Should Contemporary Worship Music Be Beautiful? … Part I

A few weeks ago I alluded to a series featuring songwriting tips from expert songwriters that I hope to launch this summer.  In fact, I had planned to do so today, but the more I thought about the general concept, the more it begged the specific question posed above.  You probably won’t be surprised that I think the answer is “yes,” but if that’s true, putting forth a rationale is only fair.

Mark-TorgesonHence, for the next few weeks, I will draw from an article I was privileged to write for Worship Leader magazine a couple of years ago (Spring 2018) entitled “Fostering Beauty.”  In it, I referenced some of my favorite authors and friends, so in this first part, you’ll meet Frank Burch Brown, my Judson University/Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts colleague Mark Torgerson (pictured), Robert Webber, Andy Crouch, Jeremy Begbie, and Rory Noland.  I hope you’ll be blessed as you read.

The Problem of Beauty

Discussions about beauty in worship can turn esoteric quickly.  As Frank Burch Brown notes, in his Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully, anyone “contemplating the conjunction of beauty and worship is likely to confront, sooner or later, the awkward question of what sort of beauty to seek in worship, and whether a truly ‘spiritual worship’ can afford to make much of beauty that is visible, audible, sensory, palpable.”  Contemporary American worshipers have “tended to be suspicious of richly sensuous or elaborate worship ceremonies of overtly beautiful or ornate buildings, which they have often judged to be ostentatious, wasteful, or superficial.”

As a result, many churches today, according to Mark Torgerson in An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today, “are eschewing any concern for beauty,” often due to a well-intended but ultimately short-sighted understanding of financial stewardship.  “While it is certainly responsible to prioritize financial resources for public ministry, it is naïve to believe that the visible presence of a church does not express a particular understanding of God and communicate the priorities of a community. . . . Beauty enhances the world for all people, both those inside and those outside Christian communities.”

Indeed, we elevate the utilitarian over the aesthetic in worship at the risk of emotional and intellectual harm.  The late Robert Webber, for many years a Worship Leader columnist, puts forth the following in his prophetic social commentary, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World: “Beauty, whether it is that of an individual, a place, a landscape, or an environment, has the power to communicate a sense of well-being.  Beauty is the eyesight of insight.”  (Read that last sentence again and let it sink in.)

In an often ugly-beyond-measure world (I am writing this article a few weeks after the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.), Webber’s words carry profound meaning: “Beautiful space can speak of order, stability, and the absolute in a society of chaos and relativity, and bring quietness and peace to the inner person.”  If Webber is correct—and I believe he is—then worship leaders ought to take Torgerson’s advice and “be particularly careful about cultivating the theological connection between God and beauty.”  Much has already been written on this subject, and space does not allow for a thorough examination here, but let me offer three places where we might begin fostering beauty in worship.

Cultivate Beauty Intentionally

If beauty is so important, why don’t more worship leaders make its pursuit a higher priority?  Perhaps because gleaning an appreciation of beauty demands focused and intentional effort, Andy Crouch opines in “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?”—an essay in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (W. David O. Taylor, ed.).  Exegeting the creation narrative in Genesis 2:9, Crouch recounts God’s making every tree “pleasant to the sight” in addition to a source of nourishment.  “The trees of the garden are not just good for something.  They are good simply in the beholding.  They are beautiful. . . .

“God has located the garden in a place where the natural explorations of its human cultivators will bring them into contact with substances that will invite the creation of beauty.”  But that cultivation takes some effort, for these substances are hidden initially. . . .

“They are latent—lying below the surface of the very good world.  Only by exploration and excavation will they be discovered. . . . God has placed primordial humanity in a world that will only reach its full potential for beauty when it is cultivated, explored—where more goodness waits to be unearthed.  The world is even better than it appears.”

When the world’s news at every turn suggests God is unresponsive, at best, or dead, at worst, our congregations need to be reminded the world is “better than it appears.”  If David asked only one thing of God, to dwell in God’s house forever in order to “behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4), we can certainly add cultivating an understanding of beauty to our weekly to-do list.  (Need a place to start?  Along with the works above, consider Jeremy Begbie’s Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, Rory Noland’s The Worshiping Artist, and Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, Volume IV of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship.)

More on beauty in worship next week, Lord willing.  The Lord be with you!

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A Sonnet for Coronavirus Victims

This has been a surreal week.  News of more and more COVID-19 deaths–some from the physical effects of the virus, a growing number related to the anxiety, stress, and depression accompanying our global pandemic–hit home at the same time cries, some of them virulent, to re-open the country grew louder and stronger, personal tragedy and public triumphalism sharing the same, increasingly congested space in our collective consciousness.  At least that’s how it felt to me.

As our country’s political/cultural rift widens, seemingly daily, I am ever more thankful for my upbringing–in so many ways, but particularly where American politics are concerned.  My dad voted straight-ticket Democrat his whole life, while my mom, less partisan, typically voted Republican, but not exclusively, as long as the Democrat was pro-life (and there were a lot more of them back then than there are now).  Dad routinely joked that his goal each November was to cancel out Mom’s vote, and though at one level that’s exactly what he did, the blustering was, indeed, in good fun.  The overarching lesson my siblings and I took from it all was that good, moral, intelligent, and even (especially) Christian people can differ greatly about politics . . . and still live peaceably together, 57 years at the time of Dad’s death.

My parents’ political views came to mind this week as I processed the headlines–the loud, shrill voices on the far left matching the loud, shrill voices on the far right.  I’ve always felt too conservative for extreme progressives and too progressive for extreme conservatives, and I sense there are a lot more of us out there in the great, vast political middle than a casual glance through the op-eds would suggest.  (Dear God in heaven, if there ever were a time to raise up a third political party in America–I’d love to see one embracing the general principles found in Ron Sider’s Completely Pro-Life–now might be it.)

Indeed, the above served as the fodder for the following attempt to recognize the validity of each of the current competing principles (with apologies to sonnet purists; I couldn’t figure out how to get the last couplet indented so that it shows up as it’s supposed to on all the platforms).  There are no easy answers, and anyone who tries to suggest otherwise on a placard or in a Tweet does a grave disservice to those who are really suffering–some hurting financially, some hurting physically; some grieving loss of jobs, some grieving loss of lives . . . all needing healing, not hectoring.

Sonnet for Coronavirus Victims

COVID-19 does not discriminate.
An equal-opportunity disease,
As if by some foul luck or curse of fate
It visits whom it wishes.  So do please
Pay due respect in weeks ahead, as states
And cities, counties, neighborhoods, and more
Now open as the virus (please!) abates
(We hope!)–with access to the general store!–
Our leaders rolling dice (how can they know?)
Concerning fiscal vs. physical
Well-being, watching numbers ebb and flow:
Accounts decrease, the deaths increase . . . hard call.
Assert your freedoms, yes, but humbly still;
“Death be not proud,” but neither merciful.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. . . .'” (John 11:25, ESV).

The Lord be with you!


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Worship and COVID-19 Miscellanea

Three separate but related parts today, all loosely based on worship and the coronavirus:

One: One of the things I enjoy about blogging is the opportunity to introduce friends to other friends.  imageMany of you are already familiar with my Judson University alumnus buddy Ian Simkins, a pastor at the “YellowBox” church, aka Community Christian Church (Naperville, Ill.), but perhaps you are unaware of the radio show he co-hosts with Pastor Brian From, The Common Good.  If so, here’s your introduction.

Ian and Brian played an audio clip I sent in (the gist of a post from a few weeks back) a while back on their show, linked here.  My brief segment comes at around the 49-minute mark, but give the whole show a listen, if you have the time, and consider tuning in/following Ian and Brian as they help all of us navigate these crazy, scary times.  I don’t do a whole lot of podcast-listening–I’m much too much my father’s son, so music is my background listening of choice–but if ever I begin to listen more regularly to anything out there in the endless realm of talk radio and its various social-media cousins, The Common Good will be at the head of the list.

Two:  I recently had a chance to reflect a bit on what I called an “extended Lenten season” in transitional comments made during Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts Virtual Spring Concert of Worship, featuring one of the best jazz vibraphonists you’ll ever hear, Stephen Lynerd, and his band.  (If you have an hour, it’s worth a listen; or put it on in the background–see above–while you work from home.)  In thinking about how the coronavirus has affected me emotionally, I offered the following thoughts:

Dealing with the coronavirus has been hard; it’s taken a toll on all of us.  Some have paid the ultimate price, and we grieve with those who have lost friends and loved ones.  Although most of us have not suffered at that level, the difficulties of this season have been real nonetheless.  It’s almost as if the Lenten season has been extended for a while yet.  Yes, we celebrated Easter a few weeks ago, but, let’s be honest, it was a bit of a muted celebration: our “Alleluias” a bit less robust, our “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” a bit more subdued, our “He Is Risen, indeed!” responses a bit tentative.  Understandably so.

If ever there were a season to crack open the book of Lamentations, we are in it.  And though there is sorrow aplenty to be found therein, Jeremiah, “The Weeping Prophet,” also saw fit to proclaim, in chapter 3, that God’s mercies to us—even when you are prophesying to an apostate nation, even when you are living in the midst of a global pandemic—are new every single morning.

We then sang together, virtually, the third verse and chorus of the great hymn based on this Scripture passage, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”  If you watch the video linked above, this section comes at the very end.

footer-logoThree: Another good friend to whom I’d like to introduce Emmaus Road Worshipers readers is Dave Horn, another fellow Judsonite, the founder and owner of, an independent and dynamic audio/video supplier based in Columbus, Ohio.  I’ve purchased tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gear from Dave over the years (most of it when I was directing the chapel program at Judson, some of it when I was a weekend-warrior worship leader), and I highly recommend him and his ministry–and he really does view what he does as a ministry to the Church.

Beyond just having you meet Dave’s acquaintance, I’d like to direct you to his recent blog post, “Reopening Worship in Light of Covid-19,” which gives some excellent food for thought as churches begin planning for post-shelter-in-place church life.  If Dave’s words are a little high-tech for you, I’d encourage you to forward the post to your production folks.  Lots to consider here.

Continued blessings, friends.  The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): With all this sheltering in place and quarantining time, I expect there will be a plethora of new worship songs written in the months ahead.  For the next several weeks, I’m going to offer songwriting tips from the masters.  I hope, especially if you’ve been trusted to put songs on the lips of God’s people, you’ll be encouraged (and maybe challenged just a little bit) by the forthcoming series.

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Rich Mullins on Temptation and Our Sovereign God

43281-rich-mullins-1200.1200w.tnGoing back and reminding myself of the significant ministry of Rich Mullins during this pandemic has been healing, and I hope it has ministered to those who have stumbled upon these blog posts.  Here are two final excellent words (as before, edited for clarity), the first a typically Mullinsian, alarmingly honest word on the nature of temptation:

[W]hen you’re a kid, and you’re struggling with sins, you go, “By the time I’m 30, I’m going to be so old and tired that I won’t have energy enough to sin anymore.  And I will be so gloomy and so dull that sin will no longer have any appeal; I won’t enjoy being tempted.”

The thing that I find shocking about myself is that even if I don’t act on sin, I still like temptation.  You know how we’re supposed to pray, “Lead us not into temptation”?  My prayer is generally “Lead me into temptation just a little and then get me out right at the last minute.”  Because temptation is very . . . tempting.  And we like [it], even if we’re not going to act on it.  I mean, why else would we walk around malls if we didn’t like to be tempted to covet?  It just wouldn’t make any sense.

[Mullins had previously indicated that a few years back, he and his friend Beaker were having a soul-baring conversation at a train station in Germany, and he now resumed that story.]  So we’re having this really intimate conversation about some rather embarrassing things–[although not embarrassing for] us, because we pretty much know each other inside out.  [Since w]e’re in Germany, I . . . wasn’t thinking about anybody else being [able to understand English].  And there’s another guy sitting on the bench, and right in the middle of the conversation, right after I had said the most incriminating thing I think I could ever say about myself, this guy leans over and says, “Excuse me, but are you Rich Mullins?”  So immediately I’m going over the conversation to see if I am or not. . . .

I would like for everyone to think that I was really Mr. Spiritual Heavy, but the reality of it is, I’m not.  And for me, this is even better news than if I was.  Because if God can save me, He can save you; there’s no problem.  And for those people who are upset because they find out what I’m really like and who I really am, if you think I’m bad now, you should imagine what I would be if I wasn’t a Christian.  The good news of the grace of God is far more significant than my own personal, pious victories.

For those who haven’t seen the Mullins biopic, Ragamuffin, which honestly but graciously sheds light on some of Rich’s personal struggles, I highly recommend checking it out.

20200503_203444Finally, I close this series on the informal teachings of Rich Mullins–via concert song transitions and recorded seminar discussions (see previous posts)–with a thought on God’s sovereignty, perhaps a more-helpful-than-otherwise-would-be-the-case reminder during our current global crisis.  We pick up the narrative right after Mullins had talked about how tranquil the Maryland countryside seemed by moonlight as he made a late-night commute via I-95 to Miami:

You know, sometimes we think that everything is changing, but, I tell you what, the same moon is up there tonight.  The same stars that Abraham saw, they’re all up there.  And the same God that put them there and made them shine, He’s still there, too.  And I don’t know what life has for you–I don’t know what life has for me–but I know this: I know that God is good.  And I know that God does not lie.  And I know that God has given us the gift of our lives.  Sometimes we wish He would’ve given us someone else’s life, but He chose to give you your life.  Don’t despair of it.

God chose to give us our lives.  God grant us the grace not to despair of them.

The Lord be with you!

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Rich Mullins on the Dangers of “Worship Buzz”

To the extent that I knew Rich (only a bit; see previous posts), I’m confident he’d have some 5e9074a638322452c32cc185b23b0761interesting thoughts on the state of contemporary American corporate worship.  (This extended quote, like all from previous posts, is edited only for clarity.)  From “Worship Buzz”:

[A] bunch of people who had been going to my church (they were in the 20-year-old group) . . . went over to visit the Vineyard . . . [and] they decided to join the Vineyard. . . . [T]he pastor said, “Why do you want to join our church?”  And they said, “Because your worship is just so exciting to us.”

The pastor said, “Go back to your old church.  We don’t really particularly need you in this congregation.  Because this is what will happen.  You used to go to [your former church] because you got a buzz out of it.  So suddenly you come to visit our church, and we give you a better buzz. . . . You know what’s going to happen?  You’re going to get used to the way we do our worship service here, and [eventually] you’re not going to get the buzz out of it, and you’re going to seek out another church.  You’ll end up being a member of about 50-dozen churches by the time you’re 50, and you won’t have helped anybody.  And you won’t have grown because you will have gone from one goose-bump feeling to another.”

It worries me that in churches the demand among people my age and younger is that we make services more exciting to us.

Stop and let that last sentence sink in.  Read it again.  Few these days are crass enough to admit this forthrightly, but most contemporary worship services I’ve attended in the 20+ years since Mullins died absolutely operate with an unspoken understanding of the need to put on a good show for the paying customers/tithing congregants.  Even more so these days, while we are all worshiping remotely, worship-as-production is real.

Mullins continues:

You don’t go to church for excitement.  That’s why you go to movies.  We go to church for fellowship, we go to church to be taught the apostles’ doctrine, and we go to church for the breaking of bread.  We go to church for the sake of sharing all things.

We don’t go to church for thrills, and yet, we find that part of our religious experience so boring that now you can’t have church with only a piano and an organ.  You have to have an entire orchestra, or a rock combo, [and] you have to have a backbeat in order to sing a hymn–because we want a sensation.

And you know what’s very scary to me?  People who come away from services where they’ve just been beat to death with a lot of sensationalism–and you know what?  I enjoy those services, too.  There’s something really cool about [going to a church like that].  I like to do it occasionally–where you get to clap your hands, and you get to whirl around, and you get to sing at the top of your lungs, and you get to yell “Amen” whenever you want.  There’s a rhythm in it; there’s a real tribal, exciting thing.  But the danger is we frequently mistake that sensationalistic, wonderful experience for being a spiritual experience.  It’s not a spiritual experience.  It’s a fun experience, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  But if we think that’s spirituality, we miss the boat.

Please understand I’m not criticizing an exciting service.  I’m merely saying that’s not the equivalent of a spiritual service. . . . We live in a world that says that if it doesn’t feel powerful, it’s probably not real.  [But] I have a feeling it is real whether it feels powerful or not.  I have a feeling that sound doctrine is more important than goose bumps.  I have a feeling that holding all things in common is more spiritual than a lot of dancing around and clapping your hands.  And if you want to dance around and clap your hands in the meantime, that’s perfectly fine, and I think God gets a big kick out of it.  I just don’t think that’s the heart of spirituality.

513JJHntElL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_I confess the core of Mullins’ argument touches a nerve for me, for I know worship leaders serving in small or midsized churches, without the resources available in larger congregations, who have been told, in so many words, that the corporate worship they plan and execute is a contributing reason young people (the same demographic that Mullins said concerns him, above) leave for the megachurches.  Marva Dawn, in her excellent short book on Psalm 96, How Then Shall We Worship? speaks to Mullins’ initial anecdote to explain changes in corporate worship driven by the need for sensation or a good show:

[Some churches], noticing that they were forfeiting members to the “more attactive” churches, suddenly changed how they worshiped in order not to lose their share of the market.  Though more and more research is demonstrating that “church growth” has been somewhat of a mirage because over 90 percent of it has simply been Christians moving from one congregation to another, many congregations still think that worship issues should be decided based on the “appeal” factor.  How, then, will individuals and communities learn again that worship is for God?

I’ve got one more profound Mullins quote on the depth of grace next week, Lord willing.  The Lord be with you!

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More Wisdom from Rich Mullins (Part 3)

FfFErdaf_400x400I’m going to get right to it this week; see previous weeks’ posts for context.  Mullins never married, so he could address singleness and healthy, adult, non-sexual friendships with a true and honest voice.  From “Sex and Self-Confidence”:

A lot of people say if you don’t have self-confidence, you can’t do anything. . . . It’s kind of like people who say if you don’t have sex you’ll never be intimate with anybody. . . . Christ was really in a bad way then because I think Christ was very intimate with several people, but I don’t believe he ever had sex.  We’ve all been led to believe that if we’re not sexually active we’re just not human, but that’s just not the truth.  We’ve all been led to believe if we don’t put our faith in ourselves we’re not going to accomplish anything.  I don’t think that’s true either.

One of Mullins’ true gifts to the Church was his continual rejection of the materialism and drive for success that characterize so many Christians and so much of American Christianity, behavior that, Mullins argued, is not inherently part of a believer’s spiritual DNA–i.e., default-setting behavior effortlessly learned by all Americans unless they make conscious decisions to reject the societal norms.  From “Be Assertive”:

The more we pursue what we think we want, the more it eludes us.  Or, we get what we think we want, and we find out we didn’t really want it in the first place.  Everything that we go after will disappoint us. . . . We think that we’re going to find happiness because we see something that happiness is supposedly contained in, and we go for it, and we get it, and we all live happily ever after.  But that’s not the way life works out, and even our own experiences tell us that.  And yet we continue to be tolerant of a view of life that says that nothing is more important in the world than that you get what you want.  That is why there is so much hurt in the world. . . . The Scriptures don’t teach us to be assertive.  The Scriptures teach us–and this is remarkable–the Scriptures teach us to be submissive.  This is not a popular idea.

Not surprisingly, Mullins’ ideas of what makes a good leader in the Church didn’t come out of any New York Times leadership bestseller.  From “Killing Philistines”:

When did David get to kill Goliath?  After he [did the comparatively humiliating work–for a red-blooded young man–of taking] sandwiches to his brothers.  When we learn to obey, when we learn to follow, we may become able to lead.  But we are not going to be fit to lead until we are able to follow.  When we learn to listen–after we’ve got the art of listening down–we’re going to have something to say.  But if we never learn to listen, we’re going to talk, talk, talk and never say a word.  Everything in life is backwards from the way we think it’s supposed to be.

Mullins had a disarming honesty about the trappings of his ccm success and frequently attempted to disabuse what he perceived to be fans’ inaccurate notions of what his life must be like.  From “Women and Tragedy”:

My life does not play out like my albums do. . . . People hear those albums and they think that that’s the sum total of who I am and what I’m about.  And I kinda go, “Wow, you know these albums don’t address some of the real central issues of my life.”  And I have some real hang-ups. . . . I think people have the illusion when you’re a musician that they know you really intimately and really well, and the truth is that you know what I have chosen for you to know, and I’ve shown you my absolute best side.

Initially in this segment, Mullins talked about his singleness and had a little fun with the notion that he occasionally heard from ladies how God had told them they were supposed to marry Rich.  Playing off that, he turned more serious re: receiving words of knowledge from fellow believers:

I believe that God speaks to us, and I believe that if we are willing to listen–and sometimes even when we’re not willing to listen–God speaks to us.  But I think it’s always dangerous to take what other people say that God has told them about you too seriously.  When someone comes to you and says, “I have a word for you from the Lord,” my recommendation is that you listen–because who knows who God is going to speak through?  Listen carefully, but [then] go back to your Scriptures and . . . to the elders of your church and make sure that before you follow [those words] too carefully or take them too seriously, make sure [the advice] lines up with a real spiritual authority.  Because there’s a lot of spiritual deception going on, and a lot of the people who [say things like this] are [well]-intended people, but what happens is they have a sensation, they have a feeling, and they confuse [those feelings] for God.

More Rich coming for the next week or two, Lord willing, including a clear-eyed look at the contemporary worship of his era and a profound word on the subject of grace.

The Lord be with you!

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A Little Wisdom from Rich Mullins for Holy Week and Beyond, Part 2

Last week I began a multi-part post sharing the wit and wisdom in Rich rich-mullins-03-368x368Mullins’ Here in America DVD.  If you never had a chance to see Mullins in concert, you missed a significant part of his ministry: the thoughtful musings he used as transitional material between songs.  I shared a handful last week, and here are a few more.  In a time when so many of our comfortable notions of Christianity and the Church are being rearranged for us, it’s good to be reminded a little discomfort can be good for the soul and stretch us in ways that ultimately benefit us greatly.  Mullins was always good for, as the saying goes, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  (Quotes, again, have been edited only for length and clarity.)

On art and culture as they intersect with our faith:

Picasso said, “Good taste is the enemy of great art,” which I think is very true.  Good taste has all to do with being cultured and refined, and if art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human. . . . The humans in the Bible are not very refined; they’re pretty goofy, if you want to know the whole truth about it. . . . [But] God takes the junk of our lives, and he makes the greatest art in the world out of it.  And if He was cultured, if He was as civilized as most Christian people wish He was, He would be useless to Christianity.  But God is a wild man, and I hope over the course of your life you encounter Him.  But let me warn you; you need to hang on for dear life–or let go for dear life maybe is better.

Rich’s understanding of and appreciation for global Christianity was refreshing:

[A friend] and I spent a summer in Europe, and there we encountered Christians who had a real different sense of do’s and don’ts than American Christians.  Every time I go to a different culture, I’m challenged to go back and look at the Scriptures again because [Christians in other countries] underline different parts of their Bibles than we do. . . . In [America], everyone’s all excited about being “born again,” and in several of the third-world countries, they’re excited about selling all they have and giving to the poor.  And I think maybe [their understanding] is just as valid as ours.  Maybe there are some basic truths that are big enough that we can find unity in them. . . . I’m not sure that truth is so much about statements of belief.  Truth is alive.  And it is a person.  And that person is Jesus.

In addition to the 14-song concert, the DVD includes “12 Short Stories,” a series of vignettes and devotional thoughts Rich and his friend/co-writer Beaker (no second name ever given, like Cher or Madonna) gave in a seminar in February of 1993.  What follows now are excerpts from those messages.

One thing I always found most refreshing about Mullins was his unwavering embrace of grace.  From “Perfection Is Boring”:

Our faith is not in ourselves.  If our faith was in ourselves, we could never afford to fail.  Who wants to go through a life where you never fail?  What a drag!  Perfection is boring, folks. . . . I love the proverb that says, . . . “Where there are no oxen, the stall is clean.  But with many oxen, there is much strength.” . . . Where there is life, there is mess.  Where someone is living, they’re going to make mistakes. . . .

One of the wonderful things about the records that we have of the apostles is that they really did make mistakes, not only before Pentecost but even after Pentecost–even after they were indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  Peter still had hangups about Gentiles.  He still made mistakes, and yet the wonderful thing is Peter’s salvation was not based on his being perfect.  His faith was not based on his perfect grasp of every doctrine and every truth in the world.  Peter’s faith was based on the reality of Jesus Christ and what He accomplished.  Peter did not believe in himself; even though he had the courage to stand in front of huge crowds of people and preach the gospel, it wasn’t because he had confidence in himself.  It was because his faith was in God.

We are told [by well-meaning advocates of healthy self-esteem] to believe in ourselves, and the end result of believing in yourself is that you end up putting a lot of pressure on yourself because you’ve gotta be worthy of that faith. . . .  Thank God there is a God who is beyond me.  Thank God there is goodness beyond my goodness.  Thank God there is grace beyond the grace I am able to extend.  Thank God there is life beyond my life.  I believe that I will be resurrected, not because I will have the power to pull myself out of the grave but because I believe there is a God who loves me and who will raise me up, give me a new body.  And, man, I’ve got a great one picked out!

Hard to believe Mullins has had that new body for over 20 years now.  More from this prophetic poet next week, Lord willing, including excerpts from such provocative titles as “Sex and Self-Confidence.”  (And here I thought those words always had an oxymoronic relationship!)

The Lord be with you!

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A Little Wisdom from Rich Mullins for Holy Week and Beyond, Part 1

Friends, I pray this year’s Holy Week, with its attendant discombobulation re: anything resembling normal ecclesial protocol, ends up being profoundly influential in your lives and, for worship leaders and pastors, for the flocks you shepherd.

81BZ19oMTML._SX522_During my shelter-in-place time, I’ve been getting a head start on my usual summertime activity of prepping for future classes and considering music for the Judson University Choir, which I have the honor to direct.  A few days ago, I slipped in a DVD I hadn’t watched in quite a while, Rich Mullins’ Here in America, recorded live with a small audience in a studio in South Bend, Ind., in 1993 (used copies still available at a good price).  I’ve written before about the few brief opportunities I had to rub shoulders with Rich, a blessing I appreciate more and more the older I get.  He was, as I said this past year while introducing the JU Choir’s rendition of his “If I Stand,” a poetic and prophetic voice in contemporary Christian music (ccm), one I truly miss.

Rich’s verbal transitions in his concerts were routinely as powerful as his music, and as I watched Here in America again, I couldn’t help but smile several times.  At this crazy time in which we’re living, some of the things he said 27 years ago (edited slightly for clarity) ring as true as they ever did, and I hope the following and those over the next week or so serve as an encouragement for your Holy Week walk and beyond.

Rich had a love-hate relationship with the ccm industry:

People often listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I’m not always sure I get why–’cause I play it, and I know there’s not a lot to most of it.  Sometimes it concerns me the number of people who can quote my songs, or they can quote the songs of several different [ccm artists], but they can’t quote the Scriptures–as if anything a musician might have to say would be worth listening to.  What musicians do is put together chords and rhythms and melodies.  So if you want entertainment, I suggest Christian entertainment because I think it’s good, but if you want nourishment, I suggest you go to church or read your Bible.  Let [ccm] entertain you, but look beyond [it] for what you really need in life.

Having encouraged folks to get into the Word more regularly, Rich confessed his understanding of biblical truth didn’t always line up with that often espoused in American evangelical Christianity:

I like the Bible.  I know a lot of people don’t like the way I like the Bible.  I just like it the way I do; I can’t help it. . . .  I always find it interesting all the people who read the Bible so they can find answers.  Just about every time in my life I’ve ever “found” an answer, if I went back and read the Bible, it would blow it out of the water. . . . If you want a religion that “makes sense,” I suggest something other than Christianity.  But if you want a religion that makes life, then [Christianity] is the one.

To preview posts coming, Lord willing, in the weeks ahead, here’s Rich on aspects of songwriting:

Honestly, what mostly inspires writers is bills.  As a writer, you learn how to take ideas and setiments and phrases and make them into things that people buy, which is one of the dangers of being a writer.  You learn how to somehow market the stuff that is really very human. . . . But it’s not just words, and it’s not just marketable sentiments.  Christianity is about something far greater than all of those things.

Rich was often alarmingly honest where matters of faith were concerned, such as this public confession re: his prayer life:

Sometimes I find it hard to pray.  Maybe that’s why I’ve written so many prayer songs–’cause it’s easier if you sing sometimes. . . . Sometimes you try to pray and you try to impress God with all the right words.  I just don’t think it’s an easy thing to impress God Almighty.  We often forget that we don’t have to impress Him.  He’s already knocked out about you.  He already loves you more than you can imagine.

In closing, here’s a reminder from Rich re: this holiest of weeks:

Sometimes we forget as Christians what a great thing it is that we believe: that there is a resurrection, and that there is life, and that there is a God who looks on us with love.

Lord willing, we’ll look at some more vintage Mullins musings over the next week or two.  The Lord be with you in powerful ways this week, especially those of you who will be leading your congregations vicariously!

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A Whole Mess of Excellent Resources to Consider in These Unsettling Times

The good folks at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) recently put out a list of all kinds of helpful resources for pastors and worship leaders trying to navigate the uncharted waters in which we find ourselves at the moment in the wake of the coronavirus.  Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity is probably well familiar with the wealth of great material generated by the CICW, but, just in case, here’s a link to what they shared recently: COVID-19 and Worship: Resources for Churches Adapting to Social Isolation.

A1frC+NSx1L._US230_In particular, I would recommend the article “How to Lead Worship Online without Losing Your Soul–or Body” by David Taylor.  If you only have time to digest one item from CICW’s bountiful supply, start here.

Continued blessings during this difficult season.  The Lord be with you!

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A Thought to Consider in Light of the Well-Intended (and Possibly Completely Correct) Exhortation to Seize the Moment of “Unprecedented Opportunity”

It seems anyone with a platform of any kind has something to offer the Church in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  (My plan for this blog, in fact, had been to share some thoughts from go-to thinkers on worship and the Church-in-culture, and I still might do that some time.)  One of the persistent themes concerns the necessity to view this crisis as an “unprecedented opportunity” to affect our world for Christ.  In two separate sermons I caught yesterday, the pastors encouraged us, especially those with significant shelter-in-place time on the horizon, to use this time well.

For the record, this is my default setting.  I’m the firstborn, Type-A overachiever who groans every time Martha gets unilaterally bashed (in sermons on Luke 10:38-42) with nary an acknowledgment that, in that Jewish culture of hospitality, Mary wouldn’t have had the luxury of simply being had not Martha (or somebody) been worried about doing.  If I’m inclined to side (or at least empathize) with Martha regarding typical protocol for welcoming a guest (even a divine one), I’m even more inclined to embrace this get-to-it perspective in the midst of a very atypical world pandemic.  Indeed, my gut tells me to add my voice to those now providing consider-this how-to’s and encouraging believers to make sure we grab this moment for the Kingdom.

And yet. . . .

(It’s not for want of opinion that I refrain.  [Well, OK, just one: Xer and Yer worship leaders, if you’re going to ask Boomers and Builders to sing along with your live-streamed/pre-recorded worship set in the confines of their kitchens, laptops in tow, please let them sing a song or two from the soundtrack of their faith, too.  If ever there were a time to put “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and “How Great Thou Art” into regular rotation, this is it.])

But something in my soul pushes back a bit on this carpe diem mentality.  Maybe I’m the only one for whom this is true, but whenever I hear exhortations like those I’ve heard numerous times the past several days, I am way too inclined to jump into the process without doing nearly enough praying, fasting, contemplating, or consulting with folks far more expert in all kinds of areas than I.  I leap into fix-it mode with spiritually reckless abandon, buoyed by the mantra that these “unprecedented times” and the attendant “unprecedented opportunity” demand my such-a-time-as-this, sold-out activity.  Now.  Said activity can tempt me to put the spiritual cart before the horse and threaten to cause me to forget from whence comes my strength.  Maybe I’m the only one for whom this is true.

Psalm 46 has been quoted a lot of late, especially the first three verses; I used them myself in a devotional a few days ago: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”  And praise God for those truths.  But I’m drawn at this moment to the well-known end of the psalm, verse 10, where God says, “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

41z4RqttYwLJohn Goldingay, writing in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, says this about that verse:

[T]he challenge to [be still] also issues an important challenge to the people of God to give up thinking it has responsibility for its destiny or that its task is to bring in the kingdom of God, extend the kingdom of God, or further the kingdom of God.  Scripture does not think in such terms.  The psalm makes clear that the city of God is not a mere heavenly community . . . but an earthly reality.  But in this city, it is not for us to fix things.  It is for us to expect God to fix things.

For any pastors or worship leaders who, like me, especially in the wake of urgent exhortation, are prone to take on mantles of responsibility without thinking enough about the One who wraps us in those mantles, I offer the words of Eugene Peterson in the unsettlingly titled The Unnecessary Pastor:

  1. We are unnecessary to what the culture presumes is important. . . . We are viewed as persons who provide a background of social stability, who are useful in times of crisis and serve as symbols of meaning and purpose.  But we are not necessary in any of those ways. . . .
  2. We are also unnecessary to what we ourselves feel is essential: as the linchpin holding a congregation together. . . . We have important work to do, but if we don’t do it God can always find someone else. . . .
  3. And we are unnecessary to what congregations insist that we must do and be. . . . They want pastors who lead.  They want pastors the way the Israelites wanted a king. . . .

I don’t necessarily know what this means in practical terms in the days ahead–these thoughts are by no means fully formed–but I am reasonably confident the Church will rise up and be the Church in the weeks and months ahead, with or without its members’ full appreciation of the unprecedentedness of the opportunity before her.

The Lord be with you!

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