Three Cheers for Southland Christian Church

From time to time I have blogged about some of my concerns about mega-churches in North America.  It is not hard to find examples of how contemporary Christianity in North America has been co-opted by the culture and by a whole host of market driven assumptions.  I have observed on several occasions that mega-churches are far better at assessing where people are culturally than where they should be culturally.

Nevertheless, there also comes a time to pause and heap praise where praise is due.  I am continually impressed by many of the ways that Southland Christian Church is making a great impact on our community.  Southland is one of the largest churches in central Kentucky.  They have multiple campuses, and are based in Nicholasville, Kentucky.  They are showing the whole nation what a large church can really be.  Led by John Weece and a large staff, the people of Southland are showing us how the church can make a big difference.  Let me give you a few examples.

They have mobilized hundreds of people to serve the poor and feed the hungry and have demonstrated before this community what it means to love those in our midst who are in need.  Southland’s service to the poor makes you proud to be called a Christian.

They also have never lost sight of the core gospel message.   I did a survey of dozens of church websites one Saturday afternoon.   It was Southland Christian church which had the clearest presentation of the gospel on their website.   This is also reinforced during their weekly services.  On occasion I visit Southland and have found John Weece’s messages to be thoughtful and biblically sound.  He always points people to Jesus Christ.  More recently, the church has challenged hundreds of young people to read Timothy Keller’s book, the Meaning of Marriage.  It is a fantastic book which sets forth a strong case for the importance of traditional marriage and the long term joyful impact of fidelity.  I have heard testimonies of young people who have had their entire understanding of marriage revolutionized by being a part of this reading project.

These are just a few examples which demonstrate that Southland Christian Church is not just another mega-church.  They take their faith seriously.  They are certainly a model for other churches  – large and small – in the way they demonstrate the in-breaking Kingdom of God through word and deed.

I attend another church which is also doing some wonderful work in the community.  Our church recently successfully planted a new church in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital.  At some point I’ll blog about them as well.  But, today I want to pay tribute to Southland Christian Church.  Keep up the great work, Southland!   In a day when the media is full of churches and church leaders who embarrass us, it is great to see men and women who make us proud to be a part of the church, the most amazing movement in the history of the world.

The Voice of Anselm Rises again

Anselm was a well known 11th century Benedictine monk who has mostly been forgotten by the contemporary church.  He was the Archbishop of Canterbury and was known for his courage.  His ministry was marked by many conflicts with the power brokers of his day as he insisted on the truth of the gospel.  He was also known for his great theological mind.

I would like to focus on Anselm’s argument for the existence of God.  Today the church is standing against a headwind of atheism.  This wind of atheism cannot last long because it has no foundation and offers no positive vision.  Nevertheless, the gusts of atheism do kick up from time to time and, tragically, slay thousands in their path.

Anselm’s ontological argument is powerful by virtue of its simplicity.  If God exists, Anselm reasoned, then He is the source of our life and capacity to think.  Therefore, it would be impossible for us to think of a God greater than the one who actually does, in fact, exist.  Therefore God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”   Anselm’s argument came back to me this week when I was reminded of an outspoken atheist named Bobby Henderson who a few years ago introduced what he called the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” religion as a parody against all religions.

Henderson’s basic point was that because it is impossible to prove that God exists, then, equally, no one could disprove his counter claim that the world was actually created by the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.  This, inevitably led Bobby Henderson to found the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a religion known as, you guessed it, pastafarianism.  However, the Flying Spaghetti Monster has exercised no redemptive acts, and by Henderson’s own account, exists only inside his head.

It wouldn’t take even an elementary school child five minutes to “think” of a dozen ways that the God of their deepest longings and hopes is greater than the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  So, if Bobby Henderson wants to “invent” a God, he at least should stretch the limits of his own imagination.  For indeed, the God of Biblical revelation is truly beyond even our greatest conception of him.  This God is not only attested through Scripture, but through countless ages in the lives of those who have been transformed as well as those who have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  This is, after all, transfiguration Sunday.

Thanks, Anselm, you have reminded all the jaded 21st century cynics that even the mind of Bobby Henderson testifies against his own argument.

Why The Church Is So Concerned With Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination

I occasionally hear someone make the case that evangelicals have invested far too much energy fighting against same sex marriage and the ordaining of homosexuals as pastors in the church.  There are some who have become convinced by weak exegesis and, feeling the winds of culture blowing, have convinced themselves that the Bible doesn’t actually condemn homosexual behavior.  Texts such as Genesis 19:1-11 and Lev. 18:22; 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7, not to mention texts like Matthew 19:4-6 where Jesus himself clearly teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, are all swept aside with some version of the question, “hath God truly said…?”   This is, of course, the well trodden response which first appears in Genesis 3:1 and has been a favorite wedge of the enemy against God’s Word.  I do believe that evangelicals must become more devoted readers of the Scriptures and less susceptible to specious arguments which erode thousands of years of faithful Jewish- Christian teaching.   But, I will need to devote more time in some future blog to address this problem.   In this blog I want to make a point of clarification about those who may agree that homosexual practice is wrong, but wonder why the church seems to be focused on this particular sin and not others.

Why, they argue, do we not seem to exhibit the same kind of righteous indignation against embezzlers or liars or landlords who oppress the poor, as we do against homosexual behavior?   Why, they go on to insist, do we single out this one sin when there are so many others sins we could – and should – oppose?  From this perspective, it seems like the church is doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of a “pile on.”

It is absolutely true that the church must take a stand against all manner of sin, whether it be shoplifting or rape.  All sin is, at its root, an expression of rebellion against God.  Therefore, the church must stand against anything which stands in opposition to His righteous rule and reign.  I think that sexual brokenness runs so deep in our culture that every pastor should take time to regularly address a whole host of issues along the “sexual brokenness” continuum, including pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, pornography viewing, misogyny, etc.

However, the reason the issue of homosexuality has been highlighted so much in recent years is not, as is often said, because this sin is being singled out from all the others.  Rather, it is because this particular sin is seeking to be legitimized as normative in the life and experience of the church.  I expect the wider secular culture to embrace homosexuality as normative and, indeed, to be regularly bewildered by the strangeness of Christian teaching.  The point is, no one in the church has sought to promote the ordination of openly practicing adulterers or to legitimize the practice of usury.  If there was a movement among us to ordain oppressive landlords or habitual shoplifters, then I suspect that these issues would be regularly discussed as well.  No Christian is now saying that usury is a good thing, or that Christians should no longer consider it important to visit prisoners, or help widows in their distress.  However, we do have bishops who are telling the church that it is now permissible for someone to sodomize their neighbor.   The result is an attempt to legitimize homosexuality and same sex marriage, moving it from the “sin” category to the “sacrament” category.

So, to put in plainly, the church would rather not focus time and energy on homosexuality.   We actually don’t believe that homosexual practice carries a heavier moral weight than a whole range of other sins.  However, any attempt to relocate any sin from the New Testament “sin lists” to the celebrative, normative list must be addressed because it strikes at the heart of the gospel itself.

4 Things United Methodists can learn from the Episcopal Church

Asbury Theological Seminary had the recent honor of hosting Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).  He preached in historic Estes Chapel from the book of Esther and reminded us all that Haaman’s gallows are being built for all those who stand for righteousness, but we have been called to persevere and to be faithful for “such a time as this.”

For decades we all have witnessed the slow and demoralizing decline of the Episcopal church as it has followed that well trodden path from vibrant faithfulness which joyfully embraced historic Christianity to a place of increasing hostility towards historic doctrines such as the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scriptures, the atoning power of the death of Christ and the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those committed to orthodox faith watched in dismay as they increasingly heard statements from bishops and pastors and read decisions which were made by denominational bodies which revealed that many of their own leaders were no longer adhering to historic faith.   The tipping point came in 2003 when Gene Robinson from Fayette County, Kentucky became the first openly declared homosexual to be ordained bishop.  (He became the bishop of New Hampshire).  This became the presenting issue for decades of frustration with a church which had lost its way.

Tens of thousands of Episcopalians rose up and exercised what is known as Anglican realignment.  This is a process where a church recognizes that its bishop is no longer faithful to the gospel so the episcopal “seat” is recognized as being effectively empty.  The church then has to come under the authority of a new bishop.   What occurred was truly remarkable.  Thousands of Episcopalians gathered up the courage to leave their churches.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  However, the African church saved the Episcopalian church in the USA.  Bishops from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, began to extend episcopal oversight to new “mission” churches in the United States.  By 2009 this movement had grown enough so the Anglicans in North America could stand on their own.  In June of 2009 most of these mission churches were brought together under a single umbrella known as the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

When Robert Duncan was ordained as the archbishop of the newly formed ACNA he electrified the assembly by boldly challenging the church to plant 1,000 new churches in five years.  The ACNA is doing just that, and will easily surpass the goal which, at the time, seemed impossible.  All across America Episcopalians (who for generations had given millions of dollars to build some of the most beautiful worship spaces in America) have been forced to walk out and leave it all behind.  Entire congregations had to start all over again in schools, storefronts, homes, or renting space from other churches.  Within a single generation the ACNA will easily surpass the Episcopalian church in numbers.

Archbishop Duncan has effectively led this new movement by challenging his flock to be faithful to the gospel and to remember that the church is not about buildings, but about people and about reaching those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  “Courage begets courage” is one of the most important words of advice from the Archbishop to his flock.  What he means by this is that if the people of God take a courageous stand, then it spreads and others are encouraged to take a stand.  The result is a new Reformation.  Because of their courage, Anglicanism in North America has been saved and is being transferred from one wineskin (Episcopalianism) to another wineskin (ACNA).  More importantly, they have also sparked a new reformation within the church as a whole and provided a pathway for others to follow.  What can United Methodists learn from the last ten years of turmoil within the Episcopalian church?

– First, those of us who are committed to historic Christianity must have the courage to speak out and unflinchingly take our stand with Jesus Christ and the gospel.  We simply cannot be silent when pastors, District Superintendents, Bishops or other denominational leaders make statements which are in variance with our own historic witness as a church.  We must do it in love, but we must do it.

– Second, we should not hold out hope that at some point those holding these so-called “enlightened” liberal views will pick up their stakes and leave the church and go start their own church and build their own seminaries, and so forth.   That is not going to happen.  History teaches us that Christians committed to historic faith build churches and Christian institutions.  Those who forsake the core teachings of the faith, generally speaking, do not build churches or Christian institutions.  Instead, they attach themselves to vibrant movements and then take over the structures which were built by the faithfulness and sacrifice of others.

– Third, we must earnestly pray that our denomination will re-discover its own past and be awakened to a new period of faithfulness, evangelism, church planting and societal witness.  The United Methodist church has millions of members who have kept the faith, so we should pray for our church and work earnestly for its renewal.

– Fourth, those of us committed to historic Christianity must deepen our ties to the global church.  While we hope and pray it does not happen, the day may come when we, too, might be forced to leave our beloved denomination and find episcopal oversight in Africa.  Many of our faithful brothers and sisters in New England and the Pacific Northwest may need to act sooner rather than later.

A university President recently commented to Archbishop Duncan that because of the determined faithfulness of the ACNA, his grandchildren will someday hear and believe the gospel.  This testimony is true.  We must recognize that we are fighting for the faith of our grandchildren.  May we have the kind of courage which befits the people of God.

 

Missional Leaders for the Church

Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.

The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years.  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth.  This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation.  The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable.  The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.”  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.

The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives. History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts  – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel, now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism. According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul.

On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents.  They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents.  This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period. If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the pacific northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly Hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.

These demographic facts are not easy to accept.  It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation.   What should we do?  Here are three suggestions.

1.  Your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade.  If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four.  This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings.  It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic populations.

2.  You must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established.  We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society.   Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially).  After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church.  Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.

3.  Evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life.  The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?

 

Robust Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

One of the great challenges facing this generation of Christians is the successful navigation to a more robust Christianity, finally set free from the domesticating influence of Christendom. Under the sway of “cultural Christianity” difficult theological questions rarely arise, and catechesis declines because people, broadly speaking, see themselves as being “good Christian folk.”  To be an American was to be a Christian.  The longer I live the more I have come to see that the biggest challenge of the church is not the initial evangelization of a culture, but rather remaining Christians once a culture has been evangelized.

From the vantage point of the early decades of the 21st century it is quite evident that the marriage of the Christian gospel to North American culture did not come without serious repercussions.  Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated.  The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament.  Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.”  Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.”  The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation.  Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions.  Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church.   Now that Christianity and North America are in divorce court, the underlying issues which were simmering for decades are now openly spewing forth.  It’s not a pretty sight. The signs of this are everywhere. (I will devote another blog to specific examples).

The latest surge of atheism and neo-paganism is not because after 2,000 years someone finally sniffed out the Achilles heel of the Christian message and now our “mask is off.”  Rather, atheism, and half of a dozen other competing world-views, are always prowling around ready to jump into any spiritual void which appears.  We have retreated so far from biblical Christianity you can almost hear the Christian oxygen being sucked out of the culture at every turn.  The church has become one of the most vacuous spaces of all.

The great project of our generation is to reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church.  (Please re-read the last sentence about three times before going on).  This will inevitably involve standing up and articulating with far more precision exactly what Christianity actually is.  It has become almost a trite statement in recent years that our culture has abandoned the Christian faith.  This actually is not my greatest concern.  My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel.  The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome.  They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it.  This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans).  This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence).  The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself.  After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God?  (I Peter 4:17).  We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage.  There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”

Christianity in North America has taken quite a few wrong turns.  I am more familiar with the “wrong turns” of mainline and evangelical Protestantism, but my Roman Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal friends assure me that those movements have wandered off the reservation, too.  There is no point in pressing ahead with all of our so called “plans” if we have taken the wrong turn in the road.  We’ve got to go back and get it right.  Progress doesn’t always mean pressing ahead, it means moving closer towards the goal.  In fact, the greatest progress usually starts with repentance.  Repentance means to turn and go a different direction.  I, for one, have quite a bit of repenting to do.  How about you?

Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible again!

A Proposal to Unplug Worship

When we think about the legacy of the 16th century Reformation our minds quickly go to such sublime themes as justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers.  However, if you actually lived in the 16th century, the biggest “felt” impact of the Reformation was in the area of worship.  Prior to the Reformation, worshippers were largely passive.  They watched as the Latin mass was sung, Psalms were chanted and the priest consecrated the Eucharist.  The Reformation was a stark reminder that the word liturgy means the “work of the people.”   The Reformation spawned an explosion of congregational hymn writing which produced such remarkable hymn writers as Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress is our God), Isaac Watts (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross), Charles Wesley (O For a 1000 Tongues to Sing) and Fanny Crosby (Blessed Assurance).  Within a few generations the church was singing again!  Worship was active, not passive.

In our own day we have seen another explosion of wonderful hymn-writing.  Great hymns such as How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (Stuart Townend), How Great is our God  (Chris Tomlin), Blessed be Your Name (Matt Redman) can be heard in churches across the nation.  Having preached in dozens of churches across the nation I have observed that contemporary worship services are almost invariably led by worship bands.  A worship band normally includes a lead singer, two or three supporting vocalists, a bass guitar, an electric guitar and a drummer.  There must be thousands of such bands across the nation.  Perhaps your church has one.  However, these bands are normally “plugged in” which means that their voices and instruments are electronically amplified.   This, in turn, makes it very difficult to even hear yourself sing, not to mention the person next to you.  The result (and I have observed this many, many times) is hundreds, if not thousands of worshippers, all standing and listening to the worship band, but not actively singing themselves.  The worshippers are, to be fair, more engaged perhaps than at a concert, but, nevertheless, we are seeing increasingly passive worshippers.  A hard fought battle of the 16th century may need to be fought all over again.

I have a proposed solution which is not all that radical, but could make the difference.

First, worship bands should emphasize acoustical sound rather than electronically amplified sound.  In other words, we need a “worship unplugged” movement.  We can increase the number of musicians and instruments if necessary and, in the case of very large sanctuaries, a modest acoustical amplification might be desirable.  But the goal would be to primarily hear people singing and worshipping God rather than hundreds of people watching the worship band worship God.  The “rule of thumb” would be this.  If you cannot hear the person next to you singing, then the worship leaders are playing too loud.

Second, the lighting in the congregation should be raised, not dimmed, during the worship service.  It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service.  As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row.  However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people.  I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship.  One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing.  I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord.  Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.

Third, worship bands must reflect more on the “singability” of a proposed worship song.  In the post-Reformation period when so many new hymns were being written, they were specifically written for the church to sing.  This means that, generally speaking, they were simple rhythms set to predictable meters and were musically kept within a “normal” musical range for average voices.  Today’s worship songs are normally taken from the music industry.  These songs are far more complex, rarely have a regularized meter, were written to be “performed,” recorded and put out by professional singers.  Even highly trained worship bands spend hours learning complex rhythms, various musical bridges and irregular vamps between various parts of the song.  The goal often is to try and reproduce as close as possible how it sounded when it was professionally performed.   Musicians may not realize how exceedingly difficult this is for the average congregation.  If you add to this the fact that choruses have a much shorter “shelf life” than a typical hymn, then the turnover rate merely adds to an already challenging situation from a purely musical point of view.  Thus, contemporary worship bands must either learn to write songs specifically for public worship (Stuart Townend is already doing this), or take performance level songs and adapt them into an act of worship.

If this modest proposal is followed, we might be able to reclaim one of the great gifts of the Reformation; namely congregations actively engaged in worship through joyful, vibrant singing!

The Quiet Revival

Christianity Today reported a few years ago that eighty-five percent of the members of Yale University’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter are Asian, whereas “the university’s Buddhist meditation meetings are almost exclusively attended by whites.”[1. “Go Figure,” Christianity Today 47, no. 7 (June 2003): 13.]  There is an important lesson in this. It is often stated that Christianity in the Western world is in decline. It is true that, on average, every day there are approximately 7,000 fewer Christians in the West. Statistically, it has been as high as 11,000 fewer per day. However, this is only part of the story. While we are witnessing the dramatic decline in Christianity among Caucasians, the Western world is, at the same time, witnessing the dramatic growth of newly emerging ethnic congregations. The Chinese, Hispanic, African and Korean congregations, in particular, are experiencing unprecedented growth.

This weekend, for example, I had the privilege of speaking at the Rutgers Christian Community Church. It was planted only thirty years ago by a handful of Chinese students from Rutgers University. Today, it is a thriving Christian community with several thousand members. They have English, Mandarin, and Cantonese congregations and are in the middle of a major building program to build a new sanctuary.

Prior to my coming to Asbury I lived in the Boston area. Boston is the home of a major spiritual awakening. More people have come to Christ in Boston in the last three decades than during the Great Awakening, but it has largely gone unnoticed, because it is occurring primarily among African, Chinese, Korean, and Hispanic peoples. There are over 50 different African congregations in Boston and, indeed, on any given Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, more people worship Christ in a language other than English than in English. It has been called the “quiet revival.”

I am convinced that the greatest source of renewal in the North American church will be found in these emerging ethnic churches. Pastors across this country should begin planting ethnic congregations in their facilities and nurturing their growth. Boston already has more shared-facility churches than any other city in the country. May this trend continue.

Last night I worshiped in a sanctuary packed with Chinese Christians. The congregation sang, in Mandarin, Chris Tomlin’s excellent hymn, We Fall Down.  I don’t know if Chris Tomlin realized when he wrote this hymn, among others that he has written, that he is playing a significant role in stimulating the global Christian community. Indeed, when we fall down and worship Christ today and look to our left and to our right, we will increasingly be worshiping with Christians from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The globalization of the Christian faith is no longer a theoretical point we affirm, rather it will be, increasingly, the living experience of Christians in the West. So, whenever I am prone to discouragement about the state of Christianity in the West, I think about Rutgers Community Christian Church, and a thousand like it. They are the living demonstration that Christ is building his Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!

Optimistic of Our Mission to Theologically Educate

This church-focused, theologically informed new vision I am calling for today will not eagerly embrace “top down” political strategies as effective methods for cultural transformation.  This new vision sees the local church, not the para-church, as the central locus of evangelism and discipleship. This new vision eschews niche-marketing strategies for drawing unbelievers to church.  It will abandon simplistic formulas and presentations of the Gospel opting instead for invitations to living communities of men and women who have been transformed by the Gospel.

We have much work to do, and likely this kind of church which I am envisioning will not come about without prayer and fasting. But, we at Asbury Theological Seminary are poised to face these challenges and to produce a new generation of pastors, teachers, evangelists and church planters who are theologically educated. Don’t be discouraged by the enormity of this task. Instead, rise to the challenge.  I am optimistic because I believe in the men and women of this faculty and staff who are called to educate and invest themselves in your formation. I am optimistic because Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord.  I am optimistic because as the hymn declares,

though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;

though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;

yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,

standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

I am optimistic because Yahweh “has sworn and will not change his mind!”  I am optimistic because I recall the dying words of John Wesley when he said, “The best of all is, God is with us.”  I am optimistic because the church of Jesus Christ will weather every storm from Gnosticism, to Arianism, to Constantinianism, to Protestant liberalism, to Evangelical reductionism, to the new atheism.  Through it all, Christ renews his church, calls forth better readers of the Scriptures, and makes good on his sacred promise, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Amen.

(Part 6 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

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