christ—is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites” (65).

By partaking in Communion each week we reframe our lives—we find our lives by laying them down, to take up what was broken on our behalf. The weekly practice helps us to form the habitus of being people who follow the way of Jesus even when we might not consciously choose that way.

I’m looking forward to watching this weekly practice become part of the ethos of our church.

I’m curious if you have a response to this. And also curious, how often does your church partake?

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What I’m Feasting On

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This is my 4th installment of “What I’m Feasting On”–a post where I share some of the new music, books, blogs, and television I’ve been engaging with lately. As a dad of two toddlers, these posts are extremely infrequent. Why? There’s only so much time for free time hobbies that involve reading, listening, and watching.

Let’s go.

Reading

Listening

Watching

  • Come on, you really think I have time to watch movies?

What have you been reading, listening, or watching lately?

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The Christian Power Complex

Trump power complex

The story told in Luke’s gospel about two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus is striking. The story tells of these two downtrodden men, in disbelief that the man they had once believed was the Messiah, was now dead.

But Jesus disguises his identity and joins these men for part of their journey to Emmaus, listening to them share their grief, pain, and sorrow. Jesus jumps into the conversation, reminding them of what the Messiah had come to do. At their arrival to Emmaus, Jesus breaks bread with these 2 disciples, though they still do not recognize him. As the food is passed, in a flash they recognize Jesus for who he is, and subsequently, Jesus vanishes. But the bread remains.

Has Jesus truly left the room? Well yes, but no. No he hasn’t. He is in the room, embodied in the form of bread, because he had only days earlier told his disciples that the bread signified his body, broken for those who would follow him (Luke 24:30-31).

The Play for Power

The story has consistently been a reminder to me about how even disciples of Jesus want something from God he never desires to give. These disciples were in shock over Jesus’ death primarily because they saw him as the one who would fix Israel, by again redeeming it and raising it to prominence. And based on the response Jesus gave them, it’s quite clear, they missed it!

The redemption Jesus came to bring about was not of power, but of sacrifice. Many followers of Jesus had hoped he would give them a seat at the table of power, overthrowing Roman rule. Instead, Jesus gave them bread and a cup.

About this Brian Zanhd rightly emphasizes that,

“The false hope for the kingdom of Christ to be one of conventional political power was always bound to disappoint those who fail to understand the true nature of this new kingdom, whether it’s the Emmaus Road disciples, the architects of Christendom, or the modern-day Religious Right. Jesus will not be with us as a means of conventional political power” (Water to Wine, pg. 133).

A month ago Donald Trump met with a large group of Christian evangelical leaders, a group I consider myself to be part of. While the entire meeting really deserves a larger discussion, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the meeting. In directing his thoughts toward these church and ministry leaders Trump put his emphasis on power, saying:

“You are the most powerful group in this country. But you have to realize that. You have to band together. You have to band together. If you don’t band together, you’re really not powerful. You have a powerful church. I see it. I see some of these incredible pastors and ministers and people that speak so brilliantly. And I see it. But they’re great within their audience but then outside they don’t have it. You have to band together as a group. And if you do that, you will bring it back like nothing has ever been brought back.” (read the entire meeting transcript here)

One Last Grasp

Based on the polling data from the New York Times, a large majority of evangelical Christians are planning to vote for Trump this November. His appeal to power has, thus far, worked like a charm. If it’s power you want, Trump is your guy.

I see many within my tribe walking this same Emmaus Road of fear and disillusionment, wondering what grave circumstance will overcome them next, looking for anyone who might speak to their basest fears. Meanwhile, Jesus is sitting at the table, breaking bread.

My entire life the Religious Right, Moral Majority has set fire to Democrats for the lack of morality within their platform, now at the end of their shelf life, they have abandoned their own moral compass for one last stab at power. The dying wish of a hugely influential group is not to wash the feet of those who wish them dead, but to grasp at power.

But, of course, for the Christian, power is not what Christ calls us too.

A Reason for Hope

While fear may categorize these times, I firmly believe these hard times are a new opportunity for Christians to show that the kingdom which truly matters comes not through power, but through sacrifice. Hope is not found on a ballot or in a house in DC. Hope is found only in the gospel.

If nothing else the 2016 election is forcing Christians to reprioritize where politics fits within the hope they have. Voting is not even the most important thing a Christian will do on November 8th. Let’s lay down our power to take up our prophetic role within a society soon to be let down by false advertising.

I believe the best days are ahead, no matter the outcome in November, and I believe that because the kingdom of God is coming and it is here. Through the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed for you, we inhabit the presence of God, and His presence fills this world through our hands and feet.

Friends, be the church.

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