A Gift from the Judson University Choir

The Judson University Choir traveled to Iowa and Illinois over the weekend as part of our annual fall tour.  I didn’t have much time to write, so I’ll plan to continue the series of reflections on worship in the contemporary American church next week.  In the meantime, here’s a song that we’ve sung since 2012, a song of hope that never gets old, though we have sung it every concert for six solid years.  May this wonderful song of assurance, from a concert in 2017 (the most recent professional video footage we have of the song), be a blessing to you.

“I Will Rise” (Tomlin, et al.) — The Judson University Choir

The Lord be with you!

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An Appreciation of Eugene Peterson (in Three Parts)

PetersonOne of America’s favorite pastor/theologians died last week.  As is their wont, Christianity Today provided excellent coverage, none better than this collection of thoughts from several whom Peterson influenced greatly over the years.  To this chorus, let me raise a personal, three-part appreciation:

Three of Eugene Peterson’s Books You Probably Haven’t Read (but Should):

  • Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places — the first in a five-volume series, what one reviewer called “the pivotal work on spiritual theology”
  • Subversive Spirituality — a series of short essays and articles, including a revelatory interview done by those wiseacres at The Door in the early 90’s
  • The Wisdom of Each Other — What Lewis did for understanding the demonic (serious subject, humorous tone) in The Screwtape Letters, Peterson does for extolling the benefits of friendship (serious subject, winsome tone)

Two of Peterson’s I Haven’t Read (but Everyone Else Has–and I Will Soon):

  • Leap over a Wall — subtitled Reflections on the Life of David
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction — subtitled Discipleship in an Instant Society (and, good gracious, if we were “instant” in 1980, when this was written, what are we now?)

One Lengthy Quote from Peterson (the Best Succinct Thoughts on Suffering I Have Ever Encountered):

These excerpts come from Peterson’s introduction to the book of Job from his wildly popular paraphrase, The Message.  Read and be blessed.

The moment we find ourselves in trouble of any kind–sick in the hospital, bereaved by a friend’s death, dismissed from a job or relationship, depressed or bewildered–people start showing up telling us exactly what is wrong with us and what we must do to get better.  Sufferers attract fixers the way road-kills attract vultures. . . .

The book of Job is not only a witness to the dignity of suffering and God’s presence in our suffering but is also our primary biblical protest against religion that has been reduced to explanations or “answers.”  May of the answers Job’s so-called friends give him are technically true.  But it is the “technical” part that ruins them.  They are answers without personal relationshp, intellect without intimacy. . . .

On behalf of all of us who have been misled by the platitudes of the nice people who show up to tell us everything is going to be just all right if we simply think such-and-such and do such-and-such, Job issues an anguished rejoinder.  He rejects the kind of advice and teaching that has God all figured out, that provides glib explanations for every circumstance.  Job’s honest defiance continues to be the best defense against the clichés of positive thinkers and the prattle of religious small talk. . . .

The book of Job does not reject answers as such.  There is content to biblical religion.  It is the secularization of answers that is rejected–answers severed from their Source, the living God, the Word that both batters us and heals us.  We cannot have truth about God divorced from the mind and heart of God.

In our compassion, we don’t like to see people suffer.  And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse.  But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job’s friends, not to do our “helping” with the presumption we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them “better.”  We may look at our suffering friends and imagine how they could have better marriages, better behaved children, better mental and emotional health.  But when we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep several things in mind.

First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don’t really understand the full nature of our friends’ problems.  Second, our friends may not want our advice.  Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do no suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more.  When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.

So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering–which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway–perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able–entering the mystery and looking around for God.  In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and–if they will let us–join them in protest and prayer.  Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing.  As we look at Job’s suffering and praying and worshiping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.

And One Provocative P.S. on the Subject of Sin, on which Peterson was never easy, but with which he was always gracious:

This comes from Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.

Most of the sins that we do not commit are not because of our virtue, but because we lack either energy or opportunity.  We would sin a great deal more than we do if we were only energetic enough and were provided more generous opportunities.  It is well to stay in touch with those sins that we would have committed if we had had the chance.

Coming next week (Lord willing): More Reflections on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

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Reflection #16 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 16 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #16: Creative contemporary worship leaders are using a variety of instruments–beyond the stereotypical praise band lineup (electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, keys, and vocalists)–to great effect.  

A Couple of Questions:  Why is this a big deal?  Because where utilizing instruments in the service of praising God is concerned, if the resources are available (this is a big if, but not as big as it might seem; see below), worship leaders should seek to convey different aspects of 5121-mark-altrogge.220w.tnGod’s character via different musical means.  Worship leader Mark Altrogge (“I’m Forever Grateful”), pictured, once opined that worship leading is akin to holding a jewel up to see how a particular facet catches the light.  The next week, you twist the jewel just slightly, and a different facet of the jewel catchings the light in a different manner.  Practically speaking, different aspects of God’s character are best informed by different styles of music.  If the aspects of God’s character all seem to be informed perfectly well by typical praise-band instrumentation, perhaps you’re not helping your congregation appreciate as much of God as there is to appreciate.  (Feel free to insert a plug for use of a lectionary here.)

I have a small budget, so how can I promote more variety of musical expression in worship?  Consider mining the congregation for talented musicians who haven’t given a thought to contributing to corporate worship in the past because they don’t play electric guitar, bass guitar, or drums.  Just yesterday my wife and I worshiped at a church where, in addition to the typical praise-band fare, a gentleman played trumpet–nothing to make anyone forget Phil Driscoll or pine for Miles Davis, but tasty fills and obbligato lines that added a wonderful acoustical change of pace to the routine.  The same guy played congas on a couple of tunes–again, nothing ridiculously tough or indicative of fabulous chops, just enough to add a little spice to the mix.

I know another worship band that, once a month or so, features an electric banjo.  Why?  Because the guy loves to play, is good, and wants to serve.  With the gear he has, he can make the thing sound like an electric guitar if he wanted, and he does on occasion, but he also plays country-fied licks on cwm standards, and it sounds great.  How about strings or other orchestral instruments?  Chances are good you have former first-chair-in-the-high-school-band flutists, violinists, and French horn players in your congregation.  Why not feature them on occasion?  That means that you have to find charts for them, so. . . .

A Couple of Resources: If you are worship leader serving the contemporary American church, chances are good you are aware of these two resources.  If not, let me introduce you to Praise Charts and LifeWay Worship.  In my years of serving as a weekend-warrior worship leader, I used both services with great regularity.  In the church I served most recently, our praise band had the following: the principal bassist for the Elgin Symphony, a clarinetist who had studied in college with a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a quality French horn player, a good alto sax player, a couple of pretty-good violinists, and a pretty-decent cellist.  I used them all in the band (maybe once a month, and not all at the same time), and I found music for them via these excellent online sites.

Praise Charts has a wealth of material, some of it free, but specializes in orchestrations that are as-closely-as-possible transcribed from the most-popular recordings of cwm songs.  If you have really fine orchestral players, they will love digging their teeth into these charts.  LifeWay takes volunteer church musicians to heart and features generally-easier-to-play charts that won’t tax players who aren’t picking up their axes with any regularity anymore.  Both services offer songs in multiple keys.  When I was leading, I often utilized two keys on some songs to allow us to modulate up a step at the end of the song to give the corporate experience a lift.  (I’ve often wondered why more worship leaders don’t do this.)

A Couple of Other Ideas:  Just this weekend, I became aware of a new website, Diverse Church Music, which, as it grows, is going to be a wealth of resources for those who want to be a little more global and/or a little less predictable re: their songs and accompaniment in worship.  Also, consider joining the folks at The Center for Congregational Song for an a cappella Sunday on March 10, 2019, when all around the world, worshiping communities will sing at least one song without instrumental accompaniment.  If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it.  In my two most recent church positions, I did entire services a cappella (hymns, yes, but also cwm) at least once a year.  You’d be amazed at how well and enthusiastically your congregation will sing when they’re not having to compete with amplified instruments.

The Lord be with you as you seek to worship Him in all His vastness with an appropriately vast variety of instrumental accompaniment!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Trinitarian worship leaders.

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Reflection #15 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 15 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #15: As one whose metabolism seemed to go on permanent leave after my sophomore year of high school, I tend to listen more and give more credibility to pastors who don’t look like they just came from a GQ photo shoot.  (I am guessing it works the other way around for some people.)   

What do revered theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), influential evangelist chestertonGeorge Whitefield (1714-1770), esteemed preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), and respected theologian G. K. Chesterton (pictured, 1874-1936) have in common?  All of them, for good portions of their adult lives, struggled with obesity.  Portly pastors.  Beefy brothers.  Hefty hombres.  And passionately committed to spreading the gospel, winning souls for Christ, and/or making difficult theological concepts comprehensible for Christians the world over.  Both/and at work here, not either/or.

I have commented in this space earlier re: the number of churches–which, historically speaking, have clearly placed great emphasis on the “presentational” aspects of Sunday worship–that now regularly feature a greater cross-section of physical fitness on stage, and this seems to happen a bit more frequently for those bringing the Word, as well.  Pastors in non-presentational, low-church settings have rarely been subject to fat-shaming–in fact, the opposite has usually been true–but now their (mostly) brothers in churches that project their larger-than-life visages on gigantic screens each week are being extended a little grace in this area.

Let’s acknowledge the, er, elephant in the room any time we talk about obesity in the Body of Christ and Americans’ general obsession with superficial beauty and our penchant, even in the Church, to worship at the altar of the airbrush.  Legalism where corpulence is concerned can be conjured up with little effort.  And those of us who aren’t as physically fit as we would like can easily work up a weird mixture of righteous indignation (“I’m more gracious than you”) and reverse snobbery (“I’m more in tune with the mission field [which, in America, is increasingly overweight] than you”).  Neither extreme helps the cause.

I find the following intriguingly titled, both/and exhortation from Jared C. Wilson more beneficial.  I will excerpt “In Praise of Fat Pastors” below, but in case you don’t get a chance to read it in its entirety, know that his one-sentence opening paragraph, answering the obvious objection to the title, is “Sort of.”  (He writes from a complementarian perspective, but his words ring true for egalitarians, as well.)

In the age of Pastor Fashion and sermons forbidding the eating of pork in service of the gospel of weight loss — I mean, does anything scream “Judaizer” more loudly than preaching the dietary law? except maybe actually preaching circumcision — don’t the pastors who don’t care about their image, their profile, their reputation seem more dignified? . . .

I don’t think you even need me to list all the evidences that American evangelicalism is obsessed with image, with cool, with seeming impressive. What we need are men (and women) who will lead the way in rejecting the Photoshopping of our faith. And wouldn’t it be a huge relief, wouldn’t we all just kinda exhale in relief if we were led in this way to stop sucking in our guts? Our stomach might increase, but wouldn’t we actually decrease in the right ways? Wouldn’t that kind of freedom to breathe — the freedom to simply be ourselves — be a fruit of the gospel? . . .

So no, I am not advocating gluttony here, just a Christward self-disregard, a godly un-self-consciousness. I am praying for an increase in the tribe of self-forgetful pastors — if not all-out dorky ones — with platforms thrust upon them genuinely “aw shucks”-wise, men who will love not their images even unto death. Men who at least are not obsessed with the camera catching their good sides. Give me a fat guy in the pulpit so long as he preaches not himself and not the law but the glorious gospel. And if you’ve got a pastor with washboard abs who does that– well, that’s okay too, I guess.

I preach to myself as much as anyone with many of these reflections, so here’s the takeaway: I will try hard not to roll my eyes every time a preacher throws in gratuitous references to daily workout regimens, and I hope my physically fit friends will extend a little grace to those of us who can’t buy off the rack in most stores.  And I pray for, in Wilson’s phraseology, “a Christward self-disregard, a godly un-self-consciousness” among our pulpiteers, “an increase in the tribe of self-forgetful pastors.”

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Variety in the praise team.

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Keller on Kavanaugh (Sorta)

I am taking a break from the ongoing series of reflections on worship in the contemporary American church this week.  The previously scheduled look at pastors and GQ will appear next week, Lord willing.

It’s been a long 10 days or so in many ways, and this past weekend I found helpful (once again) thefDF3OB_x writing of Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  Though Keller doesn’t mention the new Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States by name in this piece–“How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t”–it’s clear the virulent partisanship surrounding the appointment hearing and subsequent additional FBI investigation of Brett Kavanaugh served as the New York Times‘ impetus for publishing this essay, an excerpt from Keller’s book Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy.  (Kudos to the Times for publishing a piece that doesn’t pander to its usual political slants.)  Keller provides the kind of middle-ground sensibility here that causes some Christians to yearn for a third branch of American politics: Keller on the Insufficiency of America’s Two-Party System for Christianity.

The Lord be with you!

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Reflection #14 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 14 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #14: Pulpits are endangered species in the contemporary American church . . .

. . . which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The average old-school church pulpit weighs–I don’t know–500 lbs.  It’s cumbersome, hard to move.  It swallows up smaller preachers, bringing to life the phrase “talking head.”  Preachers still need a place to put their Bible, sermon notes, and, er, water bottles, though, so the modern “pulpit” across the spectrum of the contemporary American church tends to be a round, high-top table, very much like the kind you see at your trendy, neighborhood dining establishment.

What’s to like about this?  Plenty.  Basic communication theory, covered a few blog posts ago, posits that removing (or muting or lessening) physical obstacles that stand between the sender (in this case, the preacher) and the audience (here, the congregation) increases the effectiveness of that communication.  Speaking from a high-top table, as opposed to a fortress-like pulpit, gives the preacher a more direct visual line to the congregation, removing (or at least mitigating) a barrier to the successful dissemination of the sermon/homily/testimony.

What’s not to like about this?  Not much, but I do offer a caution.  Healthy worship balances God’s transcendence (His “otherworldliness”; “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy”) with His immanence (His omnipresence; “He’s only a prayer away”).  Contemporary worship already leans, hard, in the direction of promoting God’s immanence.  Churches that use high-top tables in place of pulpits would do well to find other ways to convey God’s transcendence in their worship services.


Judson University President Dr. Gene Crume with honored Professor Emeritus Dr. Stuart “Doc” Ryder, Judson University Homecoming 2018

On a completely different subject, this past weekend was Homecoming at Judson University, both my alma mater and my employer.  Academic year 2018-2019 marks the 50th year of service for one of the three father figures in my life–the other two being my own father and Dr. Ed Thompson, Judson’s first choir director (both of whom have been acknowledged at other times in this blog).  Dr. Stuart Ryder, 88, universally known and loved as “Doc” on Judson’s campus, received a special commendation for his innumerable contributions to the Kingdom and Judson University over the course of the past 50 years.

The commendation came with a proclamation, with a series of “Whereas” statements, as is common, and I thought I would cite a few of them here, concluding with an exhortation based thereupon:

Whereas Doc Ryder, having lived in the campus apartments for roughly 35 of his 50 years at Judson, quickly became a fixture at and a promoter of all manner of extra-curricular campus activities, including hosting an annual Halloween party, acting in several Judson theatre productions, lip-synching for annual talent shows (“When You Wish upon a Star” being particularly memorable), and attending all manner of concerts and recitals—thereby embodying the notion that a professor’s influence, should that professor wish it to be so, can extend well beyond the classroom;

Whereas, indeed, Doc Ryder has served as mentor to hundreds of Judson students over the years and counts missionaries, pastors, business executives, civic leaders, and educators of all stripes among his protégés;

And whereas Doc Ryder has with great regularity and generous philanthropy supported numerous Judson University causes—included among them the Harm A. Weber Academic Center, the baseball program, the Communication Arts Conference, and the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, particularly the renovation of the space that became “Doc Ryder” Studio B. . . .

There were others, mostly related to academic initiatives and committee participation, but these three get to the core of Doc’s influence over the years–as I have witnessed it from the vantage point of student, colleague, and friend.  The willingness to give of oneself and one’s resources undergirds all three of the examples, and it motivates me to similar ministry as God gives the strength, Christ provides the ultimate example, and the Holy Spirit grants the inspiration.

Worship leaders, I encourage you, if you don’t have one already, to seek out a mentor who can speak truth and encouragement to you.  Don’t “Lone Ranger” worship ministry.  That’s a recipe for disaster, at worst, and burnout, at best.  Once you have a mentor and have worked with him/her for a while, then look for ways to “pay it forward” to a younger person who’s a member of a generation one or two behind yours.  Simultaneously being mentored and mentoring sets you up for much fruit in your ministry!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Pastors and GQ.


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Reflection #13 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 13 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #13: Churches with multiple satellites that pipe in the sermon from the home campus are adding new dynamics to the age-old method of “doing church,” but the jury is still out as to whether those dynamics will ultimately help, hurt, or not change too radically the nature of corporate worship in the local church, historically speaking.

20180225_142848In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, we have no shortage of megachurches, most of which have an array of satellites, each 25-50 miles removed from the mothership.  Most of these churches have five or six satellites; one has 10-15.  My son, Austin, plays in the praise band at a satellite campus of one of our area’s more-visible megachurches, so I have become more familiar with satellite churches of late, and I find there are several things to appreciate.

Chief among them are the resources that wealthier home churches provide for the smaller satellites, which otherwise would not be able to utilize the sophisticated and expensive ministry tools commonplace in most megachurches.  Especially in the case of megachurches merging with smaller churches that were dying slow deaths (the modus operandi of one of our area megachurches), the satellite birthed from that merger begins its life with an established church culture and an established congregation–one which, perhaps, simply needed the megachurch’s influx of energy and cash in order to thrive (as megachurches define that term, anyway).  If this smacks, in part, of colonialism, the members of satellite churches with whom I’ve spoken are not raising a stink about it–but, again, my research is not extensive.

I also wonder if younger people, whose reliance on screens is well documented, might actually get more out of messages delivered via video feeds.  Do the difficulties millennials and Gen Zers have with face-to-face interpersonal communication (due to years of screen-fixation) translate to oration?  Could it be that younger folks pay more attention to and retain content from messages given by the two-dimensional image of a pastor than a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood sermonizer?  Like the implications of this question or not (and I don’t), it’s an intriguing hypothesis for a future doctoral candidate’s dissertation.

Anyone looking for reasons not to like the satellite-church concept, on the other hand, doesn’t have to look hard.  An obvious detriment centers on the duties of the satellite-campus pastor, whose primary role in the church, historically speaking, gets usurped via video sermons piped in from the home church’s senior pastor, usually an extremely competent public speaker.  Yes, most satellites give the campus pastor something to do on Sunday mornings–announcements, words of greeting, even pastoral prayers–but those important tasks notwithstanding, the minute the corporate attention shifts to the larger-than-life image of the mothership’s main guy (they are almost always men) delivering the main event, the one entrusted to the actual shepherding of the satellite flock seems smaller-than-life in contrast.

Some satellites attempt to mitigate this awkwardness by scheduling the campus pastor to preach periodically–about every fifth or sixth week at one sorta-megachurch I have attended a few times.  That helps.  At another megachurch satellite, the campus pastor typically comes onstage two-thirds of the way through the worship set to give a reflection, lead in a corporate reading, or offer rhetorical material to help the congregation “connect the dots” of the elements of corporate worship (see my blog from July 2 of this year).  Although this gives the campus pastor an important role, to be sure, it also lessens the role of the worship leader, the person who would normally speak at those moments, assuming s/he has been encouraged to be a worship leader and not just a music leader (also discussed in the July 2 post).

Is there a better way?  Historians of the 22nd century will have to determine the “betterness” of the various approaches to satellite campuses currently at work in the contemporary American church.  That (and my general wariness of anything that smacks of capitulating to trendiness) acknowledged, I do like the method chosen by the sorta-megachurch with 10-15 satellites mentioned above.  Yes, all the satellites keep to the same general, overarching all-church calendar and use the same sermon series with the same Scripture passages.  But rather than recording the message of the large home church’s primary pastor and sending it across Chicagoland to the various smaller churches–which reinforces the truly-first-among-kinda-equals dynamic–the campus pastors in this satellite network all give the same sermons to their own congregations in their own ways.  They meet together ahead of time, craft the main outline points of the sermon in community, and then flesh out the rest with their own introductions, conclusions, anecdotes, illustrations, and sub-point exegesis–personalizing the mass-produced message for individual congregations in a way a one-size-fits-all recorded video never could.  That’s a lot of work, but I think each campus’ parishioners would argue it’s time and energy well spent.

I am guessing megachurch satellite campuses are here to stay–at least for a while.  The Lord be with all who labor in these vineyards as you strive to make the local church all it can be as the Holy Spirit gives you wisdom and strength.

Coming next week, Lord willing: High-top tables as pulpits.

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