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The world is fallen. Whose job is it to pick it up?

A year or two ago, my inbox was bombarded with messages about “protecting the sanctity of marriage”. In church meetings clipboards were passed around to collect signatures for a petition. The Church in South Africa was preoccupied with protecting a definition. And I wondered then what people outside the Church thought of us.

“Oh, that’s just the fear of man talking”, says my inner tv evangelist. “We shouldn’t care about what people think about the Church”.

True. But it’s not really the Church’s ‘image’ I’m worried about. It’s the Church’s mission. Are we meant to be a bunch of nimby’s? Let me explain with this poem by Chris Addison:

Gerald Quimby, Who Protested Everything

Have you heard of Gerald Quimby?
Quite the most appalling NIMBY,
PhD in demonstrating,
Cavilling and remonstrating.
In re: any proposition
Gerald was in opposition;
Staring at you long and hard
He’d bellow, ‘Not in my backyard!’

Gerry’s shed was full of banners,
Placards, paints and twelve-month planners
(Blank, so when the breakfast news
Reported things which in his view
Could not be borne, a morning’s work
Amidst the grow-bags and the murk
And he, by lunch, could from thin air
Stage demos in the village square).

Before too long, where once had been
A village round a charming green,
Stood nothing but a silly man,
Stacking placards in a van;
No shops, no phones, no food, no roads,
No nothing but his own abode.
Cut off, alone and ill-supplied,
To no one’s great surprise, he died.

Thus the fate of Gerald Quimby;
Here’s the moral: Be a NIMBY
If you like, but all you’ll save
Your backyard just to be your grave.

The question is not whether the traditional definition of marriage is good, or whether Harry Potter is bad, or whatever our current Church bugbear is. The question is whether or not that’s the point. I’m pretty sure the good news that Jesus taught and lived and died for had more to do with love and salvation than hate and sanction.

If, when the Church is mentioned outside our (un)holy huddle, people say,”Oh, you mean those homophobic, Harry Potter haters” (and I believe that sadly this is often the case), one can hardly help but see the Lord in your mind’s-eye, enthroned in majesty, with His head in His hands and tears in His eyes.

And no, I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic.

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I love so many of the newer worship songs that speak of the missional Church. They connect our lives in the meetings to our lives in the streets. They connect the love of God to the love of our neighbour. They inspire me.

Consider these lyrics from three contemporary songs:
“Heal my heart and make it clean/ open up my eyes to the things unseen/ show me how to love like you/ have loved me/ Break my heart for what breaks yours/ Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause/ as I walk from earth into eternity”.

“Many are asking, ‘who can show us something real?’/ longing for hope within the pain of what they feel/ so I will go down on my knees and pray/ shine your light on us that all may see you goodness/ shine your light on us that all may see your glory”.

“So let justice flow/ like and endless stream/ flowing from your heart/ to the poor and weak/ let the things I do/ and the words I speak/ reveal the awesome love/ that You have shown to me”

Fantastic! My heart get excited all over again when I read these lyrics. They point to the emergence of a relevant Church. A Church that wants to make a difference on earth and not simply “fly away, oh glory”. But… is that really why I like them?

A few years ago, many worship songs were pushing the ideal of “revival”. In the light of exciting developments in Toronto and Brownsville (among other places), worship leaders in Charismatic congregations around the world became obsessed. Even in my own ministry, the subtle shift from worship meetings as times when we brought offerings of praise to God to times when we waited for God to “zap” us was discernable. The worship lost the cross as it’s centre, and the Spirit left the proverbial building. It was a while before we even realised what had happened to us, and how much we had cheated ourselves and God out of.

Why did we love revival-oriented worship so much? Why does my heart respond so much to this newer mission-oriented worship? I’m not sure, but perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the true foundation of worship – Jesus’ blood. When we approach the cross, we are approaching our own powerlessness and God’s awesome, terrible glory. We cannot approach the cross as devotees to a cause, or spiritual people waiting patiently for a fresh move of God. We have to approach God like the man whom Jesus identified as “the one who will leave justified”, who comes before God weak with fear and trembling and hungry for mercy. As much as we love the cross and the blood, we hate to be reminded of how we got there in the first place.

And yet the cross is what we need. What we will always need.

I’m not saying these new songs are “bad”. On the contrary, they are simple expressions of what God is already doing in the Church today. But let’s not make the same mistake twice. Let’s not make an idol of this new move of God. Let’s keep our focus where it belongs – on the grace of God revealed in the blood-stained cross.

Are you a fundamentalist? You’re probably some kind of fundamentalist. Religious, Hyper-literal fundamentalist; athiest, materialist fundamentalist; even people who are cynics are fundamentally cynical. We all want to believe we know. Anyone with a relatively fully developed world-view will be fundamentalist to a degree, because the one thought that scares us more than anything is that we don’t actually have a clue.

People like to think that the image of man as a pathetic, helpless victim of forces beyond his understanding and power is just a painful memory in our collective mind, forever banished by the shining beacon of “Science and reason”. Science, that saving grace of mankind – the only force that keeps us safe from the horrors of the dark ages, when malevolent phantoms stalked our dreams. Now we live in an enlightened age. An age of objective truth. Now we can know.

Lies.

As wonderful as science has been for mankind, and as much as she has done to banish cruel witch-hunts and needless suffering at the hands of nations and nature, she can never give us objective truth. She has it in her hands. She is ever willing to share the secrets of the universe with us. Sadly, the problem lies not with science, but with men.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake wrote:

“Scientists like to think of themselves as engaged in a bold and fearless search for truth… insofar as the scientific endevour is illuminated by this heroic spirit, there is much to commend it. Nevertheless, in reality, most scientists are now the servants of military and commercial interests. Almost all are persuing carreers within institutions… the fear of career setbacks, rejection of papers by learned journals, loss of funding, and the ultimate sanction of dismissal are powerful disincentives to venture too far from current orthodoxy, at least in public… Scientists are part of larger social, economic, and political systems; they constitute professional groups with their own initiation procedures, peer pressures, power structures and system of rewards. They generally work in the context of established… models of reality… finding what is looked for is an essential feature of everyday human life. We are not surprised by such biases in politicians, nor by the differences in the way that people see things within different cultures… but the ‘scientific method’ is generally supposed to rise above cultural and personal biases, dealing only in the currency of objective facts and universal principles.”

Dr Sheldrake (who is incidentally a former Research Fellow of the Royal Society) then goes on to write more than fifty pages illustrating how helpless science is to give us truly objective truth when wielded by fallible human beings. My favourite example is taken from Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man”, in which the author describes how “purportedly objective studies of human intelligence, show how persistently prejudice has been dressed in scientific garb”. 19th century anatomist, Paul Broca, managed to cook the books so effectively that he convinced the scientific community that “in general, the brain is larger in mature adults than in the elderly, in men than in women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in superior races than in inferior races”. This was then considered to be objective truth. Gould concludes, “Quantitative data are as subject to cultural constraint as any other aspect of science, then they have no special claim on final truth”.

Loud applause and a resounding “We told you so!” from all the “anti-science”, Bible-literalist, “no such thing as dinosaurs” fundamentalists! And they are as bankrupt as any of us.

Religious fundamentalism is at least as subjective as science. Last night I was talking to some teenagers about worship. I was tasked to answer the question “how should we worship?”. I began by assuring them that this is a pointless question. There is no objective truth regarding our customs. Every denomination insists that theirs is the only “true interpretation”, and all are based ultimately on the traditions of men. Tertullian, the respected Church Father admitted candidly that he implemented many man-made rules for worship in his fellowships. These included:
– No kneeling in worship or fasting on Sundays;
– Making “the sign” on your forehead before doing virtually anything (bathing, going outside, eating, sleeping); and
– giving “oblations for the dead ” during the sacramental meal on the anniversary of their passing.
When asked by a rival for clear scriptural support for these practices, the great Church leader simply shrugged his shoulders and said (effectively), “It’s a matter of tradition and faith”.

If only we could all be so honest.

I struggle with this sort of honesty. I believe with all my heart in Jesus. I know Him experientially. My faith in Him as my savior and my decision to follow Him in His way seem reasonable to me. I want to be able to say with a confident smile, “Mine is a reasonable faith”. Sadly, this is just not possible. There is nothing objectively true about my beliefs. It’s all a matter of faith. For me. For you. For everyone.

In 1843, the father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, published “Fear and Trembling” under the pseudonym, “Johannes de silentio”. In it, he was anything but silent in his criticism of Hegel’s attractive idea of putting the irrational faith of scriptural Christianity (initially fine as a “provisional state of mind”) aside and converting to a truer, rational faith “appropriate to rational reality”. Kierkegaard rightly describes “rational faith” as an oxymoron. Pointing to Abraham’s act of obedience in (almost) sacrificing his beloved son at God’s request, he shows how the act can only be seen as one of two things: either it is an act of madness, or it is an irrational act, resting on “his belief… that he is going to get Isaac back after sacrificing him”. Either way there is nothing rational about this faith. And scripture knows no other kind.

So what then? Are we damned to subjective guessing and hoping? Are human beings ultimately “stumbling around in the dark” hoping that we might find something to believe in?

Yes.

God remains ultimately a mystery. Life remains ultimately an adventure. Faith remains our only option. And God smiles.

The “Worship Wars”. What a wierd phrase… wierd, but very real. Consider what Peter W. Marty writes regarding this struggle between the old and the new:

“When Mark Twain finally mastered the intricacies of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi and had catalogued in his mind every trifling feature of the great river, he confessed to a deep deprivation: “I have lost something which can never be restored to me in my life. All the grace, and beauty—the poetry—has now gone out of the majestic river!” The river, of course, had not changed. But familiarity with the language of the river had killed a certain spirit of wonder. The routines of navigational life had tamed the water’s treachery. The poetry was gone. Two decades of worship wars are beginning to do to the splendor of church worship what Twain’s piloting routines did to his view of the river… Years ago, it would have been unthinkable that two adjectives, contemporary and traditional, would so thoroughly captivate the imagination of the church. It would have seemed strange that these simple words could govern the views of those who plot the church’s worship. But aptivate and govern they do.”

As a worship leader, how should I approach this argument?

I am an evangelical. Evangelicals are often ignorant and love simplistic answers. When I ask the question, “What principal should guide the way we prepare for and lead worship?”, evangelicals will almost always reply with a triumphant, “well, the Bible, of course!” Lovely answer… and completely useless in practical terms. With worship practices (as with most important things) there is no “Biblical Way”. The Bible is not a rule book, or an instruction manual for life. The Message is a record of God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus, and yet, even though the Good News of the Grace of God in Jesus Christ hides behind every part of Scripture, if you don’t know the Christ, you will find Him nowhere in the books. This is our Mysterious God’s way… the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Search google scholar regarding “Biblical Worship” and you will find journal entry after journal entry and thesis after thesis of contradictory views of what “Biblical Worship” is. These arguments have been going on since the days of the Anti-Nicene Fathers!

So the Bible cannot be used to prescribe worship practices. Now what? Consider these approaches:

Catholics (and to a lesser extent, independant Charismatics) follow an Ecclesiastic approach. Simply put, “The Church” (here read “the top power structures of the congregation / denomination”) decides what is allowed and what is not. A brief glance at Church history will quickly show why trusting a few, fallible, powerful men to decide what is right is an invitation to tragedy. Call me a rebel, but I cannot accept this approach.

The “regulatory principal” championed by the descendants of the Puritan Church is straightforward: “Anything that the Bible does not command is forbidden”. Drums, guitars, rhythm circles, and certainly lasers and smoke is considered to be “strange fire” (Leviticus 10:1-2). Great if you’re into a literalistic approach to Scripture. My approach to the Bible precludes this approach (and my artistic heart rejoices! You can only handle so much Choral singing!)<

Most Independents (as well as most “Emergents”) have a pragmatic approach. If it works, do it! If it facilitates a natural, enthusiastic, relevant, worship experience then it must be right! Charismatics often say “look at the fruit”. God is “visiting” these meetings, so it must be ok! The Council of Jerusalem may have been decided by this sort of approach. The Council were convinced that the inclusion of the Gentiles must be ok, not because of Biblical prophecy regarding God’s heart for the nations (of which there were plenty!), but because the Gentiles had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This approach looks like freedom, but many argue that it leads ultimately to idolatry! When the focus shifts to making it “easy” and “relevant” for the people, we learn to seek the worship “experience” – seeing worship as something we walk into and enjoy instead of something we give to God. For this reason, I can’t accept this approach.

Some say that the “Worship Wars” are not something to worry about. Ultimately, the Church will fight it out at the extremes and ultimately settle on a happy compromise. Conflict between extremes such as “only Psalmody” and “free prophetic song” don’t need to be sorted out. We can simply adopt both. Thus we have services with Hymns, Solo artists, and worship bands all popping up. Everyone gets what they want and nobody is happy! No thanks.

Mary Conway describes an approach which she calls “maintaining dynamic tension”. In this approach, instead of deciding between the arguments (such as worship music as art vs. worship music as facilitating function; singing about a transcendent God vs. singing to an immanent God; writing that appeals to the rational mind vs. writing that appeals to the emotions; worship as joyful celebration vs. worship as vulnerable lament; worship as participation vs. worship as performance; worship as cultural vs. worship as counter-cultural; worship service as seeker-friendly evangelism vs. worship as believer’s communion, among others), we need to maintain “compromise in the positive sense: to keep these tensions
in dynamic, constructive balance.” She admits that this is easier said than done, and I am not sure that I could even define this approach correctly, let alone put it into practice!

In the words of Bono: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

In the end, the only thing that is certain is that our approach to God should be childlike. No matter what I settle on (if I ever settle on any approach) I will have to do so with a good deal of humility and sheepish grinning. I like Thomas Long’s description of worship (“Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship” 2001):

“Even when Christian worship is at its best, it is much like that Mother’s Day breakfast. It is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love, kids in the kitchen overcooking the prayers, half-baking the sermons, and crashing and stumbling through the responses on the way to an act of adoration”

That’ll do for now.

I’m becoming more and more aware how valuable blogging (especially theology discourse blogging) is. Maybe it’s sad that in my little life, although quite open-minded and well-read, I have had such limited contact with people with different philosophical and theological points of view… and I think I’m not the only one.

Case in point:

I read a fantastic blog called “Sarcastic Lutheran” (link under “Udderbloggers”). Although she’s quite “emergent” in her thinking, she also comes across as very liturgical. Very different to me. In her latest entry, she made a mind-blowing statement:

“We need to break through the isolation of sin and remorse to stand as Christ for one another. I think this is actually why we at ‘House for All Sinners and Saints’ say that we are religious but not spiritual. Spiritual feels individual and escapist. But to be religious is to do this thing of being human, not in isolation but in the midst of other sinners as equally messed up and obnoxious and forgiven as ourselves”.

Wow. What do “being religious” and “being spiritual” mean to you? Of course, this is not a debate, but simply an investigation into how our denominational heritage has coloured our understanding of these words. It may come down to nothing more than semantics. But hey! I’ll start. Up until now:

“Being religious” meant being in bondage to a system in which we make promises to God to prove our devotion (sometimes formally and sometimes informally – like through the songs we sing), and in which we believe that when we fail we invoke God’s wrath, and when we overcome, we invoke his blessings / favour.

“Being spiritual” meant being “in step with the Spirit”. Or being constantly aware of the fellowship of Christ through His Spirit in our day to day lives.”

Interesting that James (1:27) talks about “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God”. So maybe I’ve given “religion” an unfair negative connotation. Me and many others…

“The revelation of God is the abolition of religion” – Karl Barth
“Religion is the archrival of intimate spirituality… Religion, a tiresome system of manmade dos and don’ts, woulds and shoulds – impotent to change human lives but tragically capable of devestating them – is what is left after a true love for God has drained away. Religion is the shell that is left after the real thing has disappeared” – Doug Banister.

There are lots more… but I wonder what YOU think?

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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