Monday, June 01, 2009

Why nobody listens

There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Why is this not good news for anyone anymore? Why are we, at least in the Western Church losing generations?

Some of us are quick to point to moral relativism: nobody believes in Truth anymore, Right and Wrong are personal opinions, and the only people concerned about condemnation are those religious fanatics who would make themselves and the rest of us happier if they just stopped moralizing everything.

But very few people really believe in moral relativism. Anarchists, perhaps. But most of us do believe in right and wrong; most of us are outraged at evil, at corruption. What spurred the anger at AIG bonuses? What fueled the recent political protest against the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold the controversial Proposition 8? Why do courtroom dramas grab our attention? Why, in any movie or television series, do we savor the moment when the villian gets his comeuppance in the end? A sense of moral outrage.

So, in the context of all this outrage, why is the Church so laughably irrelevant to most people? Is it the scandal of Grace, where we offer forgiveness and love where everyone else demands blood? Where, against all other voices, we say "no offense is unpardonable?" Hardly. We're doing just fine demanding blood.

Instead, WE have become the outrage. The Guardian recently printed letters in reaction to another clergy abuse scandal. Line after line, the indictment of the Church's reaction to this, yet another scandal, shake with moral outrage. Outrage at the perpetrators of abuse, for certain. But more than that, outrage at the cover-up, the protection of the clergy at the expense of children, and outrage at a lack of "real contrition."

How can we witness to Grace, when we have committed the offense? Apparently, leaders in this case figure that "there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus" means "what I did wrong doesn't matter anymore to Jesus, so I shouldn't have to bother with real apologies to anyone else." This is a perversion, the complete opposite of what the presence of Grace means.

What Grace means is this: because of Jesus, we no longer have to protect our image. We protect our image because we fear condemnation, we fear what people will think of the church if they knew (we like to dress this notion up by talking about "preserving our witness"). But through Jesus, we encounter how fully and completely God loved us while we were still sinners and how he does not seek to condemn us, but to rescue us. If we truly believed that the love of God is eternal, unconditional, unwavering, and that that is enough--if we truly had surrendered our lives into his care--then we could admit to the worst of offenses without fear. There is no condemnation.

But we are still trying to prove ourselves. We are still trying to be Righteous. Don't we know that is impossible? Do we need yet another example of how Law leads to death? How long will we hang onto the impossible hope that we can justify ourselves?

Not that we would not grieve for the offense, or for the consequences, intended or otherwise. We know that since nothing can separate us from God's love, we can endure the worst humiliation, the most wretched rejection. God has already done this on our behalf (though in his case it was entirely unmerited).

So, because Christ has done the same for me, taken the condemnation on my behalf, I can say this: I am sorry. What we did and did not do was terrible, evil, and there is no excuse for it. I'm sorry for the abuse, for the cover-up, for the excuses, for the public shaming of abuse victims, for the incompetence and cruel indifference of church leaders. I am sorry for the spiritual abuse, the violation of a sacred and spiritual relationship, for the wounds we did not try to heal and the offenses we did not redress.

But I am one voice, and there are so many others in the Body of Christ that are quick to blame and slow to apologize, assign punishment and slow to accept penance. No wonder nobody listens to us. We do not really believe in Grace. Our actions say that we are not really forgiven, we are only under the Law, that there really is no good news. God help us.

What I'm talking about, apparently

Thanks to

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part II

In Part 1, I described what narrative worship is, and where the process of designing narrative worship starts. Here I'm going to give you a practical example.

In September of 2007, I had the chance to lead worship for Santa Barbara Free Methodist Church. The text for the week was the parable of the lost sheep, and our pastor intended to ponder the question, "How lost is too lost?"

So I asked the worship team to ponder this question: what is it look and feel like when we are aware we are lost? We spent the week as a team sharing our experiences of wandering, reflecting on how God had come to find us when we had gone so far away. The story of the Prodigal Son seemed to fit many of our own experiences, to be a parallel to the text for the week. We thought about what it meant to be a long way off from God, to return.

We asked that, contrary to our usual practice, that people remain seated or kneel, to enact where we start when we return to God: kneeling in contrition, or sitting in refection

Then we began with a reading from the voices of the Prophets:
Leader 1: We all like sheep have gone astray...
Leader 2: ...people lost in the Darkness...
Leader 1: ...Everyone to our own way

1: Even now, Declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart
2: Rend your hearts, and not your garments
1: Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate

Leader 3: (Will you respond in this call to worship--) As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, my God
Congregation: Lord Jesus, our hearts can find no rest until they rest in you
And we began singing "Hungry, I come to you for I know you satisfy..." Our next song, Come ye Sinners, invited us to move from contrition to action, from the awareness of our need to the promise of God's sustenance. We did this by using the traditional minor-key hymn tune for the first two verses, and segued to the major-key version written by Robbie Seay. During the segue, we read this text, from Psalm 51:

Generous in love—God, give grace!
You have all the facts before you;
whatever you decide about me is fair.
I've been out of step with you for a long time,
in the wrong since before I was born.
Going through the motions doesn't please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship
when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love don't
for a moment escape God's notice.
What you're after is truth from the inside out.
Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

And as we sang the chorus/refrain after the third verse ("I will arise and go to Jesus...") we invited people to stand. We finished with Chris Tomlin's Holy is the Lord ("We stand and lift up our hands...") and Your Grace is Enough. Musically, these songs move from mellow and reflective to driving and jubilant. Lyrically, we sequence the songs to match our bodily posture, going from sitting or on our knees in confession to standing and lifting our hands at the celebration of God's all-sufficient grace.

There are all sorts of ways to bring narrative structure to a worship gathering. As in the example above, you can consider the content of the message and build a narrative around that. A number of weeks ago, I structured our whole Sunday morning gathering using Psalm 40 as a template (and singing the U2 song of the same name as an opener and closer). For our church's recent Good Friday service, I used the classic Seven Last Words of Christ in a tenebrae service, darkening the room with each reading. The point is to listen to the story before you, structuring your story around that.

One more thing to consider: the more willing you are to treat the liturgy as a living tradition and not a script set in stone, the more freedom you have to arrange and re-invent elements for the gathering, and the more vital I believe your storytelling can be. If you don't follow a formal liturgy, you miss the benefit of being formed by the work of generations of saints before you, of the larger communion of the body of Christ. Worship is then only what you invent yourself. (See Jodi-Renee Adam's recent post for more thoughts about this.) Other other hand, if the liturgy becomes a formula, a law, then you miss the reason it came into being in the first place: to structure worship gatherings in a way that forms us into the story of God. To re-use a phrase of Jesus: the liturgy was made for man, not man for liturgy.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part 1

Thanks to Josh Linman from for suggesting this topic. Part 1, here, will give some of the background on what narrative worship is (and what it isn't), and where we have to start when approaching worship as narrative.

As worship designers, we try to think about putting all the elements of a gathering together so that they fit. Every church does this at the most rudimentary level when they sing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" on Easter Morning. Most churches will not end the service with a "gathering" song, nor begin their church service with a "sending" song. The content of our music--and by extension, the rest of what we do in worship--should exhibit some internal coherence within the service and some external coherence with the season or occasion.

But what happens if we are more intentional about the internal and external coherence of our worship design? This is something we value and appreciate from the pulpit: most pastors will seek to organize their sermons well, perhaps outlining three interpretive points and turning to application at the end (internal coherence). And most embark on sermon series, either topical or exegetical, or alternatively follow a lectionary that reflects the Christian calendar (external coherence). So why would we not think to do this in all elements of our worship gathering?

When I am planning worship, I find it most helpful to think as the gathering (the service) as a narrative, a story to be told. When I lead a creative team, my question is, "What story are we telling?" Storytelling, after all, is how God communicates with us in Scripture, how Jesus teaches those who have ears to hear. Next, I often consider three more detailed questions: "What story are we telling," I follow by asking "where do we start?" "where do we need to be in order to hear the message of the sermon?" and "if we hear that message, what would our response be?" (This is assuming, of course, that there will be a sermon. In our recent Good Friday gathering, we did not have a sermon per se, but a series of texts and reflections.)

This is more than just finding songs to fit a theme, though that is an important step. It is about orienting songs, words, and actions toward a focal point in the gathering, and orienting our gatherings toward a focal point in the season or series. It is structuring our worship with spiritual awareness and purpose.

Designing narrative worship also must be a process of submission, like any creative process. Madeleine L'Engle talks about this creative process in Walking on Water:

If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the work of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about....When the artist is truly the servant of the work, then the work is greater than the artist....When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer....We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.

So it is with designing narrative worship. We must learn to listen to the particular story that God would have us tell. Unfortunately, we don't often do a good job of listening at a church. One church I'm familiar with always starts with a fast song, and gradually gets slower. To them, you have to start a service with something flashy, exciting. And fast = flashy and exciting. And then to be ready to hear the message, you need something reflective, emotional, introspective; and this, to them, obviously calls for a slow tempo. This rigidity doesn't lend itself to a narrative aesthetic, or rather, it lends itself to only one narrative. And Jesus didn't tell only one parable. The Bible doesn't only one gospel, it has four.

Another example: I remember hearing an organist who always did some sort of modulatory interlude between the third and fourth verses of the hymn, raising the key a half-step, and pulling out all the stops. When we get to the fourth verse of "Crown Him with many Crowns," and we sing "Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways/ From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise," we don't want to sing this like a Sousa March. If we listen to the story of this hymn, we will hear that the reign of Christ culminates when the lion lays down with the lamb. And our music should reflect this.

Narrative worship can only happen if we learn to listen, to pay attention not just to the moral of the story, but the contour and structure of the story as well.

Where does this story start? Dispair? Complacency? Thankfulness? Anger?

How do we get from that start, to the place where we can hear God's word to us today? Where we are open to the possibility of something transformative? Does it require confession? Brainstorming? Silence? Movement?

And what is different now that we have heard? What has Christ made new? What captives has he freed, what mission is he sending us on?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In defense of church buildings

Earnest Goodman doesn't like church buildings. Or rather, he doesn't like what church buildings do to churches. In the seventh part of his Counterintuitive Church blog post series, Goodman describes the vicious cycle that church buildings embody. First a Church outgrows the living room it started in, then it outgrows the storefront, and then it outgrows a single location and goes multi-site. Each decision to "upgrade" seems sensible at the time, but with the effect of tying a church to its capital assets, rather that to the mission of God. Imagine, he blogs, if Mars Hill church sold all its facilities and unleashed itself and its pastor for greater things.

Goodman is articulating a large vein that runs in the Missional Church conversation, where planting churches is valued more than growing churches. I resonate with this line of thought. After all, I have worked at two churches where their buildings were the proverbial albatross around the congregation's neck. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch profiles this all-to-common scenario in writing about Boston's Church of All Nations:

It was then that the church’s leaders’ retained an architectural firm that designed an ultramodern building, a pure two-story cylinder of dull brick, without a single window…. The Truth is that the church’s fate was sealed with that single architectural decision made in the late 1960’s. The church was doomed not by theology or ideology, but by its captivity to a culture….A few years ago, its doors closed for the last time.

I get it. Buildings take vast amounts of resources, and church buildings lay dormant for so many hours of the week. Why not devote those resources elsewhere? Why not store up for ourselves treasures in heaven instead of treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal?


Walk into a cathedral, or a grand colonial-style church, or even visit a little country chapel. There is something that buildings dedicated to worship offer: a sacred space. I remember the first time I attended the Compline service at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle. Hundreds of kids my age (I was in high school) sat outside before the service, and when the doors opened, we slowly made our way into the Nave, before which a sign requested that we remain silent (the practice of silence at this service has since ended, much to my disappointment). If at no other point in the week, these peers of mine were experiencing something transcendent around them.

Great church buildings are icons, through which we catch a glimpse of Divine mystery and beauty. They are sacraments, where the Christ is proclaimed Risen until the day of his coming. My friend Alissa just wrote about her Easter experience, a beautiful piece that I would ruin by trying to pull out an excerpt. But if you read it, notice the role that the permanence of her congregation's worship space plays. Can you imagine trying to capture the same kind of beauty, mystery, and power of the Resurrection in a bowling alley?

Jesus was not spectacular. He came into the world in the humblest of settings, and died by one of the most gruesome and cruel methods of execution devised. We do not need a cathedral for Christ to be present.

And yet, God creates us to be creative people, to "make something of the world," to quote Crouch again. When we create all manner of cultural artifacts, and some specifically for worship, why would architecture be the arena where God's image cannot be seen in our creativity? Why can we create sermons, music, paintings, potluck dinners, softball teams, but not buildings?

The problem, as I see it, is a lack of creativity. So many church buildings are such poor icons. The first church I worked in was absolutely terrible. It was both ugly and impractical, like the Church of All Nations described above. But we should think beyond functionality; we are re-created not to function, but to have life and have it to the full. If we build a permanent structure, it should express that no less than the songs we write or the families we raise.

These kinds of buildings aren't easy to come by. I think many, if not most, church buildings do sap resources that would otherwise be devoted to bringing the light of Christ incarnationally into their surrounding neighborhoods. Consequently, the bar for starting construction should be high, much higher than it has been for most churches. But I cannot conclude that all church buildings work against the mission of God.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lamenting our way to the Cross.

I am now part of a congregation that does very little with the traditional/formal church calendar. I would say we are very casual--we don't dress up, we have little scripted in our gatherings, we speak extemporaneously in the Californian vernacular, and we don't follow a lectionary. Having served and worshipped in churches with more formal habits, I understand both the blessings and perils of a more overt formalism. One of the perils, for example, is that it can very easily lead to a kind of legalism, where anything outside the norm is inherrently disruptive. One of the blessings, however, is the discipline of encountering all of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, including the parts that make us squirm. Lament can be one of these parts.

So I am happy that my church is taking the journey with Christ into the desert, a 40 days of facing the difficult realities of following Jesus. I am happy we are exploring what it means to surrender our whole selves to God, including the times we are angry, disappointed, and full of dispair. I am leading my congregation in a segment of the service after the message, using the Psalms as inspiration. Much of what we are doing is a kind of lament.

The first Sunday, I did Charlie Peacock's "Down in the Lowlands," based on Psalm 69, invited them to sing along. This is not because I expect everyone to get into the same emotional place as the song, but because it is good practice, if you will, to learn how to call to God when he seems distant or unconcerned. Too, it is a good reminder that our mission is to welcome the brokenhearted, to mourn with those who mourn.

The second Sunday, I did an original song that I wrote after reflecting on the message, based on the passage in Mark 8 where Jesus rebukes Peter ("Get behind me, Satan") right after Peter has confessed Jesus as the Messiah. My pastor's take was that following Jesus means we must accept and follow Him on HIS terms, not according to our own expectations. The song is called "Still I come." Here's an excerpt:

This is not how I hoped it would go
I triumph much less than I fail

Still I come--where else would I turn?
Still I come; for you my heart yearns
Still I come, though I cannot discern

This past Sunday, I led worship for the whole service, and came upon the idea of using Psalm 40 as a blueprint for ordering the songs. I had been wanting to use U2's "40" in worship ever since my friend Dan did it at Rivercity Community Church in Kansas City. The Psalm worked as a blueprint, in part because it has such a range of emotion. The other song I used was one written by my friend Dan, called "I confess, " a fantastic song that speaks of bringing everything we have to the cross.

That's ultimately where we're headed--bringing everything we are and have to the cross. And that means not just our sins, but our righteousness, too. We repent not only of our failures, but also of trying to be our own savior. (I like how this idea is expressed here.)

I have one confession: I was pretty casual about the start of Lent myself. I have just come upon what I will fast from during Lent: chocolate, and specifically the chocolate that sites in the candy bowl that is in arms reach of my desk at work. But whether formally or casually, with deep piety or near apathy, we will, together with all the saints, come before the Lamb on Good Friday and remember what is is to share in the sufferings of Christ. On Easter, then, we will invite Him to turn our mourning into dancing.