Saturday, May 17, 2014

Our True and Proper Worship

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

This blog has had much to say on the topic of corporate worship.  Some of these posts have sparked a degree of consternation among the brethren, for many of whom the new, "contemporary" conventions have rapidly become as sacrosanct as the old "traditional" ones once were.

These discussions are important, because it is vital to know what exactly we are seeking to accomplish when we come together as a body.  It would be foolish to hand-wave the issues away under an easy cliche of "freedom", for if we accept that worship is truly about God, we must also believe He has something to say about the matter:
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Yet the intensity of the debate over style and methods can turn the very idea of worship into a caricature, wherein certain high-profile aspects are further exaggerated and distorted.  When this happens, other crucial features are lost.

For example, for many of us the de facto definition of the word has devolved into a corporate activity that takes place between roughly 10:30 and noon on a Sunday morning.  But even this may be too broad ... perhaps for many of us, "worship" has basically come to mean that part of the service involving music.

Nobody would admit to such a narrow definition as this, of course.  But honestly, if we were to word-cloud of our normal language patterns about worship, what would really stand out?  "Service"?  "Liturgical"?  "Contemporary"?  "Team"?  "Band"?

Perhaps we need to take the entire line back to formula and ask the fundamental question:  What exactly is "worship"?

Well, let's start with this:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (Romans 12:1-2)
In his Readings on St. John's Gospel, Archbishop William Temple unpacked a definition of worship along these lines that is as magnificently poetic as it is mind-blowing:
Worship is a submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. 
Now that's a pretty tall order for any pastor or worship team!  But of course that's the point, isn't it?  There is no ecclesiastical figure or institution created under the sun that can produce in its congregants this kind of whole-life surrender within the span of three praise songs or a 90-minute service.  Or as John Frame makes clear in his book, Worship in Spirit and Truth:
Redemption is the means; worship is the goal. In one sense, worship is the whole point of everything. It is the purpose of history, the goal of the whole Christian story. Worship is not one segment of the Christian life among others. Worship is the entire Christian life, seen as a priestly offering to God. And when we meet together as a church, our time of worship is not merely a preliminary to something else; rather, it is the whole point of our existence as the body of Christ.
I really like this definition, with one caveat:  our congregational worship is certainly not merely "preliminary", but nor is it the "whole point".  Our corporate worship is an essential expression of the all-consuming "priestly offering" that is to mark our entire worshipful existence before the face of God.  When we come together on the Lord's Day to worship our risen Savior, it ought to be the culminating event of one week and preparation for the next, each moment of which is then to be spent in God-glorifying obedience ... which is itself our "true and proper worship".

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Those Who Mourn

Location: Da Nang, Thanh KhĂȘ, Da Nang, Vietnam
Recently I have been blessed and challenged through a series of conversations with someone who is not a Christian, but who has patiently and attentively heard my testimony about Jesus, and why I follow Him.  Our talks have ranged a number of issues:  social, cultural, philosophical, theological, and personal.  Perhaps more importantly, they have involved a series of interconnected vignettes about my Savior and me.

Because my friend did not grow up around Christians, I have had to consciously abandon my assumptions about what people understand about Christ and His gospel.  This has been good for me, since such assumptions are generally wrong anyway.  Even more personally, carefully explaining how my belief forms the basis for my life, thought, and principles has been refreshing, insofar as it has also helped me to recognize in a new way how integrally such core principles as love, grace, devotion, purity, loyalty, sacrifice, etc. spring from the seed of simple faith in the Author of my salvation.

At the same time, these conversations have laid bare the deeper loneliness of the Christian's peculiarity.  My friend, who is much younger than I, appears to respect my faith and admire my family, while at the same time seeing me as an anachronism:  a nice man with some old-fashioned and outdated ideas.  While this is an improvement over, say, a perception of cold judgmentalism, it still leaves me sad ... and my friend yet lost.

This is a hard form of evangelism, because it requires sincerely caring for someone who may simply never respond to faith with faith.  It is so much easier, for example, to go "street witnessing" with friends among people you will likely never see again, and for whom you feel little real compassion.  When I share the gospel with someone I honestly care for, I then have to honestly feel the pain of their rejection, or at least their ambivalence.

At the same time, I think I have come to appreciate the value of sorrow in my life, insofar as it reawakens my soul.  Ministry is--in essence and with rare exception--loving and giving to those who will not respond in equal measure. The pain of that reality must be felt, lest we become cold and calloused.  The pain of gospel ministry ought to drive us further into gospel dependence on our Savior, but it cannot do so if we refuse to experience it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas is not worth fighting a "war" over

Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Merry Christmas.

There, I said it.  Now, let's get on with getting over ourselves, shall we?

Because frankly, if there is a "War on Christmas", its genius is not that it undermines the foundations of our faith, because it does no such thing.  No, its Satanic genius is that it gets the church engrossed in a futile sideshow, when we ought to be laser-focused on the main event.

Let's admit it:  when we agonize over the erosion of our favorite Christian holiday, our complaint is not really about the world's rejection of Christ, but rather about the loss of our favored place in our surrounding culture.

Yes, we are no longer the cool kids at the party.  And this surprises us ... why?

Put another way, if we truly understood what it meant to live as foreigners and exiles in the world, we would expect the world to try to marginalize us, and recognize that Christmas itself isn't really the point.

Moreover, fighting this "war" over it takes our eye off the ball:  the incredible, historical, world-changing, life-changing Incarnation of God's own holy Son; the mind-blowing truth that Christ was made flesh to redeem us from the fires of hell; the Gospel of Christ.

The ministry of which is--by the way--our mission on earth.

What's not our mission on earth?  The defense of a favorite holiday--even one pregnant in Christian meaning (er, sometimes).

I have become increasingly convinced that the War of Christmas is clever feint by the Enemy, one at which misguided Christians charge headlong and foolishly, wasting much precious time and energy.  It is our very own Hamburger Hill--a meaningless objective upon which we spend our blood and treasure.

We do this because we have lost sight of the most meaningful, God-ordained objective imaginable--the ministry of the Gospel--that Gospel which is rooted in the reality of Emmanuel, God with us.

That is to say ... not Christmas, but Christ!

Put simply, God did not call the church to defend the ancient historical circumstances that conspired to convert a polytheistic Roman festival into the church's favorite commemoration--the organized celebration of which is, at best, biblically ambiguous.

No, beloved, let us not get distracted with the Enemy's sideshow about Christmas.  Rather, let us be rooted in the reality of the Incarnation of Christ!  Let us be witnesses to the Truth!

For if, as J.I. Packer wrote, "the Incarnation, this mysterious miracle at the heart of historic Christianity, is central in the New Testament witness", then Christmas represents not a battlefield, but an amazing opportunity to be witnesses ... to advance on the true battle for men's hearts.

How to do this?  Begin, as Bethany Jenkins does, with a proper understanding of why the Incarnation is so central to the Gospel:
If we do not understand the weight of the miracle of the incarnation of Christ, it is because we do not understand the weight of the holiness of God. The incarnation is shocking. It is outrageous to think that an infinite and holy God would voluntarily become finite to live with unholy sinners.
What if every Christian's conversation over Christmas was to center not on the loss of a holiday, but rather on the "shocking" and "outrageous" implications of the Incarnation of Christ?

Why, then it would be the Gospel mission to which we were called!  Then it would be Christmas every day.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Morning Concert: Rise of the Praise Team

You walk into the sanctuary and take your seat, and find yourself greeted by a fresh, young face at a microphone up front. He smiles broadly and informs you that, "This is the day that the LORD has made," and then invites you to join him in rejoicing and being glad in it. The band behind him begins to play a vaguely familiar tune.  You may have heard it on Christian radio once or twice. As the music progresses, so does the leader's enthusiasm, but he seems mildly distressed that some (like you) aren't keeping pace. So between songs he begins a three-minute, rambling monologue on the virtues of praise, then instructs you to boldly "make a joyful noise to the Lord" ... while he himself begins to croon impressively in three octaves. Unable to keep up with the key and meter changes, you look around uncomfortably to see if the other congregants are as lost as you are. The scene is mixed: a number have their hands raised and seem genuinely caught up in the experience, while others--less sure of themselves--stare intently at the PowerPoint. Some gamely but softly mouth the words. A few have bailed out completely and are checking their iPhones. The song ends, and there is scattered applause, as many have apparently forgotten they are not at a concert. In a deft pivot, the leader encourages them to turn it into a "clap offering" to the Lord. After all, he warns you, the next song will require a lot of clapping! 

Sound familiar? If you've been around at all, you've seen it.  But it wasn't always thus, so how did we get here, and is the praise team a healthy development for the church? 

To be clear, I don't have a particular beef with praise team participants themselves. I have known many over the years, and have generally found most to be very talented and earnest believers who really want to glorify God and bless the church with their gifts. My real concern is that large portions of the worship service have increasingly been delegated to musicians by pastors, often with little guidance on what their objectives ought to be, or how they should be accomplished. The effect on the church is one of performance art masquerading as corporate worship.

Praise bands carry a lot of risk. For example: 
  • They consume a lot of church resources. The easiest way to render a church ineffective for ministry is to pour lots of time and energy into programs. 
  • In some ugly cases they can become "power centers" within the church, competing for influence and affection. 
  • And of course the congregation can be lulled into seeing them as a weekly jam session.
If churches are going to employ praise teams, pray and think on these things:
  • First, nobody says you have to do this. Don't worry about what other churches are doing or what young people expect. There are many ways to worship in song ... even without a sound board and an electric guitar.  Somehow the church muddled through nearly 20 centuries without them. Count the cost, and ask God if this is the way He wants you to use the resources He gave you.
  • If you do go ahead, remember that the basic formula for corporate worship is this: the praise team is not performing for the congregation! Rather, the congregation is performing (that is, worshiping God) with the praise team's help. Be aware that much of the congregation doesn't understand this ... and frankly, many praise team participants really don't either. You're going to have to be very intentional in promoting congregational worship.
  • Pastors and elders, you need to lead your worship leaders. You wouldn't turn over half an hour of your service to the ushers or financial secretary or the audiovisual technician.  Musicians need guidance too. So love them by leading them.
  • Song choice is important. Kindly stop picking the latest tunes from Christian radio.  We appreciate that you're working hard to bring us something "fresh and new", but reasonably familiar and singable is better for most of us in the congregation. We worship more purposefully and authentically when we can sing along rather than mumbling incoherently.
  • Praise team leaders, please don't launch into spontaneous mini-sermons. The pastor has spent all week preparing to rightly divide the Word of Truth for us, and he promises not to spontaneously break out in song (we hope).  I know you're feeling inspired, but please stay focused. Your job is hard enough without trying to do his.
  • So-called "special music" can be a particularly insidious trap. The congregation goes into full audience mode, as cameras and smartphones are whipped out to record the performance. Great freedom is given to the performer to sing anything even mildly spiritual. Worship service no more ... we're now in talent show territory. If you're going to incorporate special music, please do so very carefully.
  • Oh, and if you have to ask ... yes, the drummer is too loud. 
Am I saying churches should not have praise bands?  No, I'm not quite going that far. But in much of the church they have become the default option, and we are increasingly failing to ask why.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Not the Greatest Love of All: Whitney Houston and the False Gospel of Self-Love

The greatest love of all
Gospel singer ... and false gospel singer
is easy to achievelearning to love yourselfis the greatest love of all.     -- Whitney Houston, 1986 
If you don’t love yourself in a healthy way, you will never be able to love others in the way that you should.     -- Joel Osteen, 2012 
For people will be lovers of self ... Avoid such people.
     -- The Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 3:2, 5)
Raise your hand if you've heard a preacher, conference speaker, author, blogger, etc. say that when the Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, it implies we must first love ourselves.  I see that hand ... Amen, sir, thank you ... God bless you, ma'am ... I see that hand ...

Okay, now put your hands down and turn in your Bible to the place where we are actually commanded to love ourselves.

What, no hands?  I'll give you a hint ... it's not in there.

Now, if you're looking for the places where Christ tells us to deny ourselves or hate our own lives, you'll find those.  This is because our basic problem is not with low self-esteem, but rather that we esteem ourselves too much at the expense of our Lord and our neighbors.  And self-esteem is a pathway to nowhere.

Now, follow me here.  I'm NOT saying we need to be filled with self-loathing. What I am saying is that we need to get over ourselves!  As long as we are consumed with ourselves, we are not filled with the Holy Spirit, nor are we filled with love for God or compassion for our neighbors.  Self-love is Satan's favorite kind.

It is not learning to love or forgive or accept myself that leads to joy and peace, it is living in the light of God's amazing love and obeying Christ's great commandments:  love the Lord, love my neighbor. Scripture consistently presents self-regard as a primary obstacle to these supreme imperatives.

I remember when Whitney Houston re-released "The Greatest Love of All" in 1986.  The song was a huge hit and reached #1 on both the pop and adult contemporary charts.  More than that, it became something of an ode to self-esteem and self-actualization; an anthem justifying and celebrating our culture's obsession with the self.  Sadly, Ms. Houston's own short, spectacular and tragic life serves as a vivid testimony to the barrenness of self-love as a life-orienting force.

Earlier this month I engaged in a stimulating conversation with Dr. Deb about the topic of self-forgiveness.  My basic thesis was that self-forgiveness is an unbiblical concept having its roots in popular psychology rather than in Scripture. I put a rather sharp point on it:
The bottom line is this:  the concept of self-forgiveness is not Biblical, but secular-humanist at its core, because it idolizes the self.  If I have the power to condemn or forgive myself, then God is irrelevant to my salvation. Self-forgiveness is not merely unnecessary and redundant; it is foolish, delusional, and self-idolatry.
The errors of self-forgiveness and self-love are not merely misguided, they are cruel.  They obscure the truth that genuine, meaningful, powerful, life-changing love, forgiveness, acceptance, etc. are available to us when we follow Christ in the self-denying, self-sacrificial way He prescribes.  Self-love and self-forgiveness are the world's empty shadows of the true love and transformational forgiveness that come from the perfect Lover of my soul.

The world chases these shadows because they are cost-free.  They get what they pay for.

Of course, for the world to invent worldly doctrines is hardly newsworthy.  For the church to embrace these doctrines and cover them with a Christian veneer, however, is heretical and deeply corrosive. We rob the Gospel of Jesus Christ of its power when we slather it in trendy, worldly psychology.

When we attempt to synthesize the world's bankrupt philosophies with the richness of Christ's gospel, we may ask the memory of Whitney Houston--whose first #1 hit celebrated adultery, but who also styled herself a gospel singer--where that leads us.

This discussion is not merely semantic, it is basic.  The church needs to reclaim the Biblical language, so that we can start talking again about Biblical truth. This means rejecting the false gospel of self-love--which, thank God, is absolutely not "The Greatest Love of All"!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tebow's Philippine Hospital Update

I first wrote about the orthopedic children's hospital Tim Tebow is building with CURE International in Davao City, Philippines back in November 2011.  At the time the building was still in the planning stages.  Well, due to some intrepid reporting by our man-on-the-street (me) and his photographer (Mrs. Jailer), with an assist from the in-laws, I can confirm that the building is indeed taking shape.

Jailer-on-the-street, live from Davao City
(Photo credit - Mrs. Jailer)
The hospital is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2014:
Construction of the Tebow Cure Hospital started in May of last year. It is scheduled for a soft opening in the first quarter of 2014, with 17 beds, eight in the charity ward ready for patients, says Leron Lehman who will serve as its executive director.
He said revenue from the private wards will bolster services for indigent children. At the start, the hospital will employ up to 45 local medical and support professionals trained in modern health-care techniques. 
Pennsylvania-based, Cure International focuses on providing medical care for the world’s children with orthopedic challenges, like cleft lip and palate, clubfoot and other crippling deformities. 
The Tebow Cure hospital will be its first in the Philippines and 11th worldwide. The top floor of the Davao facility will house a Timmy’s Playroom “to enable children to be children,” says Lehman. It will also provide the youngsters religious and spiritual nourishment before and after they go under the knife.
Well, that's some pretty good reporting by Percy D. Della of the Philippine Daily Inquirer from back in March. But who scooped you on the July update (*ahem* that is to say, who got his wife to take a picture on his Samsung Galaxy S4 standing on the side of the road)?  Two thumbs pointing at this guy, that's who!

Addendum: Here's the video to Timmy's Playroom. Forget Tebow for a second ... how well-spoken is the kid in this clip?

Note: For updates on Tim's gridiron accomplishments, we'll just have to await until he emerges from Bill Belichick's witness protection program. I suspect that may be a while ...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Trayvon Factor: Why the Church Divides over Race

It is not alarming or surprising that the various members of the Body of Christ can come to different conclusions about the what outcome of a criminal trial in Florida should have been. Trials are complicated things, and their outcomes are not necessarily determined by what we consider most important.

What is alarming and surprising is how deeply it divides Christians over what it all means.

If you're a white evangelical, there is a substantial probability that you spent the past several weeks listening to Fox News, Sean Hannity and the Wall Street Journal explain what a joke the criminal trial of George Zimmerman was. You know all about Trayvon Martin's checkered past and Facebook posts and Zimmerman's charity work and affinity for Barack Obama. You may even have just learned that Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea combine with Robitussin to make a codeine-based recreational drug. You've concluded the Zimmerman case was politically motivated and never should have been brought to trial. Oh, and when you go to church on Sunday most of your friends agree with you.

If you're an African American, on the other hand, you are far more likely to have followed the trial as explained to you by BET, Tavis Smiley and perhaps the Daily Kos.  You know that Trayvon was a racially profiled youth who was killed for walking home from a convenience store.  You know that none of this would have happened if a gun-toting vigilante would have listened to the 911 operator who told him that his public security services were not required. The trial in Florida was yet another example of racial injustice in America. And of course, when you go to church on Sunday most of your friends agree with you.


Let's start with a discussion of bias.  Almost all of us like to think that we're unbiased. This is a pipe dream, because nobody is unbiased. A bias is simply "an inclination of temperaments or outlook to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of (possibly equally valid) alternatives in reference to objects, people, or groups."

Everyone has an assortment of these, just as everyone has an ideology--that is, a system by which we organize our thoughts and perceptions we use to interpret the world around us. Our particular ideologies are formed by our experiences, education, upbringing, social context, and yes ... our theology (more on this later).  They are then sharpened and reinforced by a variety of popular media sources, which we select specifically because we like to listen to those who agree with our respective ideologies.

So we select our information based on our biases, which in turn serves to reinforce those same biases ... all while we convince ourselves that we are the unbiased ones.

Now, having an ideology is not itself "bad" (although one can certainly have a bad ideology). Ideology is, in a sense, as inevitable as death and taxes. I would be paralyzed if I couldn't organize the overload of information I ingest daily within some sort of ideological framework. The danger is not so much in having an ideology, but in failing to own up to it, and then in refusing to subordinate it to sound Biblical theology.

Our ideological views threaten the church when they displace theology as its foundation. Proper theology (simply, the study of God) must be the rock on which any ideological house is built. In theory, if we all diligently studied God and His precepts based on the same revelation (the Bible), we would find ourselves on similar ideological footing. Instead, ideological elements inevitably seep into the theological foundation. Such corruption is devastating to the church, because once we no longer agree on God's person, priorities and precepts, we cannot hope to agree on much else.

For example, the theology which supported black slavery was corrupted by a pernicious ideological element: Southern whites firmly believed their lifestyle was legitimate. Their upbringing, social and economic structures, media sources and life experiences all reinforced that understanding.  Inevitably, therefore, their churches misinterpreted (or malinterpreted) God's Word so as to support and reflect that ideology.

We are obviously still living with the myriad consequences of that abomination today. Because of the tendency of each particular church to develop its theology gazing through the thick lens of the history, social context and common experiences of its membership, this tends to put a premium on racial or ethnic issues at the expense of unity within the Body of Christ.

Scripture teaches us how the Corinthian church allowed their biases to infect their theology, shipwrecking their gospel mission on the shoals of their factions, and driving the Apostle Paul to sternly admonish, "Is Christ divided?". His charge could not have been plainer:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 
In the same way, until glorifying and obeying Christ is the supreme purpose of all within His church, we simply will not find cause to do the hard work required to achieve this kind of unity. Only the supreme value of Jesus is sufficient to eclipse the temporal wounds of history and contemporary societal causes, and to unite us in our ultimate purpose. When Jesus is supreme, I cannot tolerate being divided from my brother over temporal matters. I cannot stand seeing Christ's name sullied by my refusal to obey His commands and love my brother.

The church's problem is not that we can't agree on whether George Zimmerman should have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his Sanford peers.  It is rather that we can't seem to agree on what place it should hold in our corporate understanding. It is, in other words, that so many of us see God through our ideology, rather than seeing the world through sound Biblical theology.

The bottom line is this:  The church divides over race because the world divides over race, and the church is still very worldly. It won't be until we are so in love with the same God that we will unite in commitment to His priorities and focus on His mission.