Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Like many large American protestant churches, the church I presently attend has what would be labelled a contemporary style of worship. We have the obligatory praise band with a worship leader who is an excellent singer and musician. During most songs, the congregation stands, and there is freedom to move around, and even dance, if one is so disposed at the moment.  The lead pastor (no one dare say the words "senior pastor" or "head of staff" into today's ultra-egalitarian cultural regimen) delivers excellent and edifying sermons in these services, and the church is a serving church that supports and is involved in many wonderful missions. So this is a very, very good evangelical church!

But... as I was standing in worship recently, singing one of the current popular praise songs, I became aware that most of the men were not singing.  In fact, most of them were fairly stationary as they politely stood, and here and there some were raising their hands. Of course, a few were much more expressive, but almost all of them were not singing! In fact, many of the women, even though they tended to be more expressive in moving around, also were not singing.  Even I, a veteran pastor who has developed and presided over many worship services (traditional, contemporary, and "blended"), only sang certain songs, forgoing many of the ones with more involved cadences.

Now what I was observing is a phenomenon that many have noted who study and comment on the current trends in American worship: that men (and many women as well) tend to not sing in a typical contemporary service where a praise band leads while people read the words of songs as they are projected onto a large screen.  Many worship services today are dominated by musicians who more than lead people in worship, they essentially worship on their behalf. Worship in many cases has become the "work of the professionals" rather than the "work of the people," as is the meaning of the Latin word "liturgia" and its English derivative, "liturgy." As I reflected on this (yes, I did this during the service, even during the sermon) it occurred to me how similar these dynamics are to the old medieval Mass prior to the time of the Reformation.

In the medieval Mass, the congregants did not participate very much in what was happening. As the priest "celebrated" (which usually meant repeating the words in a rote manner), he alone drank from the Cup during the Eucharist.  The people were permitted to receive only the Bread. However, even this was avoided by most medieval worshippers because they were so fearful of handling it improperly. They thought only a trained and specially consecrated priest could do it correctly and worthily. (Just prior to the Reformation, many people took the Bread only once a year out of fear of mishandling the Sacrament.) Even singing was reserved for special choirs or trained musicians, causing congregational singing to disappear entirely from medieval worship until John Hus reintroduced it (with guitar, by the way) at Bethlehem Chapel (in Prague in the first decade of the 1400's). Clearly, worship was primarily the province of the special and the specialised.  Mere ordinary people simply were expected to observe the performance with subservience, awe, and respect.

It appears that in contemporary worship much of the medieval divide between the congregation and worship leaders has re-emerged.  Just as the priest and other specially authorized liturgists were the only ones "celebrating" while everyone else just watched, so today the congregation is gathered as a compliant audience for the performers who sing and make melody.  I have many times heard ministers associated with contemporary worship styles use the word "stage" or "platform" for the front (or center in some cases) area of the sanctuary.  Even the word "sanctuary" has been replaced in many churches with the term "auditorium."  Now, I enjoy a good contemporary service as much as anyone, and most of the churches I have served as pastor have "contemporized" their worship styles, but perhaps this approach carries with it an inherent danger of discouraging people from feeling like they are truly a part of what is happening in worship.

This makes me wonder if one of the reasons that traditional worship is so fiercely held onto by some congregations is not just because of a fear of change (although that is the reason many times), but because people feel more involved when congregational singing is centered in the congregation itself rather than a select group of musicians.  When the words are clear, the melodies are simple, and there is theological substance, then worship truly can be "the work of the people."  In most contemporary services there is a growing trend to sing two or three of the old hymns.  Even with some alterations or additions to the words, people old and young generally will sing these without hesitation and with deep emotional investment (even when the person is otherwise unfamiliar with the hymn).  They are worshipping from within, sharing a spiritual moment with those around them, and participating with the worship leaders rather than just being led by them.  There is a real sense that together we are in the presence of God!

Now, I'm not suggesting that all praise bands be "dis-banded" (sorry, I couldn't resist the cheap pun) and that we fill worship with just tired old hymns accompanied only by poorly played organs just because they are better known or easier to sing.  But I am saying that it is important that music be used to enable people to be participants and doers of worship rather than extraneous appendages.  Contemporary music can be just as effective in evoking personal involvement and investment as any old time Gospel song if the worship leaders are consciously committed to being servants of God and the people. Expertise and excellence in all the aspects of worship are good when used to enhance the experience of worship, but are quite deadening when trying to impress everyone.   Leaders of worship in any style need to be conscious of leading people into an encounter with the living God.  

Well, next Sunday I will be back at the fine, faithful church that inspired this friendly rant about contemporary music. Again I'll be taking my place as an easily distracted worshipper with the fallible yet forgiven people of God.  I know the music will be good.  I will enjoy singing both the old and the new, and hopefully I can allow the Spirit to keep my mind focused on more meaningful topics, such as the love, grace, and truth of Jesus the Christ.  And this time, maybe I actually will listen to the sermon.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


It seems that Christians in the United States and Western Europe are entering an uncomfortable era of disfavor in society. This is something new and daunting for us in the so-called "First World," but is something that Christians in the rest of the world are quite used to and familiar with. While this is troubling, and, like many other believers, I have fears of how this may become expressed in not just hatred, but outright persecution of those who name the Name of Christ, it is probably something that will make the church stronger and more truly authentic in living out the Gospel of Jesus. After all, when one has lots of enemies, there are more than ample opportunities to love them. 

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philospher and follower of Jesus, remarked that the best way to destroy the Christian faith was for it to be favored by society. Well, we have experienced this "attack" of being favored over the past years in American society, and the result has been as Kierkegaard predicted: a weak and insincere Christianity that literally lusts after the affections of the prevailing culture. Like barnacles attaching to a ship's hull, we see many Christian groups today going the directions mandated by our society. Rather than being a church of the Word, we have become a church of the world. (This is true of not only the "liberal" church, but also the conservatives and evangelicals as well.) 

In the new context of disfavor, there is one very good discovery that is occuring. The Gospel message of Jesus being God in human flesh, living among us, teaching and modeling God's intentions for humans, then dying on the Cross for our sins, and being raised from the dead by God on the third day is becoming fresh and new again. For the believer, the amazing power of God is becoming clearer to see. For the nonbeliever, the incredible foolishness of such claims are seen in stark relief to the supposed wisdom of secular sensibilities and modern "group-think" rationalities. Kierkegaard encapsulated this point in his writing, A Sickness Unto Death.
Imagine the mightiest Emperor that ever lived; and imagine some poor peasant, who would think himself fortunate if he could but once catch a glimpse of the Emperor, and would tell his children and grandchildren of this as the most important event of his life. Suppose that the Emperor were to send for this man, who had not supposed that the Emperor knew of his existence, and informed him that he wished to have him as a son-in-law. In all probability, the peasant, instead of being delighted, would be offended, since he would suppose that this could mean only that the Emperor wanted to make a fool of him!
And now for Christianity! Christianity teaches that every man, say an ordinary man who would be quite proud of having once in his life talked with the King of Denmark, can talk with God any moment he wishes, and is sure to be heard by Him, that for this man's sake God came into the world to suffer and die. If anything would stun a man, surely it is this. Whoever has not the humble courage to believe it, must surely be offended by it.
While the Gospel was considered polite and acceptable by our society, the true nature of its claims were obscured, even hidden from believer and nonbeliever alike.  But now its truth jumps out like a lion springing from the brush.  We must deal with these audacious claims, as Kierkegaard so aptly states.  Most people will be offended, and see Christian belief as absurd, even dangerous. But for those with "humble courage," it is beautiful and life-giving, and is more important than having the approval and favor of the world.   
So, there may be some rough times ahead for Christians in the United States and Europe.  But now we will discover and share what Christians in the rest of the world have known for some time now: that the Gospel is a sweet aroma that smells like death to those who reject Christ, but has the pleasant smell of life to those who follow him. (II Corinthians 2:15-16*)  In these days, people will no longer follow Jesus because it is good for their reputation or business contacts, but will only follow because they are sincere in their belief that this is true and that they are called by God to live out this truth despite disfavor and rejection. (II Corinthians 2:17*)

*For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To one we are an aroma that brings death: to the other, an aroma that brings life.  And who is equal to such a task?  Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.  On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Analysis Relevance (or Moses Still Speaks)

A textual analysis of the most relevant passages regarding homosexuality would take some space, and would be better served by a more knowledgeable exegete than I am. (For extensive analysis, see Richard Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament; and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.)  Here, however, are some broad observations which controvert the claims of many who bemoan the relevance of the biblical texts for a modern understanding of homosexuality. If you are a reader who is convinced that any questioning of homosexual practice is wrong, or that the moral sensibilities of politically liberal Americans and Europeans are above reproach, then please do not read this.  It will just upset you.

First of all, the biblical teachings about homosexual sex are far more 
knowledgeable than many would think. We moderns like to think we are so much more sophisticated than those who lived before us, and this is especially so regarding the ancients. This simply is wrong, and very wrong regarding ancient societies. The Hebrew peoples, later the Israelites, and even later Judaism were familiar with all kinds of sexual practices which were indulged in and celebrated by many of the peoples surrounding the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. (Technically speaking, Israelite is a later designation for the Hebrew people, as the term Hebrew - in Egyptian and Akkadian, habiru or hapiru  - is earlier.)  Given the Hebrew/Israelite experience with a sovereign God who claimed to be the one true God who wanted to be revealed through a unique relationship (covenant) with a unique people (community), they developed a unique clarity regarding what sexual practices were intended by this God, and what ones were not. The Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus passages prohibiting homosexual practice are very clear and are far beyond simply being a sheltered society's inability to view it apart from marital infidelity, or to view it as no more consequential than directions for eating or instructions for acceptable clothing fashions around 1000 BC. Sexual confusion and disobedience are viewed as particularly destructive to individuals and society.  They are more than incidental to human customs, and are viewed as a denial of God as the Creator and are a defiant rejection of the inviolable order of creation.  

Paul picks this up in his writings, especially in his letter to the Romans. It is very likely (as indicated in I Corinthians 7) that he had access to some kind of pre-Gospel version of Jesus' teachings. In these he finds Jesus reaffirming the sexual code in the Torah, particularly in Jesus' words on marriage, where Jesus frames marriage in terms of the created order, and the image of God the Creator ("In the beginning God created them male and female...." Matthew 19:4). Paul expands the idea that homosexual practice is a clear and graphic illustration of human arrogance before God, where mere humans deny the authority of God as the creator of all and seek to subjugate the created order to their own will and whim. This is for Paul the nature, result, and judgment of sin. 

The early Christians, the apostles, Paul, Jesus, the Prophets, Jews, Israelites, Hebrews, and even Abraham and Sarah were all familiar with peoples and opinions that approved, promoted, and celebrated homosexual practice in various ways: as religious service, partnerships (both short term and lifelong), extramarital expressions, philosophical lessons, and plain old raw animalistic lust. In Jesus and the early church's time, there even was some discussion among the Greeks regarding the idea that homosexual relationships were superior to marriage, since women were associated with marriage and women were thought to be greatly inferior to men (in Greek society). Romans, who viewed marriage more as a contractual agreement (an idea central to the later European view of marriage), did not see any benefit to two males marrying, since women usually transferred property rights. As you can see, our modern experience is in no way more informed or enlightened than Paul, Jesus, or the ancients. 
The biblical texts speak from a clear understanding of the God who spoke personally to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; called out and covenanted with a despised violent mercenary slave people; and spoke guidance and grace to them (and us) through the Torah and the Prophets. This God finally entered human events as a person like us, experiencing human life, being obedient to God's Word (which in Jesus' understanding clearly revealed God's intention for human sexual expression), so that in his death there would be a sacrifice for our sins, and then through raising Jesus from the dead validating the claims and teachings of Jesus. These texts announce that through the Messiah, the Christ, we too may live freely by the Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  If this God is truly God, then the guidance of God's Word (including sexuality) is trust worthy. If the Word (Torah, Prophets, Historical books, Wisdom books, Psalms, Gospels, and the Epistles) are not trustworthy (including sexual guidance), then the God of the Bible is a ruse, a colossal deception! 
Now, this is what is at stake in the "analysis" of these texts. Most of the world could care less about these ancient writings, seeing them as irrelevant and too troublesome to bother with. However, the way a person reads these texts determines whether one embraces "the faith delivered to the saints" or instead rejects it for a new designer faith of one's own fancy. The latter leads to temporary peace with this world but is in eternal conflict with God and creation.  The former leads to a life of temporary conflict with this world but is at eternal peace with God.