Saturday, March 29, 2008

what did we really accomplish?

In 1989 I was listening to Al Denson. Denson was part of a new worship movement targeted towards teenagers, that was very much bringing a new excitement and spirit to worship for those of us who were tired of the same old hum drum arrangements that had been targeted towards our Great, Great, Great Grandparents (or before) but that had surprisingly fallen out of fashion by the 1980’s. It was both an exciting and frustrating time. Exciting because worship was suddenly interesting to me. Frustrating because of all the flack we had to put up with from people who were convinced that, if we weren’t worshipping God their way, we were, in fact, worshipping the devil. An argument that was (and still is) mind numbingly short on scriptural support, and based on the theology of pharisaic and Roman teaching, rather than the words of David, or Paul or, for that matter, Jesus.

Following Denson were a whole host of guys, mostly playing keyboard, many local to the Bible belt, and all wearing vests with buttons (also called flair, for those of you in the know). I have to admit to being quite taken by these guys. They brought something fresh to church, even if many of them weren’t particularly great musicians (I once spoke to a popular worship leader of the day who told me that he technically only knew how to play his keyboard in the key of C, but had a button on board that would automatically transpose it to other keys). In fact, I wanted to be just like them.

Church in those days was completely out of touch with my generation. Truth is, the church had been out of touch for several generations, mine was just the first to come up with a solution that didn’t involve leaving the mainstream church or church altogether. We naively thought that there’d be no problem in getting our parents to adopt this new form of worship. After all, it was moving, and wasn’t that what we should all be looking for in worship? To say the least, we were wrong. In fact, to this day there’s a war raging across the western world about styles of music appropriate to a worship service. Church’s have split over it, fired staff members, started up new congregations and/or services for those who like “choruses”, and have truly allowed it to become a real dividing point in the church. Many have pointed to it as the seed of a new era in the church. I have to admit to being one of those voices in the past.

We gave many reasons for trying to usher in a new sound during the worship service, but they all seemed to boil down to one thing; church simply wasn’t relevant anymore. We believed that bringing in “contemporary” music would make church relevant again and would, without a doubt, bring in new people.

It’s fascinating to look back on that time in my own life. I fought that battle fiercely. In fact, I first learned to lead worship on the keyboard (minus the vest and flair, I’m sorry to say) and then eventually switched over to the guitar (anybody found playing a keyboard in the 90’s was shot and killed, his vest hung in the youth room as an example of what would happen to you if you did not stay relevant). I led worship in churches, and for retreats and camps, believing that if Christians would adopt this new style of worship in their church, people would once again begin attending. For a period of time, we were partly right in that belief. Church’s that adopted the new worship style did succeed, for a while, in keeping their own young people around. They also managed to attract young people from other churches who were looking for something fresh. No doubt, those that didn’t take on the new style were seen as completely out of touch, irrelevant, and soon found themselves struggling to pay the bills (even many of the old established mega churches across the U.S. today resemble a religious form of global warming; if you’re not paying attention, they actually look pretty healthy. But with no young people coming in, death is in sight.) The problem was that we still weren’t really attracting any lost people through the movement. True, church was more interesting to me, but lost people never go away from church talking about “how great the band was”. Fact is, even the best worship bands are cheap knock offs of U2, and we all knew it.

Today we’re beginning to see the true results of our efforts. We managed to suck the young people out of the churches that weren’t interested in change, and send them all across town to the church that was, only to see them drift away from church all together, once they realized that there really wasn’t much substance behind the music. In fact, many began to realize that it was the music they were worshipping (and once again, if you’re going to worship a band, better make it a good one). So they left.

Twenty years later and, for many, that battle still rages on. I still get asked to lead worship and from time to time, I take the opportunity to do so. But my passion and fervour have changed. Worship music no longer represents church for me. In fact, there are times when I have to turn down opportunities simply because I just can’t stomach being on stage, singing songs that failed to do what we all swore they would do. I sometimes find myself looking out into an audience and thinking, “What the heck is this? And why are we all standing around singing, with these enlightened looks on our faces, when all the lost people are outside?”

Today I’m beginning to gain a new (and I hope, finally, a genuine) understanding of what church is supposed to be about, what it looks like to have an authentic faith, and what it looks like when there’s substance behind our worship. There’s a growing movement of people who don’t care about the music anymore. Standing in a circle and singing a few songs A cappella is just fine, because the music really isn’t the point. For them, church is about the fellowship and the mission. And it isn’t that worship isn’t important to them, they’ve just discovered that music only speaks of their worship, rather than representing it. For them, worshipping through their lifestyle is a form of worship with a whole lot more substance behind it than any music could ever bring.

I went through a period of years that I’m just now coming out of, where I began to search for new ways of leading worship. The few I found always involved the arts; draw a picture of your relationship with God. Drop a stone in this bucket of water and imagine your sins being washed away. Use this pen and stationary to write a letter to Jesus. Imagine the static on this television as your life and then ask God to bring you some clarity. But none of those ideas brought anymore authenticity to my worship leading.

I believe that music speaks to the soul, for most people. It certainly does mine. I can recognize God in all forms of music, secular or religious, worded or wordless. But as far as my relationship with God goes, music can do no more than describe what is or what is not going on. Again, music, in and of itself, is not what’s going on, it can only describe what is or what is not going on. So if all I’m doing is showing up and singing, and that’s what it means for me to “worship” or “do church”, there’s really nothing to the song. It’s an empty shell. It would be like having a bag full of walnut shells that, once opened, had no walnut inside. Nice shells, but who really cares?

It reminds me a lot of the churches in the 90’s who tried starting coffee houses in their fellowship halls (incidentally, I still see churches trying to do this!). They honestly believed that if they put in a stage and a few coffee pots, and got people from their church to sing acoustic songs, outsiders would actually want to hang out there and drink coffee. They missed the whole point and spirit of the coffee house.

And the same thing goes with today’s church start ups who seem to be justifying their existence based solely on their music. The ministry isn’t any more authentic, the fellowship isn’t any sweeter (except that there’s less fighting about the music), there aren’t any more lost people coming through the doors (though a few lost Christians are coming back for a while), and the new church really isn’t affecting change in the community anymore than the old church was. Fact is, visit on a Sunday morning and you’ll still see a pretty traditional church service; music and preaching.

When I was living in Pittsburgh my wife met a man around our age at a bookstore who was starting a church. They got to talking and, next thing we knew, we were being invited to the very first service of this new church. They were meeting in the basement of a hotel and, upon walking through the doors, I was amazed at how many people were already there. There must have been 150 people in the room! However, three minutes into the music portion of the service, and one thing became abundantly clear; everybody in that room was a Christian. They all knew the songs and were singing them like Pink Floyd had gotten back together. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it came when the guy got up to preach. Using power point, the man showed us his resume in an attempt to assure us that he was more than up for the task. His resume basically consisted of him having been a youth minister, having spent a couple of years as a youth evangelist, and having led a mission trip once. That took twelve minutes (which was seven minutes too long) at which point he got an awkward look on his face and announced that we should all worship again (he was the lead singer of the band, incidentally)! Jamie and I didn’t stay for the rest of it. After having been a part of several church plants ourselves, we knew right away that there simply wasn’t anything of substance behind this new start up.

My prayer is that we get our act together. Is it possible that we simply don’t understand the point of church these days? Have symbols, meant to represent something of great significance, become hollow shells? I know in my own denomination that we’re often guilty of actually wearing garments, meant to represent our commitment to God and those in need, but only worn to worship in. The meaning behind those garments seems to have been completely lost. We’re no more involved in social action than any of the rest of the church. So what’s the point of the garment?

I suppose it’s too much too hope for, but my prayer is that my daughter’s generation will be able to see beyond the symbols and methods. That they’ll be like nomadic congregations, happily moving from one method and symbol to another, understanding that the point is sustenance, not where you lay your head. That the mission gets priority.

I pray that young men will stop starting churches where one of the first questions asked is; where can we get a good sound system for not much money?

And I pray that my generation will see the irony in the excuses we’ve used to leave old churches and start new ones, and will also see the irony in the methods we’ve leaned so heavily on to start those new churches. Sometimes when I stand in front of a congregation of young worshippers, I find myself thinking; same act, different song.

No doubt, churches that were unwilling to bend on the worship topic signed their own death certificates. And rightly so. They proved themselves to be irrelevant even to the culture around them. They were focused on the methods rather than the mission. But I truly believe that, as relevant as we might have been to the surrounding culture, we were just as irrelevant as our parent churches to the needs of our communities. And I think that we were focussed much more on the methods than any of us would like to admit.

We truly were the same act with a different song. And these days, neither our act nor our song is as good as U2’s.

Monday, March 24, 2008

the problem and its solution

Sunday, March 23, 2008

highlights and lowlights

Well, it’s been over a month since my last post. A lot has happened over that time. The following are some highlights and lowlights:

I was thinking the other day…actually, I do think every day, but on this particular day I was thinking the following; If you were having a reunion of all your high school friends (whether friends from high school, or church), and you could bring in any band you wanted (money and location were no object), who would it be? After giving it some thought, I actually decided that it was a really great question. Genius in fact. And so I open it up to the general public. Would love to hear your responses and also the reasoning behind them. As for me, I’m actually going to go with Genesis. Genesis is nowhere near my favourite band but, when it comes to the 80’s, they rank right up there with some of the most hits of any band. They’re also listener friendly meaning that I don’t really know anybody who wasn’t into them, at least somewhat in the 80’s. I think they’d be a good generic band that would cross all the different personalities represented among my friends.

I read last week that the ultimate sign of fitness is in how many push ups you can do. Apparently there is no other form of exercise that tests out so many different areas of your body. A man my age should be able to do at least 29 push ups properly. I can’t. I’m working on it.

A Canadian colleague of mine became so enraged over my “Oh Canada” post that I was actually reported to the higher ups! I’m not kidding. It actually took several phone calls to convince my own supervisor that it was all tongue in cheek and written specifically to take a jab at my plethora of Canadian friends. Sheesh. I love the internet, but I keep forgetting that sarcasm doesn’t translate very easily in the written word.

For decades it’s been cool…no, downright SHEIK to be a fan of the lovable loser, i.e. the Cubs or Redsox. My question is this; when does it become cool to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates? They’ve completely sucked for nearly fifteen years with absolutely no hope of getting better on the horizon. Am I cool or what?

I’ve never wanted to see the U.S. boycott an Olympics more than I do right now. Throw the UK in there too. The truth is that China should have never been granted the Olympics. I don’t know what the Olympic committee was thinking. And, for those not paying attention, it isn’t just about Tibet. China is notorious for human rights violations. Tibet just happens to be the one group of people, whose rights China violates, that they can’t keep quiet. Honestly, we’ve invaded countries for much less than China is getting away with. Have some courage politicians. Step up, do the right thing, and send a message, not only to China, but to the committee who thought it was ok to send the Olympics to China.

Today, while visiting one of our churches in London, a car alarm went off outside. It went off forever. It was as if the world was announcing the fact that they were, in fact, outside, and challenging us to get out of our bubble and to come out where they were. We tried to pray through it, but were absolutely distracted. As always, those doses of reality always make a church service seem a little more real to me.

The countdown has begun to what my household is referring to as the Epic Fritssanic Adventure. “Fritssanic stands for France, Italy, Swittzerland, and Germany. In two weeks we leave for a European road trip which will have us taking a train from London to Dover, a ferry from Dover to Calais, and then a car from Calais to Florence. On the way there we’ll drive across France, making a two day stop in Geneva, and then finally arriving in Florence, Italy where we’ll spend a week taking in sights like Venice, Pompeii and, of course, Florence. On the way back we’ll take a Northern route which will take us through Switzerland and Germany. I don’t know what I’m most excited about, the time off, eating Italian food for a week, seeing Switzerland and Germany, or simply the opportunity to drive. I desperately miss driving.

I guess that’s about it for now. I’ve actually been writing these random thoughts out over the course of this weekend. I just sat down to finish this up and ran across another story of Tibet and the Chinese crackdown. What a bunch of evil bullies.