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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A Time of Worship in the Academy before Sending Students Home

Judson University made the decision last week to suspend traditional instruction, sending students home to finish the semester via online/digital methods.  Numerous schools are doing the same; it feels like the prudent thing to do.

Typically, Judson’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts celebrates graduating seniors with an end-of-the-semester bash the last week of April.  When the decision came Thursday morning, the DCWPA leadership decided we’d do the best we could to pull together a service honoring those students, even at short notice.  I’m pleased to report that had everyone not known the celebration was planned with only 18 hours’ notice, it certainly wouldn’t have been obvious.  Several of the eventually graduating seniors thanked us afterward for our efforts.

As DCWPA director, I typically offer a devotional thought in our opening liturgy, and I thought I’d share it here:

This is not supposed to be happening.  We shouldn’t be here.

It is happening.  We are here.

The people of God decried their Babylonian captivity in Psalm 137: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan country?”  For our purposes today, we might amend the lament as follows:

At worst, how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in the midst of a global pandemic?  At best, how can we sing the songs of the Lord while toiling in virtual, online classrooms devoid of the body-physical interactions that make the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts such a special place to so many people?  Fair questions.

But think on this.  Sometimes we are grateful for God’s numerous blessings, and so we worship passionately.  Sometimes we are confident of God’s provision in our lives, and so we worship passionately.  Sometimes we are mindful of God’s sovereignty over all creation, and so we worship passionately.

But sometimes I resent my lot in life, especially after I scroll through social media and see how wonderfully every single blessed one of my friends is doing, but when I choose to worship regardless, through that process I usually find myself grateful for God’s provision at the end of my worship.

Sometimes I fear for the future—the future of the world . . . the future of Christian higher education and the school that shaped me so well 35 years ago and to which I’ve dedicated the majority of my adult life . . . the future of my family—but when I choose to worship regardless, through the process I usually find myself trusting God for all my needs at the end of my worship.

Sometimes I feel the world is spinning out of control, going to hell in a handbasket, but when I choose to worship regardless, through that process I usually find myself in awe of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence at the end of my worship.

Dr. Ed Thompson, whose name (and that of his wife, Prof. Alice Thompson) graces our building, in paraphrasing the old gospel song, was fond of saying, “We don’t sing because we’re happy; we’re happy because we sing.” 

We then sang “Cornerstone” and confessed our sins together, in a prayer read responsively:

Worship Leader: Let us pray.

People: O God, we confess in times like these we fall back on old patterns of behavior that aren’t healthy.

WL: You call us not to fear; too often we do.

People: Remind us of your words in the Sermon on the Mount: “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”

WL: You call us to pray; too often we don’t.

People: Remind us of your words spoken through the apostle Paul: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

WL: You call us to walk by faith, not by sight; too often we walk by sight and allow our sensory input and our feelings to cloud our faith.

People: Remind us of your words we just heard, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, that “those who trust in the Lord will find new strength” available for the powerless and those who feel powerless.

WL: We confess our frailties to you, O God.  It is You (not we) who have made us; you know us better than we know ourselves.

People: Lord, today and every day, please help our unbelief.  Amen.

DCWPA senior prayerFinally, we received assurance of pardon, feted our grads, and closed in prayer.  It was a wonderful, if earlier than preferred, way to send our students off into an unknown future.  In like manner, may the Lord be with you as you navigate these uncharted waters (for most of us) in the weeks ahead!

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A Thought or Two on “Learning to Like Contemporary Christian Music (the music I hate)”

If you read this blog with any regularity, chances are good you have already encounteredNeely jazz musician Adam Neely’s most recent video.  It had over 350K views this past weekend, so it’s obviously being shared frequently.  If you haven’t encountered it yet, it’s worth the 13 minutes, for there is a lot of substantial stuff here (so don’t feel guilty when the click-bait title does what a click-bait title is supposed to do in social-media circles).  The video is produced very well, and Neely has a lot of interesting things to say, including his dissecting the music-theory nuts and bolts of contemporary Christian music (ccm) and his discussion of the concept of “musicking.”

But a key blind spot in Neely’s approach here is his inability to differentiate between (ccm) and contemporary worship music (cwm).  The two are cousins, to be sure, and they share numerous family traits.  Moreover, the line between the two has become blurred in recent years as more and more songs that show up on K-LOVE one month show up in contemporary worship services the next.

Christian-music historians would tell us this has, since the dawn of ccm in the late 60’s and 70’s, always been the case to an extent.  But for every “Easter Song” the Second Chapter of Acts sang . . . for every “My Tribute” Andraé Crouch sang .  .  . for every “Great Is the Lord” Michael W. Smith sang–all songs that ended up in the hymnals of the 80’s and 90’s–there were scores of their ccm songs that never made the leap from the radio to congregational singing.  Contrast that with today, when a much higher percentage of songs seem to serve both functions: good tunes to listen to in the car during the week and good songs to sing in church on the weekend.

Particularly in Neely’s assessment of longtime worship leader Don Moen’s teaching video on the dangers of overplaying in cwm, we see the trouble of lumping ccm and cwm together indiscriminately.  If Moen’s band were operating with ccm in mind, then I would resonate completely with Neely’s frustration with Moen’s apparent stifling of his musicians’ impulses–in effect, neutering their musicianship and robbing their efforts of the kind of God-given joy that accompanies the creation of good art for the believer.

But since Moen’s band is, in fact, facilitating the people’s song in corporate worship, his admonition re: not drawing undue attention to the band members’ chops, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere, is spot on.  You want to play like Phil Keaggy–who has long contended his ferocious efforts on his ax are meant as a personal offering to the Lord–do it on the concert stage, not in the worship service.  The music used in both might be almost indistinguishable at times these days; the end goals of both efforts, however, while linked in one sense, are by no means completely the same.  Failure to draw a distinction between the raisons d’être of each diminishes both.

Still, I applaud Neely for posting this and sparking some good dialogue.  I wish there were more cwm songwriters and worship leaders taking some of his overarching principles to heart.  Perhaps this video will help.

The Lord be with you!

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Reflection #44 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 44 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 #44: Contemporary American worship can learn a thing or two from Taizé worship.

I teach a class at Judson University every two years called Worship Resources.  The course has two foci: 1) I endeavor to introduce students to the wealth of resources available to them these days, instruction which often comes courtesy of fabulous guest lecturers I’ve come to know over the past 30 years of doing worship ministry; 2) I take the students on a number of field trips to Christian worship experiences that are off the beaten track of the contemporary worship with which they’re very familiar by the time they set foot in my class.  Time and again, student evaluations list the field trips as the highlight of the class, and longtime Judson Worship Arts alums frequently wax nostalgic about them as well.

Taize picEspecially when the subject of Taizé worship  comes up.  We happen to visit a church (Ascension Church in Oak Park, Illinois) that has offered a monthly Taizé service for over 20 years, and the primary liturgist, David Anderson (no relation), has led all that time.  The sanctuary is beautifully ornate, the acoustics are fabulous, and there’s always a full congregation.  It makes for a really wonderful service.

Several years ago, writing in Worship Leader magazine, I argued that it was “time to take Taizé out of the quiet, candle-lit cathedrals and into the media-frenzied converted warehouses where many of us worship these days.”  Why?

  1. Taizé worship counteracts the self-focus about which many detractors of current worship practices groan.  The extent to which self-reference predominates in contemporary American worship is debatable (and I would argue is getting better), but wherever congregations focus more on me than Thee, Taizé choruses, with their frequent emphasis on rejection of self and embrace of God, put things in proper perspective.
  2. Taizé worship fosters communal worship.  . . . Taizé, with its simple and easily learned melodies, takes the emphasis off the presentation and puts it on the participation.
  3. Taizé worship is a great way to involve musicians who normally don’t get a chance to share their gifts in contemporary worship.  Do you have a first- or second-chair-in-the-high-school-orchestra violinist in your youth group?  Any stay-at-home moms who used to play flute in the marching band back in the day?  Excellent Taizé orchestrations for almost all of the songs are available through GIA Music. . . . Exploring some of the better Taizé choruses can help worship leaders expand their church’s musical palette.
  4. Taizé worship can translate into contemporary worship.  It’s a misconception that every Taizé tune is slow and sedate.  In three separate worship ministry settings (two churches and one Christian college), I have seen more upbeat Taizé fare (and a few slower pieces) work with a typical praise-band lineup of electric instruments and drums.  It takes a little bit of effort, but it can be done.

I concluded by suggesting two strategies for any who might take the plunge and introduce a Taizé chorus into their worship sets: 1) Do the songs in English, saving “singing them in their original languages for smaller, more intimate gatherings where there will likely be better buy-in for this kind of display of diversity”; and 2) avoid the typical vocal descants that waft over the congregation’s vocals in many Taizé worship songs.  Instead, turn the descants “into verses (sung either individually or corporately) and let the choruses function as they would in a typical A-B format.”

I’ll stop here to admit the chances that Taizé will start rivaling Bethel or Elevation for space on the CCLI Top 100 are slim to none.  The whole ethos of Taizé is so countercultural in re: to how so many of us understand worship these days that few will be the worship leaders who embark on such a risky experiment.  Given that reality, here are two things you might try that reflect the spirit of Taizé without embracing the songs themselves.

First, consider teaching new songs during your pre-service time.  Rather than introducing new songs by inviting the congregation to join along as soon as they feel comfortable–i.e., fostering and tolerating a lack of participation, at least initially–why not ditch the energetic walk-in music and the video countdown and have your band run through a new song to give the congregation a taste of what’s to come?  In every Taizé service I’ve attended, the worship leader has taught a song or two beforehand, and it makes for more satisfying singing when those songs are then sung a bit later.

Second, find songs that feature a greater variety of harmonic expression beyond cwm’s ubiquitous I-IV-V-vi patterns.  The Taizé songs I’ve done with the Judson University Choir this year (“In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” and “The Kingdom of God”) each feature six chords, used in interesting combinations.  I’ve also used “Laudate Dominum” in the past, with a full praise band locking into the deep 3/4 groove.

In the unlikely event that I get any takers on this score, I’d love to hear feedback on your efforts.  The Lord be with you, and try to catch a Taizé service sometime in 2020!  You won’t regret it!

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