March 19, 2012
Finally a solution to distracting mobile devices in worship.
January 11, 2012
Are churches failing, or are our expectations too high?
Let's be honest for a minute. Most churches expend the vast majority of their resources on weekend worship gatherings. It's when facilities are most utilized, when programming is most robust, when volunteers are most required, and what many pastors spend the majority of their time preparing for. This great emphasis on Sunday is often justified because it's when people gather to meet with God.
But new research released this week from Barna reveals that most churchgoers rarely experience God in worship services. While most people surveyed can recall a "real and personal connection" with God while at church (66%), they also reported that these connections are "rare." Among those who attend church every week, less than half (44%) say they experience God's presence. And one-third of those who have attended church report never feeling God's presence in a worship gathering.
But "experiencing God" is a wishy-washy, emotional, and subjective idea, you might argue. We're in the business of transforming lives. Well, the Barna study has a dose of reality for you too.
The survey also probed the degree to which people say their lives had been changed by attending church. Overall, one-quarter of Americans (26%) who had been to a church before said that their life had been changed or affected “greatly” by attending church. Another one-fourth (25%) described it as “somewhat” influential. Nearly half said their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing (46%).
A closer look at the breakdown of the survey participants is also illuminating. Generally, the older generations (Elders and Boomers) reported more positive church experiences than younger generations (Busters and Mosaics). The report says "There were significant gaps between young adults and older adults when it came to feeling part of a group that cares for each other, experiencing God’s presence, knowing the church prioritizes assisting the poor, and being personally transformed."
What should we conclude from this report from Barna? That is going to depend upon your own setting and congregation. But here are a few of my wonderings:
-Many (perhaps most) churches still have structures/values that appeal to those 50+. Despite all of the rhetoric since the 90s about "emerging generations" and new models of church, there is little evidence it has been implemented broadly or effective.
-Is the problem really our worship services, or what we expect from them? Some might look at these numbers and respond by updating their music selection, adding some icons or candles, and getting younger leaders up front. And that might be wise. But I wonder if most people aren't "experiencing God" in these gatherings because they aren't experiencing God Monday through Saturday either. Perhaps we (church leaders) have over-emphasized worship gatherings because they are something we can control, when we ought to be training people to commune with God apart from formal services.
-Finally, a friend of mine has vented in the past about all of the "transforming lives" talk that permeates ministry gatherings these days. "Transformation isn't our job," he rants, "it's God's! All we can do is lead people to him." Granted, my friend is highly Reformed, but he has a point. Might it be time to consider what Paul said about ministry in 1 Corinthians 3? Some plant the seeds, others water it, but ultimately it is God who causes the growth. I don't believe we should ignore outcomes or allow lazy, ineffectual discipleship to take root in our churches. But we must also admit that life transformation is more mysterious, more God-driven, than making widgets in a factory.
I welcome your responses to the Barna study.
June 13, 2011
Can the values of entertainment and hospitality coexist?
Many churches focus on providing a compelling worship experience. The desire is to attract people to an excellent production where they can sing, learn, and leave feeling renewed. For decades we've called this approach "seeker-sensitive." But does that sensitivity have limits?
News reports broke last week about a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy being removed from Elevation Church for being a "distraction" during the Easter service. The boy's mother said, “Easter Sunday he got all dressed up, got ready to go, no small feat with a kiddo like him." But, according to the report, after the opening prayer inside the sanctuary the boy voiced his own kind of “Amen.”
“We were very abruptly escorted out," the mother said.
Following the incident, the boy's mother contacted church leaders with an offer to start a ministry for special needs children. She told reporters that the idea was "rejected."
After the story was broadcast on the local news (you can watch the video here), Elevation Church issued a statement in which they clarified that "...this young man and his family were not removed from our church. They were escorted to a nearby section of our church where they watched the service in its entirety."
The church also said, “It is our goal at Elevation to offer a distraction free environment for all our guests. We look forward to resolving any misunderstanding that has occurred.”
We certainly don't want to jump on the pile and criticize Elevation Church for what may be a simple misunderstanding. But this incident does raise larger questions about what may be conflicting values in our churches. Specifically, the values of entertainment and hospitality.
Elevation, which probably represents the views of many churches, says they want to "offer a distraction free environment." I'm assuming this means avoiding distractions from among the congregation, because in my experience there is plenty that happens on the stage at churches that keeps me distracted from God. Smoke machines and lasers, really? But I digress.
In our desire to be distraction free, must we remove individuals from our corporate worship whom God has called to himself? What are we communicating about the church, God's Kingdom, and the character of God himself, if people with special needs are not fully welcomed? And we don't have to focus on these extreme examples like the boy with cerebral palsy. In many of our congregations we don't even want non-special needs children in our worship gatherings.
I'm not advocating a disorderly and chaotic form of worship, but I'm not sure Paul was arguing in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 for an entirely distraction free gathering either. When I pay $10 at the cinema, I expect a distraction free experience. (I saw Super 8 this weekend...worth every penny.) When I shell out $100 to see a Broadway production, I expect a distraction free experience. But when I come freely to worship the Living God and gather with his people whom he describes as the foolish, weak, and despised in the world (1 Cor 1:26-28)--I do not expect a distraction free environment.
Remember blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10)? When Jesus came by he began shouting. The crowd wanted him to shut up. He was a distraction. But Jesus welcomed the distraction of this blind beggar and healed him. Or what about the children in the marketplace found earlier in the same chapter? The disciples tried to stop people from bringing their children to Jesus. Again, they were a distraction. But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God."
Those whom our culture labels a distraction, Jesus calls recipients of his kingdom. That should make us pause.
A few years ago I helped our church launch a new congregation. We started out meeting in a community center. There were only about 50 adults and a whole lot of kids. One of them was severely disabled. Like the boy described at Elevation Church, he often made loud outbursts in worship...sometimes during my sermon or the prayer of a worship leader.
But our congregation began with a high value placed on hospitality. When this boy was in attendance a worship leader would often let the congregation know at the beginning of our time together. And he'd inform visitors that, "If he makes any loud noises during our time, rather than allowing it to frustrate you, use it as an opportunity. His presence with us, and the noises, remind us that we are all welcomed by God no matter who we are."
Some Sundays it was difficult. Some Sundays it was beautiful. Every Sunday it was the Church.
May 9, 2011
Innovation in worship is good, as long as we use wisdom.
In part 1 of Skye Jethani's interview with Chuck Swindoll, he spoke about the insecurity that leads some pastors to seek a crowd and to pander to cultural trends. Some of you felt Swindoll was just being old-fashioned and grumpy. (I hear Grandpa Simpson saying, "Back in my day we walked five miles to church on Sunday. Twice! And we liked it.") In part 2 he expresses his appreciation for innovation in worship, but is concerned that we employ more wisdom in what trends we adopt.
Jethani:We can look back before modern technology entered the sanctuary and see the same values at work. The crusades of Billy Graham, the revivals of the Great Awakening, even all the way back to the Reformation, you see that Martin Luther used music and forms of worship that were relevant to his German culture. So what's wrong with taking relevant cultural expressions in the 21st century and using them in our worship?
Swindoll: Nothing, if they square with Scripture and if they honor the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing wrong with using something new. We are called to sing new songs. I love them. Nobody sings louder in our church than I do—both the old and new songs.
But everything must square with Scripture. We must make sure that new things actually help people grow in the truth, that they edify the saints and build them up. Will it equip them to handle the world around them? Will it form them into the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of this world?
In many cases we use new things because they are novel, not because they are helpful.
So the issue is not innovation or tradition, but why we're using a particular method or technology.
Exactly. I have been to church services, and you have too, where the only people who knew the songs were the band. I'm not edified. I'm just watching a show.
And they're not interested in teaching me the songs either. They just sing louder to make up for the fact that no one else is singing. Loud doesn't help. Why do they do that? Do you want me to be impressed with how loud you are singing, how accomplished you are? I'm not. I'm not here to be impressed with you. I'm here to fall back in love with Christ.
Innovation doesn't have to be loud or a gimmick. How about silence? Most people get no silence in their world. Imagine three or four minutes of silence. No music. No background distractions.
Or change the order of worship. Start the service with an invitation rather than ending with it. Nothing in the Bible says to walk down an aisle. So be innovative. I'm not against screens, or new songs, or innovation. I just don't like the gimmicks. I want to know when worship is over that that leader's sole purpose was to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. He's not important to himself, and I'm not.
Here's what troubles me: I don't know why leaders younger than me aren't saying this. I'm not talking about novices, but the leaders in their forties and fifties. Why aren't they raising questions and showing some concern for where the church is heading with its focus on media and headcount and passive spectating? I know one church that has 17 people on their media staff and only 12 on the pastoral staff.
When a church is spending more of its budget on media than shepherding, something is out of whack. We have gotten things twisted around. My book is simply saying come back, folks. I'm not against innovation. But we need more wisdom.
Read the full interview at LeadershipJounral.net.
July 1, 2010
Is national patriotism inconsistent with Christianity?
I’ve been a part of numerous churches that celebrated American Independence Day with abandon: 80-foot flags hanging from the ceilings, singing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “I’m Proud to Be an American” and even— most disturbing to me as I reflect back—saying the Pledge of Allegiance during our corporate worship.
If some visitor had asked us on those Sunday just what we were worshiping, I think that might have been a very perceptive question.
For many, the Fourth is about gratitude for the blessings of freedom. And as far as that goes, I’m in complete agreement—though to see only the “blessings” of freedom and not also repent of all the many varied and creative ways we’ve abused it might be a bit short-sighted. Still, yes to gratitude.
For others, these celebrations go beyond merely the gratitude and obedience that Scripture commands, into something else, something entirely absent from the God’s Word: Patriotism.
Patriotism, defined as “devoted love, support, and defense of one's country; national loyalty” makes little sense to a people called to live as aliens and strangers, as exiles. If I am—as Scripture tells me I am—a “citizen of another country,” where should my “national loyalty” lie?
And as for my “devoted love”what does it mean to say I “love my country”? I love and feel called to the people in it? Yes. But should I ever love the people of America more than the people of Canada or Mexico, of Haiti or Ghana? Probably not. To say “I love America” is to say I love a political system, a set of laws and arbitrary boundary lines that history will eventually erase and more: I think it might be saying more than I ought to say as a follower of Jesus.
Tony Campolo puts it this way: “America may be the best Babylon the world has, but it is still Babylon nonetheless.”
We are exiles living in Babylon, folks. Our corner may be called “America,” or “Canada,” or “France,” but it’s still all a part of the same thing: a world system that transcends borders, is dominated by materialistic consumerism and exploitation, and is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. And while love and affection for the people living in that system is entirely necessary, and while we should certainly pray for the peace and well-being of the place where God has set us, we need to avoid the mistake we see over and over in Scripture: becoming so enamored with our temporary dwelling—whether that’s called Egypt, Babylon, or even America—that we lose sight of what Hebrews calls “a better place.”
I may carry an Oregon driver’s license, but I try hard to remember where my identity is really rooted. It’s rooted in Jesus, the One whose claims of Lordship will always challenge Caesar’s.
And that means that nationalism, in any degree, is misplaced affection. If Jesus really is our Peace who has broken down every dividing barrier between us, to celebrate the arbitrary lines and political distinctions which divide us is, in a sense, anti-gospel. Jesus expressed anger a number of times in the Gospels, but the most famous was when He saw what should have been “a house of prayer for all nations” turned into something else.
And my fear is that by highlighting ideas of America and patriotism so heavily in our Fourth of July services, we do just that. At best, we fail to see how waving the American flag in a worship service looks to the Brits and Kenyans and Malaysians sitting in our pews and what it communicates to them. And at worst, we give to Caesar what really belongs to Jesus.
Is it okay to celebrate the Fourth with neighbors, families and friends? Absolutely. If we really want to love people to Jesus, we live in line with the rhythms of the places where God puts us. When we show them the Gospel lived out in a culturally contextualized way we demonstrate that Jesus is for all people. So, grill some burgers, dogs, or the vegetarian alternative of your choice. Set off the firecrackers and watch the fireworks. Don’t dare be a stick in the mud during a national celebration.
But in your worship this Sunday, steer people towards gratitude and obedience, and stay far, far away from nationalistic pride. But most important, be careful what you pledge allegiance to this Fourth of July. Caesar is owed your obedience, your prayers for his health and well-being, and, as Jesus and the IRS both agree, your money... but your allegiance belongs to Someone Else.
October 22, 2009
Douglas Estes, author of SimChurch, responds to critics of online churches.
A myth is growing in some circles of the blogosphere that online church is not good, not healthy, and not biblical. If we read carefully the criticisms levied against internet campuses, they boil down to some very common and tired themes: Internet campuses and online churches are not true churches because they don’t look like and feel like churches are expected to look like and feel like (in the West, anyway). Arguments against virtual church follow the idea that if it doesn’t look like church, feel like church, swim like church, or quack like church, it’s not a church. This may be a useful test for ducks, but churches are far more complex animals.
This myth is causing even open-minded people to have doubts about whether a church online can be ‘real.’ Let’s lay aside for a moment that nowhere in the Bible does it preclude online church, in any way. Let’s lay aside the fact that church history almost nowhere would lead someone to conclude that a virtual church is not valid (the lesson of church history is that new formats for church always go through a period where they are attacked as invalid). Let’s lay aside the troubling truth of the testimonies of meaningful community that are coming out of online churches. Let’s lay aside the problem that most (all I’ve read) of the blogposts criticizing virtual churches are based on cultural factors, pop psychology, materialistic misreadings of a few New Testament verses, or worse, citations of famous pastors who have doubts.
An even greater concern is the proliferation of a related myth: The myth of the “virtual” church. As a result several of the churches who have launched virtual campuses are telling their pastors and people, “Don’t use the word ‘virtual,’ because people think it means fake.” For the record, virtual doesn’t mean fake, it means synthetic. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether church culture embraces or discards the word virtual, but we need to be accurate in our representation. Virtual churches are not fake churches; they are real churches that use synthetic space as a meeting place (or a synthetic medium as a means of building community). The ‘virtual’ part of the term—which identifies where they meet—has nothing to do with the question of their realness or validity.
Now watch the sleight-of-hand foisted on an unsuspecting audience. We hear and read the myth that the reason why virtual churches are not real is because they don’t have real community. Really? All this time I thought that church—and real, biblical community—had nothing to do with where a church meets. Isn’t church supposed to be about people in communion with God rather than the building? Does it really matter where the church meets? Does it really matter whether a church meets in a bar (‘pub’) in Portland, in a fancy stained-glass cathedral in Cambridge, under a banana tree in a jungle in Arusha, or in a synthetic space created on the internet? Can someone tell me why the cathedral (or the bar) has a privileged position for ‘real’ community over the internet (or the banana tree)? Since when does the location of a church determine the quality of its community? Is the enlightened church in America really still stuck on buildings? To me, this is enough to doom the myth but there is even something more problematic.
People are led to believe that members of online churches all connect to their video-game church as anonymous zombies in a Tron-like world. Supposedly these virtual (fake) Christians never really know each other, it’s all a façade, and that this is the sum and total of a virtual church. The real truth is that every virtual church I’ve ever attended has flesh-and-blood people in virtual (real!) community with other flesh-and-blood people whose primary meeting place is in synthetic space. Note I said primary! Because every virtual church I’ve encountered has worked very hard to put into place ‘regular’ aspects—from baptisms to small groups to mission trips—in order to help build real community across the board. Critics aside, no virtual church I’ve ever met is trying to be virtual-only (not that that would be wrong, but it would be like starting a church in a building and only being the church in that one building—why would you do that?). In fact, the average virtual church works harder at this than the average brick and mortar church. Virtual churches may meet for services in the virtual world, but they are not the one-dimensional illusion that critics like to easily prop up so as to knock down for their friends to applaud. And here’s the irony: Even as virtual churches seek to create community in both virtual and physical space, so too do their critics use virtual space when it is convenient for them in their brick and mortar ministries. (Just don’t tell those folks the discussion created by their blogs are real, not fake).
In this myth, critics single out the lack of ‘physical contact.’ But isn’t that why God invented megachurches—so we could avoid physical contact? So that people could go to church ‘together’ but sit so far apart as to never touch or physically know each other? Of course, I’m largely kidding, and come to think of it, this happens in my small brick and mortar church, too. In fact, as technology improves more and more virtual churches have physical aspects—you can see, hear, talk to and talk with others folks from your virtual church. But here’s the most cool thing: I know someone who comes to my church every Sunday and is not physically present; I can’t touch him, can’t hold him, can’t hug him, can’t greet him with a holy kiss, but thank goodness, He’s there and in community with us. We mustn’t judge the realness of a church’s community with God (or people) based solely on select physical criteria.
The good news for the world today is that virtual churches, Baptist churches, banana-tree churches, underground churches, Lutheran churches, communal churches, house churches, and yes, even tragically-hip Pacific Northwest alternative ‘pub’ churches are real churches. You may not want to meet in synthetic space—and I would not want to meet in a bar—but it doesn’t change the fact that when the people of God meet together for the purpose of glorifying Him, it’s a real church. Online churches are real churches with real people in real relationships with a real God simply meeting in synthetic spaces.
A full report on the virtual church phenomenon, and its implications for traditional churches, can be read in the fall issue of Leadership Journal.
July 6, 2009
Spiritual formation in internet church.
The following is an excerpt from a chapter called "Internet Campuses - Virtual or Real Reality?" in the book A Multi-Site Church Road Trip: Exploring the New Normal, by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird (Zondervan, 2009). This picks up mid-chapter; so to bring you up to speed, we're talking about the strengths and weaknesses of internet campuses as they relate to spiritual growth and formation.
Even if a church does a good job of creating an engaging and life-transforming online worship experience, it may not be enough. What about the rest of what it means to be the church? When I pressed Troy [Gramling, senior pastor of Flamingo Road Church in Florida] with this question, he said that both physical and internet campuses are trying to do the same thing: help people take the next step from where they are to where God is calling them. "The first step is accepting Christ," Troy explained. "That can happen anywhere. The next step is baptism, and we have discovered that can happen anywhere as well." Indeed, in 2007 Brian Vasil baptized a new believer online for the first time. They didn't use virtual water or a cheesy clip art graphic. It was the real thing.
A young woman from Georgia who had never attended any of Flamingo Road Church's physical campuses gave her life to Christ during a service on the internet campus. She wanted to be baptized, so she contacted her campus pastor, Brian, via email. He spoke with her on the phone about her decision to accept Christ and about her desire to be baptized. Then he helped coordinate the event. She was baptized by her mother-in-law in the family Jacuzzi tub with the Flamingo Road internet family watching via webcam and rejoicing in the significant moment for one of their peers. That's taking the next step. For those involved with the church, it was the real thing.
Troy indicated that the church's internet team gets emails and calls all the time about similar decisions in people's lives. He emphasized, "It's cool when you see people take those steps. Even though it is online, it provides the experience of being part of the community."
The next steps people are encouraged to take are bringing their lost friends to church and serving. The value of the internet campus in evangelism is immeasurable. And there are plenty of opportunities for people to serve, both virtually and in the physical neighborhoods of internet campus attenders. Online at Flamingo, people serve as greeters in the chat rooms. They pray with people following the services, and they do visitor follow-up during the week. These are just a few of the many opportunities to serve.
Some churches have even created scenarios that allow them to share in the sacrament of Communion online. Other churches are developing additional facets of ministry beyond weekend worship services. Some of the most promising initial developments have been in the direction of online small groups. Flamingo Road's online small group ministry comes live from Brian's home. Other churches have established online student and children's ministries where kids, students, and parents are engaging in the life of the church.
In a bricks-and-mortar church, leaders can limit distractions and use a variety of tools to create experiences to connect people emotionally to the music and message. With an online church, that is much harder to do. The people attending your church online might be doing a million different things in the background while the service is in progress. Or they might be in an environment filled with distractions. The growth edge for internet campuses is their need to move their attenders to full engagement. Perhaps the most challenging part of the internet campus idea is the reality that when people aren't physically in the room, as they are in a church sanctuary, you can't control the environment.
Some of you may still be skeptical (as I was before I experienced church online). The question asked most often is, "How do you know that disciples of Jesus Christ are actually being made?" When I asked Troy, he brought me back to his definition of church as a process of taking one step after another along the faith journey. As a church, Flamingo Road measures growth and discipleship through steps taken. Baptism is a discipleship step. Financial giving is a discipleship step. Serving is a discipleship step. Inviting friends to church and talking to them about Christ are also discipleship steps. Many of these discipleship steps are no different than the steps used to gauge growth at a church with a physical campus. In some cases they are even measured or tracked in the same way.
Troy sees the use of internet campuses as an outpouring of his pastoral heart. He views them as a tool to reach and disciple people all over the world. "Now it's hard for me to say I don't care about what happens in Oklahoma or Idaho or England or Peru," he says, "when I have the technology in my hands that can help me reach people in those neighborhoods."
June 10, 2009
The debate over guns at church. A ready defense or an overreaction?
Two weeks ago an armed man entered Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, and shot Dr. George Tiller. On March 8, a gunman walked into the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Maryville, Illinois, and killed senior pastor Fred Winters. Last summer a man walked into a church in Knoxville, Tennessee, pulled a shotgun from his guitar case, and opened fire on a children's performance. Two people were killed.
The news reports are horrifying, but despite the wide publicity these crimes garner, there have been less than a dozen church shootings in the U.S. in the last decade. But that is little comfort for some church leaders who are seeking new security measures to protect their flocks
Pastor Ken Pagano from New Bethel Church in Kentucky is encouraging his parishioners to bring their guns to church for an "Open Carry Celebration" to celebrate the Fourth of July and the Second Amendment. "We're not ashamed to say that there was a strong belief in God and firearms," says Pagano. "Without that this country wouldn't be here."
Other churches are hiring armed security to patrol their property on Sunday mornings to create an atmosphere of safety. But there is an increasing number of churches using armed vigilantes--volunteers with nothing more than a concealed weapon permit--to deter any assailant. These people are the ecclesiastical equivalent of the air marshals who anonymously fly commercial airliners.
But are these security measures warranted? And are churches unknowingly creating more risk, not less, by encouraging members to carry concealed weapons?
Richard R. Hammer is an attorney and the editor of Church Law Today, a resource of Leadership Journal. In this video Hammer explains why armed vigilantes at church is a bad idea, and offers helpful suggestions for churches still concerned about safety.
What is your opinion about guns at church? Should we be encouraging members to exercise their Second Amendment rights as a way of deterring violence? And what about hired or volunteer security--is it a practical necessity in our fallen world or an overreaction? And does the presence of armed security give worshipers peace of mind, or will it only deter visitors seeking an oasis from the values of the world?
April 3, 2009
Worship trends among the young are more complicated than you realize.
For years I served on the staff of a megachurch with a very contemporary style of worship. We had a state-of-the-art sound system, large video projection screens, pop-rock music, and a sophisticated lighting system. The worship services were programmed to the minute: predetermined transitions, upbeat intro songs, announcements backed with PowerPoint slides, sermons crafted with felt-need application points, and abundant video clips.
The church was growing as several thousand people connected with the presentations each week. But at the same time the church was thriving with one generation, I began to notice that younger adults were not engaging as well as their parents. So I began listening to these young people to discover why they were not resonating with this way of doing church.
I repeatedly heard that they were longing for something less "programmed." At the same time, I began hearing questions about "liturgy," a word I'd never heard before. I was not raised in the church, and my only church experiences at the time had been at an organ-led Baptist church and the megachurch where I was on staff. Even in seminary, I had never been taught about liturgy (literally, the "work of the people") or ancient forms of worship. And ministry conferences I attended only seemed concerned with the newest, cutting-edge trends.
One young man left our church to become part of a small Orthodox congregation. I was curious enough that I decided to visit. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. From the quietness and sense of history to the use of incense and chanting - I was intrigued.
All of this led me to study the history of worship. I was suddenly made aware of the myriad ways the church has worshipped throughout history, and I decided to experiment with some of these forms in the young adult ministry I led. It sounds clich? now, but we started by darkening the room and lighting candles and incense. We began singing some hymns and the Doxology. We also recited readings and prayers from The Book of Common Prayer. One of the elders at the church was concerned. He asked me, "Are you going Roman Catholic on us?"
The older generation may have been confused, but the younger adults found the changes refreshing. All they had known in church was pop bands and video screens. The introduction of ancient practices helped them feel grounded and rooted to something bigger than themselves.
Then I spoke at a conference about our rediscovery of liturgy and tradition. The room was packed - by that time liturgy had become a very hot topic. During my presentation, a leader raised his hand and commented in a very disappointed tone.
"I don't understand," he said. "You're telling us that young adults are drawn to liturgy and ancient worship forms, but I serve at a liturgical church and our young people want to get away from liturgy and traditions. They think it's boring. I came to this conference to learn new ideas from contemporary churches. I want to move forward, not back."
I realized that worship trends among the young were complicated. Those raised in contemporary churches found practicing liturgy and following the church calendar refreshing and meaningful. But some who had grown up in traditional and liturgical churches saw these same practices as lifeless or routine. They were eager to incorporate more contemporary forms. One group wanted to rediscover the past, and the other was trying to escape it.
Several years later I worked with a team of young people to plant a new church. We decided that it would not help our goal of reaching the lost if our worship pretended it was stuck in A.D. 800. But we also did not want to dismiss the rich history and depth of ancient practices. So on any given Sunday our young congregation sings a mix of contemporary choruses and traditional hymns. We now celebrate Advent each year with candles, responsive readings, and benedictions. We draw from liturgical elements in ancient worship and prayer books. But we also display modern art, project videos, and use a variety of 21st century worship elements.
We have found that the goal shouldn't be to maintain the past or to always be on the cutting edge. Our goal is to worship in a way that represents our community to God and God to our community. That means contextualizing worship for today, but not forgetting the family of God throughout history to which we belong.
November 21, 2008
What actually brings new people to church?
Dan Kimball: The churches I know that are winning new believers and drawing people who did not grow up in the church are not using too many liturgical elements. I think we might be seeing people who were raised within the church and who are tired of the contemporary approach being drawn to the ancient practices. But, at least on the West coast, I'm not seeing young people from outside the church being drawn to liturgy. Every person I know - and obviously I don't know everybody - who has moved into a liturgical context has come out of a very large, contemporary church and they just got burned out on the machine. They now find refreshment in a smaller setting with liturgy.
At the same time, our church is using some liturgical elements like responsive readings and the Doxology, but we're not following a formal liturgy. Either way, I think it's great that some people are engaging liturgy again. It's good for young people to know that Christianity was not born in 1980, but it has ancient roots. Are new people coming to faith? Whether our church is liturgical or contemporary we need to ask that question.
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June 6, 2008
Is the communion table becoming more about personal preference than church unity?
Imagine the scene. Jesus has gathered with his followers in the upper room. He takes the bread, breaks it, and gives thanks. Then he says, "This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Then, in the same way, he takes another loaf and says, "This is my low-carb body which is given for you South Beach dieters." And then he takes another loaf and says, "This is my gluten-free body which is given for you?."
You get the idea.
Over a century ago, many American churches began to abandon the use of fermented wine in communion in favor of grape juice (much to Charles Welch's delight). Today, most evangelicals give little thought to the substitution. It's just the way it is. But last Sunday I was unexpectedly jarred into reconsidering the nature of the communion elements when the bread, and not just the cup, departed from tradition.
I sat down after preaching the sermon and another pastor began to lead the congregation in partaking of the Lord's Supper. He invited people to come forward, receive the cup, and tear a piece of bread from a single large loaf. The use of a single loaf, he explained, was a symbol of our unity in Christ. (This metaphor, by the way, dates back at least to the Didache from the first century.) But then he added something unexpected. Gluten-free crackers would also be available for anyone unable to eat the bread.
The additional comment caught me, and many other congregants, off guard. It just seemed really odd, even out of place, amid the liturgy of the table. The sacredness of the moment was lost as we were all jolted back to contemplating individual needs and preferences rather than our collective unity in Christ. The remark deconstructed the symbolism of unity the pastor was trying to convey with the single loaf.
Now, before you unleash the Gluten Gestapo on me for being insensitive to those with serious allergies, let me explain myself. I happen to be friends with a woman in the church with Coeliac Disease who must avoid gluten in her diet. I recognize that it is a significant medical issue for a growing number of people. And I certainly don't think they should be prevented from participating in the Lord's Table. (I've heard that some churches encourage those with medical restrictions to bring their own bread, pass it to the officiate for blessing, and then partake. That seems both reasonable and less distracting from the symbolism of the traditional communion liturgy.) But at what point should the dietary constraints of a few be imposed upon the many? And when should these needs be addressed and incorporated into the liturgy of the Table?
For example, I've heard that some in the congregation have requested the use of sugar-free juice during communion. Apparently the thimble cup of grape juice contains enough fructose to agitate their insulin levels, or disrupt their strict adherence to Dr. Atkins' low-carb lifestyle. I know another church where people have insisted that only whole-grain bread be used for communion. Heaven forbid constipation-inducing white bread be used.
The issue is not the presence of those with legitimate dietary restrictions at Christ's table, but rather the growing expectation that the church must accommodate every personal need or preference. When the church is expected to supply not only a variety of programs, service times, worship styles, but now even communion bread and cup options - can we finally acknowledge that we have crossed the line into absurdity? Have we elevated personal preference so far above corporate unity that we have little imaginative framework for even understanding the corporate intent of the Lord's Table?
I wonder if our first step down this slippery slope was the move away from a communal chalice to those ubiquitous communion cups - those hygienic disposable vessels that fit comfortably between thumb and forefinger but seem designed to never relinquish the final drop of Christ's blood. The stylish fluted cups reinforce the cultural assumption that communion is really about "me" and not "us." Once communion ceases to be communal, the door is opened for personal preferences to be expressed, accommodated, and even demanded.
I wonder if decades from now when every communion service includes a variety of beverages choices (wine, all-natural grape juice, sugar-free grape juice, fair trade grape juice) and bread choices (whole grain, unleavened, gluten-free, vitamin enriched, low-carb) will we even think twice about it? Or, like the substitution of wine with juice today, will we simply say, that's just the way it is?
[Be sure to answer Url's poll question in the left margin about how your church approaches communion.]
August 2, 2007
How visual technology always impacts what we preach.
Our friends at FaithVisuals.com recently spoke with Shane Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. We posted part one of the discussion last month where Hipps uncovered the ways electronic media affect our messages, and how it can be misused. In part two, he talks about what kinds of messages are well-served by electronic media. You can read more from Shane Hipps about the challenges of ministry in a visual culture in the summer issue of Leadership available now.
Speaking from a specifically church-based context, what kinds of messages are well-served by video or other visual media?
Any messages that demand sustained concentration and intellectual participation or engagement are not well-suited to a video medium. For example, the kind of abstract theological reasoning found in the letters of Paul is extraordinarily difficult to express and depict in visual imagery, since video and images offer impressions and evoke emotions. So, if the content that you want to communicate demands any kind of complex reasoning, images and video will actually work against your best efforts. This is one of the reasons that in the Middle Ages, when literacy rates plummeted and the dominant means of communication was stained glass windows, Paul's letters disappeared in the church. And it wasn't until after the print revolution that Luther "re-discovered" the epistles and basically elevated them above the stories of Jesus.
The question that we have to ask as leaders in the church as we consider using video and visual media is this: Are we inadvertently facilitating the disappearance of Paul again?
On an average Sunday, what are some practical ways that you think the church can use visual media without threatening the integrity of our message?
This question is an interesting one, because embedded in the question is the assumption that there is an "integrity of a message" - I don't think there is such a thing as a pure, unadulterated message.
All messages are delivered through a medium and are, therefore, invariably shaped by our choice of media. It's often said in the evangelical world that the methods can change as long as the message stays the same, and the reality is that when you change the methods you necessarily change the message.
This may sound like I'm saying "make sure you don't change the methods, so that we can keep our same message." But I don't believe there ever was an unchanging message. And I don't think this comes as a surprise to God; he has used so many different media for his messages - a burning bush, a donkey, stone tablets, and ultimately the person of Jesus Christ, which is probably the only place that the medium and the message are perfectly united. But God understood that each of these media conveyed a different message, regardless of the content:
A burning bush, no matter what the message, may convey mystery and otherness.
A donkey is something comical, and it's probably humiliating.
Stone tablets convey permanence.
And, of course, the incarnation.
This last one is probably the most powerful aspect of this whole "medium is the message" question. Now we're not just talking about bits and bytes and screens or no screens; we're talking about humans. We're saying "I am personally a medium, and I am my message." So, I can give a sermon on Sunday morning and say you should be giving your money away, but if I'm not giving my money away, that message will come through. Or if you look at someone like Ted Haggard, the kind of sexual immorality that he experienced as a medium radically compromised his message. So that's probably the first thing we should get away from: we shouldn't assume there is some kind of pure, unadulterated message. And the more we understand that, the better prepared we are for choosing our media to think, What am I really going to be conveying when I get up there to talk? And then how will that be shaped once I channel it through a particular medium?
What do you think are some of the benefits and detriments of using visual media in the context of the church or a church service?
Again, it always depends on how it's being used. The benefit of using visual media and multimedia is that, in some ways, it is an incarnational approach. And by that, I simply mean if you look at the model of Jesus, God coming to be with us, he spoke the language and understood the forms that the ancient world used to communicate and operated within those. So there's a sense of that incarnational aspect; if part of the language of the culture we live in is simply visual multimedia, then it's wise for us to find meaningful and reflective ways of using these forms.
Now, of course, there's a flipside, which can be detrimental. The detriment comes in when we fail to understand that our media choices are not simply reflecting culture; they are generating culture. Media are often generative in ways that are unintended. A big part of the reason I wrote my book was to try and help people perceive better the way that media shape us. The detriment of using video and multimedia is that it can begin to draw upon the manipulative power of visual multimedia - the emotional, the visceral. And the bottom line is anyone who's using that media is placed in a very precarious position when they're dealing with the people of God in the world. We are at an incredibly high risk of inadvertently hijacking the imagination of our people and manipulating them against their will. And it is the ultimate sign of disrespect to do that. So there's a sense in which in order to honor God at work among our people we have to be very, very careful about how we use these media because they're extraordinarily powerful.
Again, I'm not suggesting that we don't use them. I'm simply saying "Beware of the fact that you hold a nuclear weapon in your hand!" And you need to understand what the impact can be over the long term.
Shane Hipps is pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church - a missional, urban, Anabaptist congregation in Phoenix, Ariz. Before accepting a call as a pastor, he was a strategic planner in advertising, where he worked on the multimillion dollar communications plan for Porsche. It was here that he gained expertise in understanding media and culture. Shane speaks nationally, is a contributor to Leadership Journal, host of the "Third-Way Faith" podcast on wiredparish.com, and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church.
July 10, 2007
The unintended consequences of using visual media in ministry.
As you read this post the summer issue of Leadership is arriving in mailboxes. The issue tackles the impact of living, and ministering, in an increasingly visual culture. Many churches are eager to employ video and other new digital tools, but is this tread helpful, harmful, or completely neutral to our mission? To preview the theme of the summer issue here is an interview with Shane Hipps on the hidden power of visual media from our partners at Faith Visuals.
How can we be better about perceiving the power of media in both our churches and our lives?
Probably the best orientation that I've discovered to help me understand the real power of media was when I read a quote by Marshall McLuhan where he says, "The content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind." What he's saying is that the medium itself has a power, a bias, and a meaning regardless of what message you put through it. He's challenging the metaphor that we often assume: Media are simply pipelines, a neutral conduit through which information can be put through. I think it's crucial for Christians to begin to perceive the media forms themselves, rather than just looking at - and understanding - the content. We're too easily distracted by the content, and we miss the power of the medium.
You mentioned Marshall McLuhan. In your book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, you talk about McLuhan's four laws of media a lot. Could you explain those a little bit, and how they are useful for thinking about the media we use?
Sure. The only difficulty with the four laws is that it feels a little unnatural at times. It can be hard to answer some of those questions. The point is not to get the right answers; the point is to ask the right questions. McLuhan offered four questions he believed were crucial to understanding media.
First: What does the medium enhance and extend? For instance: The wheel is an extension of the foot.
Second: What does the medium obsolesce? And "obsolesce" doesn't mean get rid of. It means change the function of. So, for example, the automobile extends our speed of transportation, but it obsolesces the horse-drawn carriage. The horse-drawn carriage doesn't disappear; it simply changes its function. It's now used for romance and entertainment, but it is still used.
Third: What does the medium retrieve from the past? This is the conviction that nothing is new under the sun. And so every new medium retrieves some older medium. For example, security cameras retrieve the medieval city wall which simultaneously protects and imprisons its citizens.
Fourth: What does the medium reverse into? This means that every medium will always reverse into some form of its opposite when it is overused. So for example, when the automobile, which is designed to increase speed, is overextended or overused, it actually reverses into traffic jams and even fatalities.
There is no single answer to these questions; they can be asked of any medium almost endlessly to deepen our understanding. So that's one way of understanding the complexity of how media shape us.
So what do you think are some changes that would happen if people started to look at how we present our message? Like if we use McLuhan's four laws to think more about how we're presenting a message.
I think people will begin to use our media rather than be used by them unconsciously. The power of our media become less powerful when we actually understand and become aware of them. Right now, most people are distracted by the content of our media, while we miss the power of the form. Thus we encounter our media with the proverbial slip on the banana peel. We end up being used by the media we think we're using. My hope isn't that people will stop using technology in a church but rather, that they'll begin to understand so they can make more discerning decisions about how to use media.
If we ask ourselves these questions, how can video and visual multimedia do their best work? What kinds of messages do you think are best communicated by video or multimedia?
The messages that are best conveyed by video or multimedia are almost exclusively emotional and entertaining. The bias of these media is that they exercise the right hemisphere of the brain, which evokes emotions, impressions, and intuitions. Regardless of what you're conveying, these are the things that your brain uses to engage, perceive and understand the content of images. At the same time, when overextended, images erode our capacity for logic, abstract thinking, and complex discernment. Perhaps the most unintended consequence is that images too often become a form of manipulation.
Can you explain that a bit further? What do you mean by "unintended consequence?"
Well, visual multimedia are probably the favorite medium of the greatest manipulators in world history: advertisers. And I know because I was one! One of the things we discovered was that the absolute best way to move people against their better judgment was through emotion, not reason. Everything we did was to try and give emotional experiences, evoke emotional impressions, and basically ignore the nuts and bolts of the superiority of our product. Nobody cared about the superiority of our product; they cared about the kind of emotional empowerment they would experience. And so, regardless of whether they had the money to buy what we wanted them to buy, we could find ways to manipulate their emotions against their better judgment, because emotions are not things you argue with. They're simply an experience that you have. Whereas if you try and go through reason, people will argue with it.
So that's the thing I'd be concerned about in terms of how we use video and multimedia in church. We need to understand that we're dealing with an incredibly powerful medium that all too easily leans towards manipulation - a subtle form of coercion. It's not at all something that people who work and create this medium are necessarily doing on purpose. I know that. It's just a matter of helping us become aware of how immensely powerful images are.
Can you give me an example of that kind of manipulative use of visual media?
Let me give you an example from when I worked in advertising. On one campaign, our goal was to sell Porsches. And we didn't do it by convincing you that our car was better than a BMW because it had higher RPM or it could do 0 to 60 faster, but because it promised you freedom, sex, and power. And so we showed you a gorgeous woman with the car. So emotionally viewers experienced an unconscious message - buy the car and get the girl.
Another print ad we did was a shot of the Porsche Turbo running in the Salt Flats of Utah and the headline over the photograph read "Pins the logical side of your brain to the back of your skull." It's an ad that basically says, This is not a rational decision so don't over-think it; go out and buy this $120,000 car right now, but also exposes a greater truth about our methods as advertisers. Everything we did was an effort to pin the logical side of the brain to the back of skulls, so that we could simply manipulate this soft and highly malleable emotional response and experience.
How do you help filmmakers know how they can best avoid the unintentional consequence of manipulating? Especially because we obviously want people to be moved through videos, but not in the sense that we want to manipulate them into anything?
It's really hard to say to a filmmaker or an artist "Here's how you should create your art so that you're not manipulating." Part of it is the context. It's the context in which it's shown - who the audience is.
But the questions I would ask of a filmmaker or someone who is involved in creating a show video piece are:
What is your intended goal or outcome? In some ways, if your goal is too clear or concrete as an artist, you may be at risk of inadvertently using your film manipulatively.
What is the means by which you're trying to achieve that goal? Does what I depict exploit the senses or emotions, or does it awaken them? This is very fine line, so ask it prayerfully and honestly.
Only after I heard answers to these questions could I give some more meaningful direction. It's hard for me to say specifically for filmmakers what they should or shouldn't do, other than ask the hard questions and answer them as honestly as you can.
Shane Hipps is pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church - a missional, urban, Anabaptist congregation in Phoenix, Ariz. Before accepting a call as a pastor, he was a strategic planner in advertising, where he worked on the multimillion dollar communications plan for Porsche. It was here that he gained expertise in understanding media and culture. Shane speaks nationally, is a contributor to Leadership Journal, host of the "Third-Way Faith" podcast on wiredparish.com, and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church.
February 13, 2007
The National Pastors Convention in San Diego is over and I've returned to the frozen north. But I still have one last reflection from the conference. Mark Labberton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, spoke on Thursday night about the intersection of worship and justice.
Drawing mainly from the Old Testament prophets Daniel and Isaiah, Labberton built a case for thinking differently about worship. "Worship reorders reality to help us see what is true," he said. It should reorder our priorities and help us see the world differently. But quite often worship is simply a baptized version of our culture. In our worship we simply mirror what is all around us - worship of self. This, he says, is "illegitimate worship."
"Fear of God is what matters most," says Labberton. "The failure of our people to live this way is a failure of our worship." The solution is not making our worship louder, faster, or more spectacular as many are in the habit of doing. Rather, we need to reevaluate what our worship is forming within our people. "Does our worship impact our view of our neighbor?"
In many churches we engage in "worship wars." But these battles are usually over issues of style, song choice, and aesthetics. Drawing heavily from Isaiah chapters 1 and 58, Labberton argues that what matters most in worship is how the act impacts our love for our neighbors. "It is possible to worship God and lose our neighbor," he said. But in Isaiah we see the Lord rejecting his people's worship because they did not act justly toward the oppressed, orphans, and widows. Their worship was vertical, and was never horizontal.
Labberton's points were clear and well stated, and his admonition was as simple as Jesus': Love the Lord and love your neighbor. Having just wrapped up a series at my church on our biblical responsibility toward the poor, I was thankful for Labberton's thoughtful message on the interplay of worship and social justice. But my big takeaway from his talk came as I was leaving the hotel's ballroom.
Like most ministry conferences, at NPC the lobby outside the main ballroom was converted into a bookstore selling resources. I had difficulty leaving the huge lobby because a line stretched literally out the door. Pastors were waiting to purchase their copy of Labberton's new book (The Dangerous Act of Worship - Living God's Call to Justice) the way school kids line up to buy the latest Harry Potter tome. Although the lobby bookstore was crowded after every session, following Labberton's talk the line was particularly long.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I thought Labberton's message was right on target, and I'm sure his book is equally meaningful. But the overwhelming response I saw in the hotel lobby made me realize that a theology of social justice may be more foreign to we evangelicals than I had realized. Have we so fully bought into the notion that worship is primarily entertainment that when someone gives a biblical perspective we are surprised, rush to the bookstore, and get in line to discover more?
I'm grateful that more people are engaging these issues, I'm grateful for voices like Labberton, and I'm glad so many were eager to buy his book and learn more about the subject. His integration of justice with worship resurrects a very old, but neglected, biblical teaching. What I saw at NPC may reveal just how neglected it has been.
December 18, 2006
Sunday morning should be the most entertaining time of the week.
Last December, David Fitch challenged the popular trend known as "Experiential Worship." Fitch said, "?we can no longer be naive that a ?religious experience,' like the one sought in a rock concert worship service, provides immediate access to God." And Shane Hipps has asked us to think more critically about using technology in worship. This week, we welcome a new contributor to Out of Ur. Perry Noble is the Senior Pastor of NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina. He not only endorses the use of technology to create experiential worship services, Noble believes Sunday morning should be the most entertaining experience people have all week.
From time to time we will have a church leader call NewSpring wanting to know what in the world we are doing to reach so many people. I have had this conversation with many people, and I have seen many walk away either discouraged or disappointed because I did not give them a magic formula. The bottom line is that if a church wants to impact a community it takes work.
For far too long the church has been lazy?that's right?LAZY. We have sat back on our butt and done nothing, asking God to "do it all" while claiming to be "led by the Spirit." And then people walk into our boring, lifeless, and predictable services and we give "God all the glory," or all the blame!
One of the things I have realized from reading Scripture is that Jesus was far from boring. He created experiences for His followers - experiences that they never forgot, and the church should be doing the same.
Today I sat in a room for two hours as our creative team talked about the next several Sundays. We spent 10-15 minutes just discussing how to conclude the sermon for one service this month. We are serious about Sundays and the experience that is created for people coming in our doors.
I have heard pastors say that our process leaves no room for the Holy Spirit and that we are not open. Quite frankly if someone ever says that to my face I will have to be restrained from punching him in the throat! I am sick and tired of pastors and church leaders blaming their laziness and lack of preparation on the Holy Spirit! One of the things we have discovered at NewSpring is that the Holy Spirit is always at work - even during sessions where ideas are brainstormed and well thought out.
If someone attends NewSpring, we give them this promise - we take church seriously. Everything you see is done with a purpose. We are serious about Jesus and serious about as many people as possible meeting Him. Therefore, we are willing to do all that we can to reach people!
It is our desire not to merely have a church service, but to create an experience through song, video, messages, and any other tools the Holy Spirit might place in front of us. Sure, we've been accused of entertaining people, but I would much rather entertain people than bore them. Jesus didn't mind creating experiences, and His church shouldn't either.
We are serious about making Jesus' name famous, and that just can't happen when church is boring. I believe a boring church is a sin! So, we are going to always do all we can to make sure that when a person attends our church on Sunday that it is one of the best hours of their week. I believe people should look forward more to church than 24, Lost, or American Idol.
Those successful television shows put hard work and effort into their programming and it shows! Maybe if the church was as serious as Hollywood we would be reaching people. Hollywood has discovered something that the church runs away from - it takes work to create an experience that people will remember.
I have told people not to miss one single Sunday in December because our team has put together some stuff that we know God is going to use to impact thousands of lives. We care about Jesus, we care about His church, and we will always do our best to make sure people's hour on Sunday is not wasted but meaningful. Now I am off to catch my flight. Our video crew is on the way to a place where we will be working to create an experience for our Christmas services.
October 27, 2006
Where worshippers place their posteriors also shapes their interiors
Some things in life are certain - death, taxes, and cramped seats in economy class. But Cathay Pacific, one of Asia's leading airlines, has announced a breakthrough. They've designed an economy class seat that reclines without intruding on the person seated behind. For centuries church meant fixed seating in uncomfortable wood pews, but breakthroughs have been occurring in church seating as well. We now have theater seats with cup holders. But should comfort be the driving motivation? In this post, Dan Kimball from Vintage Faith Church explores the odd nature of pews, their history, and how church seats reflect our theology.
We were in the middle of moving our church offices and worship gathering location from a very new contemporary building built about 6 years ago to a very beautiful brick church built in 1938. In preparation for moving we had been redecorating and remodeling of the children's rooms, the offices, and turning the fellowship hall into a coffeehouse/art gallery. However, one thing was tormenting me - the pews in the sanctuary. I have never been part of a church that has pews, so these things were very confusing to me.
As I sat in the pews I realized how odd they are. These things are so small. You have to squeeze to get into them. They are very uncomfortable and creaky. Wooden seats with a little red cushion. Once other people sit next to you, you are stuck. Kind of like being in the window seat of an airplane and needing to step over two other people to get out.
However, sitting comfortably isn't the issue to me. Most of the time I sit on the floor at Vintage Faith Church. I also know we are fortunate to have a roof over our heads, and many Christians in other countries don't have buildings at all or are persecuted for their faith. So, the "comfortable" factor is actually the least of my concerns. I think my dilemma with the pews is what they communicate and what they teach theologically.
I decided to do some research on where these strange things called "pews" came from. The church did not use pews for over 1,000 years. The original vintage church met in homes, so the feeling was family - a community looking at one another and interacting with one another. The first formal church building was built in the post-300 AD time period and modeled after the Roman Basilica, and in these buildings people stood the whole time. There were no seats at all. So standing allowed interacting and the freedom to walk around. In the 13th Century there were backless benches made of stone placed against walls. They were placed in a semi-circle around the meeting room and then eventually fixed to the floor.
In the 14th century pews as we know them were introduced but did not become popular until the 15th century. Remember, in this time period the Reformation was happening and the pulpit was introduced as the focal point of church architecture. So the pews became the place where people took their seat to focus on the pulpit and the sermon. They didn't have Bibles of their own, they didn't read for the most part, so they made rows of seats to sit and listen to someone talk.
How we sit when we gather reflects what we believe is important in worship. The early church met in homes, it was communal, looking at each other in small rooms, discussing and teaching Scripture, praying for one another and eating a meal together. You could walk around, have dialog. Then the church moved into buildings where the Table (the Lord's Supper) was the focal point and we stood, moved around the room, interacted. Then we moved into buildings where the pews caused people to sit in stationary positions, not looking at each other, but looking at the pulpit and all facing the same direction. This drastically changes the culture and climate of how we view the church and worship. It becomes more of a sit/watch/listen meeting, rather than an interactive community gathering.
It seems like an odd thing to invite someone into our church "family", bring them into a room and make them sit for over an hour on benches looking at the back of heads staring at the front of the room. I don't think our own families would have a meeting this way. I am trying to imagine Jesus and His disciples having the last supper meal while sitting in rows of pews.
For our church pews represent almost the exact opposite of how we worship. We give people the opportunity to walk around, to go to prayer stations, to lie down or sit on the floor if that is how they desire to express worship or pray. We try to be "respectfully relaxed" when we meet. We go to extra effort to set up a mix of round tables and chairs to create a vibe of community, rather than rows of people looking at backs of heads like in a bus or airplane or movie theater. So our move to a pew-filled room for worship was not very "vintage faith".
Our plan is to move the pews out of the sanctuary little by little, leaving just a few of them. I look forward to the removal. They are very, very odd things.
April 6, 2006
Last month I attended a "worship experience" that included smoke machines, lasers, digital graphic projections, and more flat panel screens than I could count. Technology is changing the way we worship, but what are we losing as a result? David Fitch, pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois, and author of The Great Giveaway (Baker, 2006), encourages us to use greater discernment when employing technology in worship.
I read a nice story recently about football player Jerome Bettis (aka "the Bus") returning home to Detroit for the Super Bowl. They described his whole journey and how he bought a house for his parents on a golf course in suburban Detroit. But he didn't stop there. Johnie Bettis, the running back's mother, recalls: "When Jerome found out we were going to the laundromat, he said that wasn't acceptable and told us to go get a new washer and dryer. But I kind of liked the laundromat because you get to meet so many interesting people."
Mrs. Bettis' comments reminded me how technology can change the inherent "good" of the basic practices of our lives. Technology, in this case a washer and dryer, means no longer needing to go to the laundromat. As a result, we lose the "good" of meeting and engaging interesting people in our lives. We must therefore discern whether more technology (buying a washer and a dryer, a cell phone, or Tivo) is a good idea by considering more than just the capitalist reasons: "it's more efficient," "it saves time," or "it just looks and feels so good."
The same of course is true of worship. Not every technologically enhanced "improvement" necessarily improves our worship. The flashing of the Lord's Prayer on the screen with a powerful graphic may disable us from bowing as a community and saying it from our soul's memory - in submission together as a Body of Christ.
The brilliant Albert Borgmann in his book Power Failure, narrates for us how technology can change something that was once a "commanding reality" with deep personal and corporate value, and turn it into a "disposable reality" devoid of meaning and power. For example, the music symphony that took so much time, effort, tuning up of instruments, the staging of a concert hall . . . is now reduced to a handy CD that we can play at our convenience and command. He believes this shift to a disposable reality changes us and how we view our world.
Borgmann says technology can make certain wonderful "goods" in our lives disappear without us even knowing it. Example: the central fireplace is replaced by the invisible central air furnace. In the process the family that once gathered around the fireplace to get warm before heading off to bed no longer engages in the community-building routine. The family no longer talks about the day, tells stories, or prays together. Through technology we lose what Borgman calls a "focal practice." We lose a concrete, formative, and simple activity, and our lives are changed without ever noticing.
The question is obvious. Have we lost worship as a focal practice? By turning it into an "experience" saturated with convenient technology, have we made worship a disposable reality when in it is supposed to be a commanding reality?
Last night at a worship meeting we talked at length about the use of technology and graphic arts in our worship service this past Sunday. We want to retain the concrete nature and the formative practice of art in our church, but any art that shocks or produces a disposable experience we try to avoid. Art is really important in our church, but we must not produce disposable experiences. We must retain the focal practice of worship.
Focal practices and commanding realities are things we lose when we purchase a washer and dryer. These are things we lose when we turn worship into a theater show for the masses. And so we must be careful with the application of technology in worship. I am not saying don't use it! I am saying let us be discerning. I believe we need the candles, the wonder, and the mystery of the concrete embodiment of Christ's work at the Lord's Table. We need to kneel (if our knees will hold out) before God with all our brokenness. And we need to use the marvelous technologies of our day in worship in ways that resist making God, community, and worship disposable.
David Fitch is pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois, a professor of ministry, theology, and ethics at Northern Seminary, and author of The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies (Baker 2006).
March 21, 2006
In February last year, my best friend flew down from the Midwest for a delightful, week-long visit. While she was here in the Carolinas, I introduced her to one of my most favorite experiences in the world: a Division I college basketball game. The home team shall remain nameless, except to say that its arena now features a 2005 NCAA Championship banner.
Anyway, I was thrilled to have my friend join me and share my passion for an evening. It was her first major college game, so I made sure I explained as much as I could beforehand about what she could expect from the experience.
I could tell she was a bit overwhelmed when we entered the buzzing arena, but we soon found our seats and settled in for the event. As the horn sounded after warm-ups, the house lights were dimmed to focus attention on the court, and the players readied themselves for the opening tip-off.
For the next two hours, I stood up, sat down, shouted, sang, jumped, raised my hands, swayed, and clapped with 22,000 other devoted fans. I grinned as I participated in rituals and chants that had become so familiar to me over the years. And after the victory, I joined the band, the team, and the rest of the crowd in a devoted rendition of our alma mater, which ends with everyone lustily condemning our bitter rivals (appropriately named the Devils) to eternal punishment.
I was so energized, I barely noticed the chilly night air as we hurried to catch the park-and-ride shuttle. While we stood waiting outside of the arena, I turned and asked my friend, "Well, what'd you think?!"
"I wonder if that's how people who don't go to church feel the first time they visit somewhere," she replied.
My friend, who is also a pastor's wife, went on to explain: she had a great time; she likes basketball, and it was fun to watch the game. She enjoyed experiencing the emotion and enthusiasm of the crowd. Still, she felt like an outsider because she didn't know our "liturgy."
At first, I felt disappointed. I was so excited for her to experience the same thrill that I feel when I enter the building, greet friends on my way to my regular seat, and cheer the celebrities on the court during what is essentially a large-scale worship experience. But my friend's observation begs important questions we probably don't ask ourselves enough as ministry leaders:
-How do "outsiders" view our church if they're not familiar with the tradition, routine, and ritual?
-How do we treat newcomers? Do we look at them as "foreigners" or even "opponents" if they don't dress the right way or know the songs, the cheers, the physical expressions, and the lingo?
-What does a visitor experience at church? It may be an excellent event in every respect, but the experience is still foreign to most people outside the church's walls.
-How do other people view us, the dyed-in-the-wool fans? To me, my cheers are an expression of my passionate devotion. But to the uninitiated, my loyalty can be viewed as fanaticism; to those who root for other teams, it can be construed as outright snobbery. Even when I know my team is better, is that the way I want people to think of me?
My friend's response to the game reminded me that at one time I, too, found my experience of basketball to be foreign. While I had a longstanding relationship with the game, I married into this particular expression of the religion. (And believe me, where I live, basketball is a religion, and it is a powerful influence in a marriage.) The colors were different; the cheers were new to me; the rituals rooted in the familiar, but on the surface strange. However, it didn't take long for me to adopt my new team to cheer as fervently as those who were born into this "faith."
Given time and a generous welcome, newcomers to the true faith, and our expression of it in our local congregation, will take the resident fans and the new locale to heart as fervently as those who have been there all along.
Interestingly, by the end of her visit, my friend had become a true-blue basketball fan. It didn't take her long to dress the part and talk the talk. Still, her experience - from our invocation (The Star-Spangled Banner) to the closing hymn (the school's alma mater) - served as an effective reminder to me: In the sanctuary as in the arena, everyone needs an intentional introduction to the liturgy.
Angie Ward is a ministry leader, pastor's spouse, associate director of the Innovative Church Community, and fan in basketball-crazy Durham, North Carolina.
December 16, 2005
Pastor, author, and professor David Fitch has responded to the discussion he began about the pitfalls of experiential worship. To read more about worship and ministry in a postmodern culture we recommend Fitch's provocative new book The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies.
Hey all, thanks for this lively conversation. I'd like to take the opportunity to repond to some of your comments concerning the validity or lecture hall and rock concert style worship.
Some have said that what we need is "line by line" preaching. If by the "line by line" study of the Word of God you mean expository preaching, I do not wish to deny the importance of preaching, perhaps even expository preaching. However, if the peaching becomes simply truth propositions inductively sliced and distributed to autonomous isolated minds sitting in the pews taking notes on how to improve their lives (even their Christian lives), then to me this is not worship.
It is the distribution of information as another form of goods and services to consumers who are not changed by God's Word but only seek to use His Word to achieve their already decided wants and needs. This is what I am calling the danger of "lecture hall" worship. Would you at least concede that this in fact happens in many of our evangelical churches, esp. mega churches of our day?
To those who think we're over criticizing worship ... I think we need to rethink the format of many of our contemporary worship gatherings which rely on a long set of rock concert songs to elicit a good "worship experience." If this is another form of a "feel good pep rally" whose hymnody is not substantive enough to shape one's orientation towards our holy, almighty and sovereign God, then this worship inevitably turns narcissistic and fails as worship. To those of you complaining that we have once again criticized someone's worship, would you not at least concede that some evangelical worship falls into this category? That we then at least need to talk seriosuly about this issue in our worship?
There is certainly a sense in which all of life is worship. On my own blog I have argued that a "good party" can be a liturgy that shapes us in response to God's grace. I agree that liturgy is not limited to Sunday a.m. But I believe the postmodern writers powerfully argue that our selves (our subjectivities to use a good postmodern term from linguistic philosophy) are being shaped by cultural forces, discourses and ways of seeing. Therefore worship becomes the place out of which I as a Christian am formed towards His glory from which my life can be centered in my relationship to God in Christ. I can then go out and live the rest of my life out of that orientation. To me then it is simplistic to say all of life is worship.
Because of all of the above, I believe the return to liturgy is important. I believe the return to the mystery of the Table and the call-response participatory patterns of a relationship with God in worship are all important. And I am encouraged by the interest many emerging churches are showing in ancient forms of worship.
To all ... thanks for conversing. My wife and I leave for two weeks out of the country to adopt our son. But I'll try to at least get one more response in if it is warrented.
Blessed Advent to all
November 8, 2005
Leadership associate editor Skye Jethani tells the story Mike Sares shared with him at a conference earlier this year. Tell us what you would do if you were Mike.
A few days before Christmas, pastor Mike Sares got a call from his associate. "Mike," he said, "Mary Kate Makkai has agreed to read one of her poems at the Christmas Eve service. It's really, really good, but it's got the F-bomb in it several times, and I just thought I should check with you about that."
Sares first told me his unexpected "F-bomb story" last March at the FutureGen conference in Orlando. We've all heard the tales of pastors accidentally detonating a vulgar ordnance from the pulpit (everyone's recent favorite being Blake Bergstrom's infamous "pitch your tents" faux pas). But the dropping of multiple F-bombs during a Christmas Eve service with laser guided premeditation? That is nothing to laugh about.
Mike Sares pastors a congregation called "Scum of the Earth" in Denver, Colorado. No, Scum of the Earth is not your typical congregation. Scum calls itself "a church for the right brained and the left out." They embrace authenticity, creativity, and those who are on the margins of society. That explains why Sares didn't immediately take the nuclear option off the table. But he wasn't quite ready to push the button either.
"My inclination on the phone was to say ?go ahead and do it,'" says Sares. "I like to give artists a lot of freedom, but on this one I just wasn't sure. I told my associate that I couldn't give him an answer yet."
Mary Kate Makkai, the poet under consideration, was a young woman Sares had known for years. She was on a long prodigal journey with her faith, and was just re-entering the church after years of living in the "far country." Along with sensing the fragile state of her faith, Sares also recognized Makkai was an incredibly gifted poet.
Before coming to Scum, Makkai had been doing poetry therapy with juvenile delinquents. It was while working with those broken and angry young men that she recognized her own need for God. The poem she composed for Christmas Eve chronicled her own journey back to God. In it she quoted some of the raw language of the boys from her therapy group. Although sympathetic to Makkai, Sares sought advice before making a final decision.
"I called two pastor friends of mine, I called a seminary professor, and I called some of my supporters (pastors at Scum raise their own support). The two supporters were dead set against allowing the F-word. These were good people whose combined time in the faith had been seventy years. They simply thought it was inappropriate for that kind of word to ever be used in the context of a worship service. I got a big fat ?no' from them.
"However, the pastors were a bit more gray about it. They saw that Mary Kate was at a critical stage in her journey back to God, and they advised me to be careful not to squelch her. I felt that asking Mary Kate to clean this poem up before presenting it in church would be like asking the widow to wipe off her coins before dropping them in the offering plate."
Beyond the pastoral implications of his decision, Sares also explored the theological and biblical issues with Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary. "Dr. Blomberg said that the Bible is obviously a wonderful book, but if you take some parts out of the broader context you're going to find some fairly dark things: incest, sodomy, murder - all sorts of terrible things. Mary Kate's poem was about someone coming back to the Lord, which is a wonderful context. In the middle of that context, she quotes someone else who is very angry at life. Context became central to our discussion.
"The other consideration was the Ephesians 5 passage about foolish talk and coarse joking. Dr. Blomberg and I went over different ways to understand this passage, using the Greek, and we didn't feel the poem fell under any of them. The poem was not a crude attempt at humor, and it was not immoral. In terms of obscenity, you've got to think of what might be considered obscene in your own congregation. In our setting, the F-bomb is just another noun/adjective/verb that expresses frustration for many people. It's not cursing in terms of taking God's name in vain, or asking God to damn someone to hell. This poem was being spoken as an honest hymn of redemption."
Satisfied that there existed no scriptural prohibition against reading the poem, Sares finally considered the inevitable fallout the F-bomb would produce. "I knew it was going to offend people, and could really hurt my relationships with some of my supporters. Allowing Mary Kate to read that poem would probably hurt me in the pocketbook, too."
What was he to do?
What would you do? Post your comments and come back soon for part two.