Thematic Depth in Modern Worship

January 29, 2005

I’ve read no less than three articles in the last few weeks that criticize modern worship, among other things, for its lack of thematic depth (one of the writers – who sounded like an older gentleman – also pretty much came out and said “its just too dern loud!”). Essentially, the critics believe that modern worship tends to be too “me oriented” and too focused on upbeat, praise-oriented choruses.

I don’t hold myself out as an expert on everything that is happening in the modern worship movement, so – on one level – I can’t really speak to these criticisms. However, these articles have given me pause to reflect on a few of my favorite modern worship songs that seem to “break the mold” that they are describing.

(WARNING: these lyrics contain a lot of self-referential pronouns – is that “me oriented”? If so, I suppose a lot of classic hymns are “me oriented” as well. Think about all of the self-referential pronouns in songs like Amazing Grace and On Jordan’s Stormy Banks…)

Here they are, in no particular order:

“When the Tears Fall” (Tim Hughes). A song about pursuing God through pain and tears. (“When hope is lost/I’ll call you savior/When pain surrounds/I’ll call you healer/When silence falls/you’ll be the song within my heart”). The Newsboys do this one on their Devotion album, but I like Hughes’ original recording best.

“Blessed be the Name” (Matt Redman). Again, a song about pursuing God both in good times and bad. Unlike a lot of modern worship songs, it works really well a capella, and it has become a favorite at Highland lately, for good reason.

“We Come to Your Throne With Weeping” (Jeff Deyo). A powerful song about repentance, which seeks the mercies of God. (“We come to your throne with weeping/we come to your throne with sorrow and pain…we come to your throne with desperate hearts…We come to you/we cry out for mercy and we turn from our sins”)

“Still Here Waiting” (Todd Agnew). A song that reminds me of the story of the prodigal son. It laments our continual return to sin, but celebrates the God who – unbelievably – welcomes us every time we repent. (“I don’t know why I can’t remain safely where I always came to meet with you/and you always met with me/you’re still here waiting/Yes, I come home, and you’ll be there/and I can run into your arms”)

“I Fear You” (Jeff Deyo). A song that expresses fear, trust, and love for God, all at once.

“The Heart of Worship” (Matt Redman). Did you ever listen to the lyrics of this song? Could they be less “me oriented”? In the end, the song concludes that its not about me and its not about the music, its about Jesus.

“Word of God Speak” (Mercy Me). Actually, this represents a series of songs by Mercy Me, all of which relish in the practice of the individual spiritual disciplines, similar to the ideas expressed in classic hymns such as “Sweet Hour of Prayer”.

Well, there are a few, anyway, that seem to stray from the upbeat, praise-oriented theme. I’m sure I’ll think of others as the day goes on.


Some Random Notes

January 27, 2005

A few random notes as the week draws to a close.

First, a lot of people have been asking me about how my son is doing. The concern that everyone has shown, even though he wasn’t physically injured in the accident, has meant a great deal to our family.

Last Friday, we went to visit some of the injured kids at Cook’s in Fort Worth. We also went to the accident scene. It was a good time of healing. Afterwards, a couple of the guys who were with Levi on the day of the accident came over to spend the night. They consumed an unimaginable quantity of food, and the next morning the trash talk was flowing freely as they played Halo 2 together. The apprehensions and “processing” about this event are far from over, but it was a great feeling sensing that they were starting to find their way back to being normal, middle-school boys again.

In the meantime, we continue to pray for the family of the boy who died in the accident, and for those who were injured, who face a long period of recovery.

Second, have you been reading Chris Gonzalez’ blog entries on “post-restorationism”? Powerful stuff. I especially like his remarks about how Christians can be “emergent” while also continuing to be associated with their current faith traditions. I’d love to get to know Chris better.

Third, its looking like I will have a chance to teach Revelation during April and May in Families of Faith. I’m already looking forward to that experience. My paternal grandfather, with whom I share a very bizarre middle name (“Eris” – goddess of Chaos) was absolutely in love with this book during his later years. He shared that passion with me while I was in my teen/early adult years, and now it looks like I will have a chance to pass it along to others.

There is so much hope and inspiration to be found in this book, especially for those who are suffering. But first you have to get past the misconception that its supposed to be a giant puzzle that, if you can make the pieces fit, will give you a blow-by-blow description of the end times. It is so much more than that.

I’m going to love getting ready for this one during the next two months.

Fourth, looks like The Incredibles will be out on DVD on March 15. Can’t wait! This one beats out Anchorman and Napoleon Dynamite as my favoirte movie of the year.

Tough Week

January 18, 2005

I’m pausing at work to briefly write this note.

Some of you have probabaly already heard about the automobile accident involving several Highland middle schoolers that occurred last Sunday. One sixth grader was killed in the multiple-rollover accident, and several others were injured, some severely.

Although both of my middle schoolers were on this trip, neither of them were in the suburban that was involved in the accident. My oldest son, Levi, however, was in the van that was following the suburban, and he was a witness to the accident.

I’ve taken a lot of depositions before where I’ve heard stories about these kinds of accidents, and I’ve seen a lot of photos from accident scenes (some very gruesome), but – unlike Levi – I’ve never seen a major accident myself. He seems to be doing okay – he’s talking about it – but your prayers for him and the others who have been affected by this tradgedy would be greatly appreciated.

Our plan is to take the boys who were in the van with Levi to visit their friends, who are recuperating in Fort Worth, on Friday. Your prayers for safe travel and for physical and emotional healing during that trip would also be greatly appreciated.

Putting an End to Church Chat

January 14, 2005

No offense to Tina Fey and company (I really like attitude that comes across in Tina’s writing), but for me, the hey-day of SNL was during the 80s, when Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Chris Farley were all part of the cast. I especially liked Carvey’s regular characters. I liked Garth (“Party on Wayne!”). I liked his imitation of the first President Bush (“Not goooooooa dooooit. Wouldn’t be pruuuuudent.”). But I also loved Church Lady.

Church Lady hosted a weekly television program in which she interviewed various celebrities (usually including the weekly SNL guest host). After a little random banter, she would attempt to expose the sins of the guest. However, in a very insightful and subtle twist, she would not out-and-out accuse the guest of wrongdoing. Instead, she would utter her trademark passive-aggressive phrase: “Well isn’t that speeeecial.”

Dana Carvey has been off of the SNL cast for well over a decade, now, but church chat is still alive and well.

I’m not talking about the holier-than-thou style of conversation that Church Lady mastered, although its still prevalent among many evangelicals. I’m talking about the general banter that tends to ensue whenever the subjects of religion and faith come into play.

I’m guessing most of you have church chats all the time. They include statements like this: “I’m a member at x church.” “Where do you attend?” “Those folks over there are really active in their church.” “We really love our bible class!”

Somewhere along the way, church chat became the primary language of our faith. Its considered polite, proper conversation. No one gets offended by it. And, as a bonus, its often used as a subtle way of grading the sincerity of one’s faith. “F” Christians aren’t members of any church. “D” Christians are members somewhere, but don’t attend regularly. “C” Christians attend fairly regularly, but don’t do much else. “B” Chrisitans are “active” in their church. And “A” Christians have ascended to the pinnacle of church leadership (“He’s an elder, you know!”)

But I’ve been noticing something lately.

Jesus was not big on church chat. Its not that he didn’t know how to talk about the coming church. Its just that “church” wasn’t what rested at the center of his teaching.

Open your New Testament and start reading from the gospels. What is the subject of Jesus’ teachings again and again? Gospel. Kingdom. Discipleship. Imagine what scripture would look like if Jesus merely engaged in church chat with everyone he encountered:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the coming opportunity to attend church.” (Mt. 4:23)

OR “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall hear great preaching every week.” (Mt. 5:3)

OR “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will really enjoy their bible class.” ((Mt. 5:6)

Am I nuts, or does church chat drain the very life out of the gospel?

There is a dramatic difference between “church” (by which I mean the prevalent, culturally acceptable way of “doing Church”) and Kingdom.

“Church” is a place you go once or twice a week. Kingdom is a way of living out every moment of your life.

“Church” is about giving 10% of your money, if you’re really pious. Kingdom is about laying down your money, your time, and your life for a broken world.

“Church” says “We’ve figured out what God wants, come and join us if you like.” Kingdom people see themselves as sinners who have come face-to-face with the mercy of God. They seek to go into the world to bring hope to others like themselves.

“Church” is concerned with the organization of ministries. Kingdom is concerned with a lifestyle of submission and service to others.

“Church” is a place where people who are highly regarded can be put in charge of things: budgets, programs, classes. Kingdom is a place where the least are the greatest.

“Church” is easy to define in terms of member lists, meeting places, and meeting times. The Kingdom is an eternal mystery that defies simple definitions and categorizations.

Its easy to know who the good “Church” people are. But in the Kingdom, wolves often appear as sheep, and spiritual titans are found in the most unlikely places.
“Churches” will end when people lose interest in them. The Kingdom will last forever.

This list could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

I’m not saying that people should stop talking about “churchy” things altogether (after all, churches and church programs can be great tools in the advancement of the Kingdom). However, I AM saying that when church chat becomes the primary language of faith (rather than the language of the Kingdom), the gospel suffers.

God help me. I’m growing weary of church chat. I’m ready to branch out. I’m ready to adopt the language of the Kingdom when I talk about my faith.

What would it be like if, next time someone happened to learn I’m associated with Highland, I avoided the ususal stuff: “Yeah. Love my class. And Mike’s great, isn’t he? And aren’t the people friendly? Isn’t the staff great? I go to early service, you know.”

What if, instead, it went something like this: “You know the folks that gather at Highland on Sundays are an imperfect lot. We have addicts and former addicts. We have people who struggle with sexual sin. We have people who are sick. We have people that are poor. We have people who are wealthy, but drowning in debt because of bad decisions. We have other wealthy folks who are struggling with greed. And, yeah, the worship is great, and the preaching and teaching is great, and we love the staff. But what is really exciting about Highland is how more and more people are being filled with a burning desire to bring the presence of Jesus to to poor and needy of the world.”

What sort of reactions to you think I’ll get? Blank stares? Quick efforts to change the subject? Efforts to steer things back into more conventional “churchy” talk?

Lots of folks will squirm, to be sure. But who said the whole discipleship thing was supposed to be comfortable? If Chrisitans need to wake up to the reality that our presence in the world no longer resembles that of Jesus, perhaps church chat should be the first thing to go…

Meet Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy

January 13, 2005

The first photograph from the Narnia movie, due next December, has recently been published on NarniaWeb. Here, for the first time, are the Pevensie actors in full costume:

With Revenge of the Sith in May and the first Narnia film in December, and a whole slew of other cool looking projects on the way in the next 12 months, I probably need to start saving for movie tickets right now.

The Crisis of the Evangelical Conscience

January 10, 2005

The data continues to roll in. Modern evangelical Christians are no better, and sometimes worse, than mainstream Americans in their divorce rates, giving, and premarital sexual activity.

Professor Lamin Sanneh has said that “the cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and with the religion tamed, it is open season on the West’s Christian heritage.”

When are Christians, on a broader level, going to wake up and understand what has been happening to us for the last fifty years?! Most of us have utterly rejected the notion of discipleship as a necessary component of our faith, in lieu of more comfortable feel-good-about-yourself health-and-wealth beliefs.

This isn’t a small bump in the road. This isn’t something that “we need to work on.” This isn’t something that is “good to be reminded about every once in a while.”

This problem cannot and should not be marginalized. It demands attention, repentance, and self examination in a way that most of us have never experienced.

Don’t Miss These Five Words

January 8, 2005

If you’re not careful, you’ll miss it.

If you start looking too quickly for ways to relate the apocalyptic images of plagues and monsters and angels to modern events, if you decide what you really want to discover is how the end times will come about, if you rush too quickly to connect the closing chapters of the book to the modern return of the state of Israel to the middle east, you’ll miss it for sure.

You’ll skip right over the five words that tell you everything you need to know about what follows.

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” John writes in verse 1 of chapter 1 of the last book in scripture.

Don’t dismiss those words as introductory fluff, necessary only to provide John’s final epistle with a semi-arbitrary title that roughly fits some of the events that follow, because those words hold the key to everything that happens in the next twenty-two chapters.

And don’t call it the “Revelation of John,” either. John wouldn’t like that on bit, because, in the end, its not his book.

First and foremost, the final book of the bible is a book in which Jesus reveals himself to us in the most glorious form that he is found in scripture. He is the prophet that speaks the word of God. He is the priest that walks among his churches. He is the conquering king that enters victoriously on a white steed. He is a seemingly slain lamb that now lives forever and ever. He is the only One worthy of seizing the reigns of history as God moves to renew all of creation.

Miss that point, and you’ve missed the entire book, as far as John is concerned.

I know that a lot of folks these days take great interest in what the final book of scripture has to say about the end times. Such fascination is understandable: who doesn’t want to see, in ways that are as tangible as possible, how God is moving to fulfill his promises in scripture?

But, the more I read this book, the more I am convinced that it invites us (as it has all Christians throughout history) to experience it in much the same way that John did. This book isn’t a carefully crafted riddle that – if it is rigidly parsed with sufficient care – will reveal the secrets of the last days of our world. It is a mystery. And a mystery should be experienced mystically: with wonder and awe.

Try this sometime: open your bible to Revelation and just read it. Don’t ask questions about what the seven eyes on the beast signify or about whether God has already unleashed any of the seven plagues on the earth.

Just let yourself be lost in the wonder of it all. Horrid monsters: dragons and hybrid beasts, a blood-drunken prostitute (the KJV, which uses the “w” word, comes much closer to conveying an accurate connotation for that term) run rampant through the earth. Hail and fire rain from heaven. A sea of glass before an eternal throne. Praises and inscence rising up before heaven, the prayers of the saints. Ghosts of slain disciples wail from beneath the altar.

But in the end, all evil is destroyed in spectacular, decisive fashion. Blood flows, but peace finally reigns. All of creation is new.

Be satisfied just to know that somehow, even now, this same story is unfolding on the earth. Don’t worry so much about HOW. Just trust that it IS, perhaps in more ways than one. It is a story of kings and kingdoms, past and future, to be sure, but perhaps it is also a story that is unfolding in your own heart even as you read it.

And at the center of it all: Jesus – the passover lamb, the triumphant invader, the eternal light of the new creation, the husband who longs for the same Church that even today suffers in his name.

When you’re finally finished, don’t start searching the headlines in your favoirte news source for clues. Don’t hunt in vain for signs that it is all coming about on some grand, geopolitical scale.

For the most part, Revelation doesn’t invite us to search the earth for signs. It invites us to watch the skies with anticipation, to long for the day when He returns in all of His glory. It pleads with us to hold on through temptations to compromise with culture and to yield to persecution. It demands that we wholly reject complacency – even when we are comfortable.

In Revelation, Christ is revealed. And when Christ is revealed in all of his glory, only one response is appropriate or even possible. It is the response that is repeated several times in the closing chapters, and that comes just before the doxology at the close of the book.

Three words, this time.

“Come, Lord Jesus.”