A Declaration of Surrender

I have opined on many occasions how, in terms of following my spiritual forebears, I am far more of a Stoner than I am a Campbellite. For those in the “Stone-Campbell” American Restoration Movement that distinction makes sense, for everyone else it is a real head scratcher. In the most succinct way of summarizing the two view, think of top-down or bottom-up typology. I am going to over-generalize here, so please, don’t anyone challenge me on dotting “i’s” or crossing “t’s.” Volumes have been written on the subject I am going to summarize in a paragraph.

Barton W. Stone was basically an apocalypticist. He had a intense acceptance of, although he would probably admit an incomplete understanding of, the the Holy Spirit. He believed completely in the idea of restoring the church to its New Testament origin, he just believed that the work of doing so was up to God, and whatever role that humans had in the process, the work was totally and completely up to God. Alexander Campbell, on the other hand, was an optimist’s optimist. He drank deeply from the philosophy of John Locke and Francis Bacon, and while he probably had a higher view of the Holy Spirit than would make many of his followers comfortable, he was more firmly convinced in the power of human reason and effort in accomplishing the “current reformation.” He was so convinced that his work would usher in the 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth that he called his second, and most influential journal, The Millennial Harbinger.

These two viewpoints have profound, and opposed, consequences. If you have a top-down viewpoint (as I have characterized Stone) you realize your worth, your value, is only secondary to that of God. You are the servant, God is the master. This is, in my opinion, far more Pauline and biblical. Paul planted, Apollos watered – but God gave the growth. If you have a bottom-up viewpoint (as I have characterized Campbell) at the very least you see yourself as a co-worker along with God. God needs you as much as you need God. In the words of a particularly miserable little sycophant who led a prayer one day in our college chapel service, God is just so lucky to have us on his side. It may be fair to say that I am over-stating Campbell’s view, but one detail leads me to believe he was bent far more in that direction than Stone – when it became obvious that the United States would end up in a Civil War, Campbell was devastated. You see, if humans can reason and work their way up into the millennial reign of Christ, there is nothing to destroy that utopian viewpoint than the carnage of a civil war. Reality, more than theology, destroys a bottom-up, pragmatic approach to religion.

There is a profound, ironic twist to this dichotomy of “top-down, bottom-up” typology. Those, like Stone, who believe in the absolute power of God and who live in a world view of apocalypticism, have a far greater understanding of servanthood than those who believe in the power of human reason and effort. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview had an impact on Tolbert Fanning, and from Fanning down to David Lipscomb. Lipscomb is famous (or infamous) for his book entitled, Civil Government, an incongruous title seeing as how he excoriated the concept of civil government. Lipscomb’s point was that man simply does not have it within himself to govern himself (by the way, that sounds a LOT like Isaiah to me, but what do I know). The more you realize the impossibility of being your own master, the more willing, and indeed the greater the necessity, of submitting to the total will and power of God. The greater God is in your worldview, the smaller you are, and the greater the realization is that anything that you accomplish is simply the result of God working through you.

And, lest anyone question Lipscomb’s concept of servanthood, it was Lipscomb who demanded that his students go out and work in the fields surrounding Nashville for half a day while they were studying with him to become preachers. Nothing like plowing behind a mule for 4-6 hours to teach a preacher humility. It was Lipscomb who stayed behind in Nashville during a cholera outbreak to drive Roman Catholic nuns around in his horse and buggy so they could tend to the sick and dying. You see, when your eyes are focused on the absoluteness and greatness of God, service and compassion become matters of necessity, not convenience. For confirmation, simply read God’s instructions to the Israelites concerning their acceptance of, and care for, the alien, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the oppressed. It is gritty reading.

At the risk of starting a political firestorm, far, far too many current members of the Churches of Christ are Campbellites. Campbell was absolutely convinced of the appropriateness of civil government. He saw nothing wrong with promoting, and even serving in, elected positions – he would actually see that as part of the ushering in of the millennial reign of Christ. It might be worthwhile to note that the only member of the American Restoration Movement to be elected President of the United States was James Garfield, who had previously served as a general in the Union Army. Garfield was a member of the Disciples of Christ – the most “Campbellite” of the three branches of the Restoration Movement (Disciples, Conservative Christian Church, and Churches of Christ).

Once upon a time I was enamored with the power of politics. I am a Reagan baby – I came of age watching the results of Reagan’s first election and drinking deeply of the euphoria that finally a good man was in the office of President. Then came Clinton. And then came Bush II. And then came Obama. And now we have Trump. Our nation is more divided, displays more animosity, more hatred, more vitriol, than at any other time in my half-century of life. During the eight years of Obama and the four years of the current resident of the White House, the role of elected officials has not been to lead the country, but to vilify and objectify the opponent. If public service ever did have a noble purpose, it ended with the last century.

I’m done. I surrender. I have seen the folly of my ways and I repent. Reading the book of Revelation yet again has opened my eyes to see the foul nature of the beast – nothing but lying frogs croaking out poison and death to their loyal minions. I used to think that the role of politics could be saved, could somehow be salvaged from the cess-pool where it was headed. I no longer think that way. If it somehow manages to be redeemed, if it is even redeemable at all, it will only be through the power of God working through the Holy Spirit. In Revelation, God destroys the beast, he does NOT redeem it.

I guess now I am a full-fledged Stoner/Lipscombian. I urge all who love Christ and his Church to join with me in my radical, apocalyptic worldview. Things are just so much more clear here. God is in control, not me. God will work his plan, not the Republicans or the Democrats. God works through his servants the prophets, not the king seated on the throne in Jerusalem nor Washington D.C. Jesus established his church, not a nation nor a political party or system. We are called to be followers of the Great Shepherd, not some bloviating buffoon residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It really is liberating to ascend by climbing lower, by demonstrating the power of God by picking up a towel. Those who end up finding their lives must first lose them. Those who reign with Christ must first surrender any claim to their life. It is the way of the cross, and there simply is no other way.

“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

Rocky Mountain High

He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before . . . (John Denver, Rocky Mountain High)

In July of 1989, at the ripe old age of 27, we duplicated part of John Denver’s experience as my wife and I made the pilgrimage to Monte Vista, Colorado to begin our first full-time ministry as the “pulpit minister” and wife for a church family. We stayed in Monte Vista for six years – years that included some great accomplishments and some crushing defeats. It was a formational experience for us, and one that we have never forgotten. This past week we were invited to return to the San Luis Valley, this time to the neighboring city of Alamosa, to begin work with another congregation of the Lord’s people. While it will not be a perfect “homecoming” as such, for us it means the answer to many prayers, and maybe, just maybe, the reality of many dreams.

Leaving one ministry to begin another is full of bitter-sweet emotions. Leaving our current ministry in Belen, NM, will be difficult for many reasons. This congregation has stood beside us during one of life’s most difficult situations – the diagnosis and treatment of my wife’s cancer. They have proved themselves servants in many, many ways. Beyond our work with the congregation here, I was able to assist my sister during a difficult time in our lives as well. My wife said it first, but I firmly believe it as well,  God put us here in this place and at this time for a reason. We can see some aspects of why he might have moved us to Belen, and I am sure that as time progresses we will be able to see other reasons as well. Our prayer is that our service will come to be seen as just as valuable to others as their service has been to us. We thank this congregation more deeply than they will ever know.

On the sweet side – even though I am a proud New Mexico native, and my wife is a fierce Texas native, we discovered a mutual home in Colorado – a place that we can call our “together” home. Our ministry in Monte Vista proved to be the longest place of residence that my wife had experienced to that point in her life. We learned the value of a church “family” in Monte Vista, an experience that has shaped us to this very day. We pray that our return will be just as valuable to our new church family as it was almost three decades ago.

We will return to a different city in a much different time. While we are familiar with the general surroundings, there is much to learn about our new home and congregation. It will be a challenge – of that there can be no mistake. But we are excited about the possibilities and we earnestly pray that we are entering this venture with our eyes wide open.

While the congregation we are moving to work with is slightly larger than our current congregation, it appears that I will have to become somewhat of a “vocational minister” at least for a short time in order to provide for some permanent housing as well as get rid of a pesky school loan. I am more than happy to do so – it will help me get to know the community much more quickly. Please pray that I can find a position quickly, one that is especially suited for an old geezer with a bum leg.

* * *

(I interrupt this announcement for a crass commercial break)

Related to this move I would like to make a public appeal. Many of those who follow this blog (or just read it occasionally) are members of churches of Christ, and perhaps you are looking for opportunities for mission support. Because of a number of unfortunate events in our lives (my wife’s cancer, and my indescribably brilliant prowess at the ice skating rink which resulted in a broken leg, three weeks in the hospital, and weeks of physical therapy), we cannot afford to make this move without some financial assistance. We are not seeking long term support – but we do need some immediate help in the expenses related to moving: rental deposits, moving truck, deposits to set up utilities, registering vehicles – the list becomes ponderous. If you, or your congregation, or any group that you might be a part of, would like to assist us in this move, please comment here to this blog and let me know how I can contact you. I will provide as much information as I can regarding our needs. If you cannot help financially, you can pray for our move, for the congregation in Alamosa, and our spiritual family here in Belen who will be looking for a family to take our place.

[To a number of very special followers of this blog – you either supported us financially during our crises, or you continue to do so even now. Know that we are deeply appreciative of your support, and your gifts are presented as sweet sacrifices to our Father in heaven. You know who you are, and we know who you are and our Father knows who you are and what you are doing. Please understand this appeal does not minimize your contributions – and if you so desire, I can provide you with a detailed list of what we can anticipate needing over the next few months.]

(I now return to my regularly scheduled blog)

We originally thought we would be making this transition over two years ago, and had that occurred we would have been moving to Colorado during both our 27th and 54th years – sort of a poetic parentheses to our lives. God had another time-line in mind, and we trust in his timing, not ours. We will be coming home for a second time – to a place we have known before but full of new things and people and challenges and blessings to experience. We ask for your prayers, both for us and for our new ministry.

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado!

God Made Her Good, and Holy, and Beautiful

I get inspiration to write from some of the weirdest places. Yesterday at the gym the owner replaced the usual vile, obnoxious, heavy-metal acid rock with a country track. Eeesh. I knew the obnoxious, heavy-metal, acid rock would not be worth listening to (the lyrics, when you can understand them, are vile!), but I guess I have not listened to obnoxious, heavy-metal, acid country in a while. If it were not for red-neck cowboys trying to get into the pants of red-neck cowgirls, there would be no country music today. Which, got me thinking . . .

I am the father of a daughter. I love my daughter more than I can describe. I would sacrifice anything to know that she was safe. When we first got married, I told my wife I wanted a little girl. She wanted several children, and I told her that was okay, as long as she made sure at least one was a little girl (I was not an “A” student in biology). Well, the “several” part did not work out, but we have the sweetest, the most awesome, young lady I could ever hope for.

As she grows, I grow more terrified for her. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it is for a young woman to grow up with a healthy, Christian self-image today. Virtually everything is working against her.

On the right hand is the pure, unadulterated misogyny from men – the idea that women are only here for their pleasure, mere objects of sex. This is what bothered me about the country trash music I was forced to deal with while lifting weights. It is bad enough for men to have to hear that garbage – but what is the message for young women? “She thinks my tractor’s sexy!” Really?? Are you kidding me? All she wants to do is crawl up in your pickup with a case of beer? Then you must have a really low view of what “she” wants. The bad thing about country music is you CAN hear and understand the lyrics. Even when you don’t want to. And, seriously, I don’t want my daughter to understand those lyrics.

On the left we have the spewing forth of the radical feminists, those women who hate being women. They despise their gender, they see only weakness and frailty. They are just as misogynistic as the men, but in an entirely different way. They want to be everything that a man is, and they utterly despise the fact that biology has made that impossible. The funny thing is, these radical feminists hate men too. They hate men because they want everything that a man has, and their envy has turned into self-loathing.

This is true even in the church today! We have women telling little girls that they can be everything that a man is, that they can do everything that a man can do – they can be a man! What is a little girl to think? That being a woman is bad? Why do they have to focus on wanting to be like a man, or even worse, to be a man? Is biblical womanhood a disease?

I am obviously a male, so in one sense I am the wrong gender to be writing this. This really needs to come from a woman, and thankfully there are women who are standing up and pushing back against this anti-female tirade. We need many, many, more. We need women who recognize the awesomeness of being female – of the power to conceive, the power to nurture and then to bear new life, the power to nurse that little life, and the power to see, feel, remember and to comprehend all of life in ways that a man cannot even begin to experience. God created females with the most incredible psychological, mental, and physical powers and abilities. God created females with gifts that so far transcend their male counterparts that it defies description. When God created a woman, he created her good, and holy, and beautiful – in the Genesis account she was the last, the pinnacle of God’s creation. Why are we so intent on destroying that image?

I was a flight instructor for approximately 4 years, give or take a couple of months. I witnessed the male/female dichotomy up close and personal in a unique circumstance. I can tell you with no hesitation whatsoever that men and women are gifted in entirely different ways – even in the identical position of flying airplanes. There is an adage in aviation that speaks far more wisdom than is apparent on the surface: men are better at getting themselves out of a bad situation; women are far better at never getting themselves into that situation to begin with. Ponder that for a while.

As I said, I am a male. God has gifted me to do some things that I can do fairly well simply because of my biological “construction.” But, he also tasked me to do some things that I do not do very well at all because of the sin that afflicts every human being. God created my wife, and my daughter, to accomplish some tasks that they do very well because of their biological “construction.” As I mentioned above, women are just light years ahead of men in terms of intuition, feelings, and processing complex issues as a whole. I focus like a laser on one issue – my wife sees the whole picture. I would be so lost without her. But, women were tasked to do some things that they do not accomplish very well because of the sin that afflicts all human beings. That which makes females strong can also be their “Achilles heel.”

I find it interesting, and profoundly instructive, that the apostle Paul speaks of the sin of Eve in contexts where he is discussing the differences between male and female, but when he is speaking theologically – in terms of the nature of sin itself – he puts the fall of mankind squarely on the shoulders of Adam (and, this is clear because he compares the male Adam with the male Jesus). Eve tempted her husband to sin, and Adam’s sin caused the fall of mankind. Cogitate on that for a spell.

One of the ways that our culture, and even our churches, are rebelling against God today is with the rejection of the gifts of being male or female. One way we stand over Scripture, and over against God, is when we place a higher level of authority on science or psychology to define what it means to be a Christian man or woman. When we tell our daughters that she can “do anything a man can do” or that “she can be just like a man” we are giving her the most insidious message – that being a woman is not good enough, that she was created as some lower life being. I cannot think of a more devastating message to give a daughter of God.

I do not want my daughter to be just like me. I do not want my daughter to think that she can do everything a man can do – why would she want to take that step down? God created her as the most precious of all his creations.

Despite what this world is telling her, I want my daughter to know that God made her good, and holy, and beautiful, and no one can ever take that away from her.

My “Perfect” Worship Experience

On another forum a good friend (that I have never met) suggested I provide what would be my “perfect” worship service (I forget his exact words). I thought, “what a splendiferous idea!” (And I had no idea that such a word as ‘splendiferous’ even existed, but my computer even spell checked it for me!) So, here goes, with a few comments here and there:

  • It would be called a gathering, and not a “service.” The word we translate into “church” simply means an assembly, a gathering, a community. Let’s stick with Bible names.
  • It would begin approximately around 9:00 am – early enough for us to be fresh, but not so late as to make everyone lazy. I say “approximately” as there would be plenty of time for early gatherers to meet and possibly share a breakfast meal without feeling like they were “early.”
  • There would be no end time. People could stay as long as they wished, or leave when they felt they had to. Communal meals would be the rule, not the exception. Everyone would be well nourished, physically and spiritually. Last one out turn out the lights.
  • Except for a few remarks, most of the service would not be scripted or planned. I make exceptions for a lesson from the Bible, and a well thought-out comment immediately preceding the Lord’s Supper. Beyond that – let’s let the Spirit move and encourage us. The experience would be charismatic, but not chaotic.
  • There would be lots of time for just silence – showing a little of my Quaker leanings here. Words can only be heard if there are moments of silence in between them. Consider the average worship service. When is there silence? In most situations, only during the Lord’s Supper, and even in some congregations that is changing. We need silence to hear the Word of God. Lots of silence for me.
  • There would be many prayers, and songs – lots of songs. Songs dating back to the earliest English hymnals and songs that were written by church members throughout the week.
  • There would be equal amounts of praise and confession. One thing I learned in my D.Min. studies is that Churches of Christ do not confess much. Oh, we confess that we have “sinned,” but we do a really poor job of confessing sins. I think in an ideal situation there would be group confession, and individual confession, and lots of forgiveness, and lots of silence as we ponder our sinfulness.
  • There would be a lot of shepherding. The shepherds, or elders, would run their stubby little legs off moving from person to person, group to group, taking care of shepherding issues. No smoke-filled, back-room decision making CEOs here – just pure shepherds of the flock.
  • Sermons, or Biblical lessons, would be brief, and might be given by more than one individual – and would be directed to helping the flock follow in the steps of the Good Shepherd. The lessons would be followed by periods of discussion, and would then be followed by periods of silence as the sheep considered the words that were presented.
  • There would be a time for the meeting of physical needs as well as spiritual needs. No one would go away hungry, or in need of shelter. Discipline, when needed, would be administered “on the spot.” Ditto with forgiveness and absolution.
  • Finally, people would arrive haggard and worn out from fighting the battles against the “powers and principalities,” and would leave equipped, renewed and rejuvenated, ready to go forth and conquer the beast.

I just realized, in re-reading what I would characterize as the “perfect” worship experience, that I have described the actual worship gathering in many of what we would call “third-world” countries. Maybe in terms of spiritual worship, we as Americans are third-world.

Okay – perhaps its a pipe dream, and might could be added onto. Thanks, Ted, for the splendiferous idea!

Mega-Star, Mega-Preachers – A Pox on Your House Too!

The last couple of posts have allowed me to do a little venting. As I wrote some time back, this blog allows me to “talk to myself” a little, while at the same time hopefully causing others to think. I am certainly not sitting here thinking that I am going to change the world. The extent of my range to change things is limited to the cat boxes.

However, in discussing the issue of entertainment in worship, my mind was inexorably drawn to perhaps the greatest single worship issue confronting Churches of Christ today – and I am not referring to “praise teams” or instrumental music in worship. I am talking about the cult of hero worship that we have created, or are in the process of creating, around “professional” preachers.

Years ago it was said that the Roman Catholic Church had the Pope, and Churches of Christ had editors. There was a great deal of truth to this, as preachers, and even entire congregations, could be identified as “Gospel Advocate” men or “Firm Foundation” men or possibly even “Standard” men. That is not so true anymore, as print publications have waned tremendously in popularity and editors have faded in teaching authority. What has seemingly replaced them is a rising cult of mega-star, mega-preachers. It is not that Churches of Christ have never had what we consider to be 5-star, marquee level preachers, you might even say its in our DNA, dating all the way back to Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, et. al. What differentiates today from yester-year is that along with those luminaries there was a vast, innumerable army of preachers working in virtual obscurity, laboring in congregations large and small, all knowing that their service was just as vital to the health of the church as the “big boys.” And the “big boys” knew the value of the small town preacher because they were, at one time, all small town preachers.

However, what is occurring now is taking place right in lock-step with the greater world of evangelicalism. What I see happening how is that small town churches (and even some large city churches) are dismissing their located preachers (or are not replacing departed preachers) and are moving to the “multi-site” or “multi-campus” paradigm whereby one hero-preacher preaches via satellite link to a number of congregations, some many miles away.

I would suggest that what follows can best be described as a “chicken or the egg” issue, where the cause or effect is impossible to determine. However, we read left to right and top to bottom, so something has to come first. My first might actually be the second, so read the next sections with that in mind.

Beginning at least in the late 20th century (when I was an undergraduate), young men were encouraged to enter into just about any ministry other than preaching to local congregations, especially smaller congregations. It’s not that “located preaching work” was openly denigrated, its just that it was not actively promoted. The older professors, those who had preached for small congregations, still spoke approvingly of such work, but the younger professors rarely mentioned it, and when they did, it was very often in condescending ways. The model that was promoted was stepping straight from graduation into a large, multi-ministry congregation. The “jack-of-all-trades” preacher who did everything from direct VBS to folding the bulletin was viewed as an anachronism, a relic from a by-gone era. Because we loved the young professors so much, and strove to emulate them,  we all just naturally assumed that we were all destined to serve 500+ member congregations. It was our ministerial birthright.

The result has been nothing short of predictable. When I was a young man, our “hero” preachers were men who started out preaching to very small, mostly rural, congregations and either built them up, or transitioned to larger urban congregations where they once again built them up. They never forgot their roots, however, and their preaching demonstrated it – they praised the work of the multitude of “anonymous” preachers, because they knew what small congregation ministry was like (and they had the bruises to show it). Today, our “hero” preachers have never stood behind the pulpit of a congregation of 25 members. They have never known what it is like to work with a “men’s business meeting.” They simply do not understand, and therefore cannot appreciate, small town ministry or small congregation preaching. It is one thing to preach when you have 15-20 elders to support you, and 4-5 other staff members to do everything from plan the worship service to make sure the waste baskets are cleaned. Put some of our “mega-preachers” in a single-minister congregation and they would become whimpering little puppies within six weeks.

Simultaneous to this shift was a shift that was occurring in congregations as well. It wasn’t good enough to just have a man serve as a preacher. He had to come with star status. He had to have a quiver full of baptisms everywhere he went. He had to be well known on the “preaching circuit.” Young men straight out of college or schools of preaching need not apply. Start out as a youth minister or education minister was the advice – ergo, start out with one of those 500+ member congregations, prove your mettle, and then move on to a preaching gig.

Then, the generation shift hit – and congregations everywhere started to age. Simultaneous to this shift was the rural-to-urban shift, and smaller rural congregations lost members (mostly younger adults) to the growing urban congregations. The 250 member congregations suddenly became 500 member congregations, and the 500 member congregations became 1,000 member congregations. The smaller, rural congregations lost their ability (and sometimes even their desire) to support a full-time minister, and even some urban congregations (in decaying parts of cities) were unable to maintain their full-time staff.

All while this was occurring there was a simultaneous shifting paradigm among (mostly) evangelical churches – take a mega-pastor, video his sermons, link them via satellite to any number of remote “campuses,” and bada, bada, bing, his stature and acclaim grows exponentially, as does the status of the “home” congregation. Instead of being a “pastor” (the term grates on me) of a 5,000 member congregation, he can be referred to as the pastor of a 15,000 or 20,000 member “congregation,” even though that “congregation” is made up of 4, 5, or more distant “campuses.”

Apparently, Churches of Christ have swallowed that model hook, line, and sinker.

Part of the shift is pragmatic – smaller congregations, or congregations that are struggling financially, get the benefit of hearing a sermon broadcast in “real” time. Buildings that would have to be shuttered are kept open. Members can stay in locations where they are comfortable, and sometimes in the only congregations of Churches of Christ for miles around.

But, as with my thoughts on “praise teams,” there is something sinister about this pragmatic shift. There is some serious theology that is utterly missing, and some really dangerous thinking taking its place. For one thing, this is but the first step in the death of the autonomous congregation. It is a veiled introduction to the concept of a bishopric, where one man is viewed to be “chief among equals.” Just as we can see in the evangelical world, when a man is followed by 20,000 or more energetic disciples, under whose authority does he place himself? What eldership can discipline a man when his face is being broadcast to 3, 4, 5 or more distant locations (and, by extension, there is a fiduciary relationship among those congregations)?

Before anyone responds with the inevitable – I know, I get it, it “works.” But if you want to see the ultimate in how this “works,” you need not look any further than the Roman Catholic Church, with its elaborate hierarchal structure. I for one do not want to go there. I also know there are very real, and very serious, issues relating to aging congregations in communities that are themselves dying. I know there are very real, and very serious, issues in urban congregations where shifting demographics have created membership issues.

But, brothers and sisters, can we not approach these issues from a theological perspective instead of a pragmatic one? I know that changes are going to have to be made, but can we not make decisions that will promote the health of individual congregations and provide for local ministers instead of raising the names and faces of just a few “mega-preachers” to idolatrous status?

  • Can we not demand that our colleges and universities return to a model of preparing men to preach, and to minister, to small congregations?
  • Can we not develop a pattern where larger, and more affluent, congregations can “send” men to preach for smaller and financially weaker congregations, and to place those men under the leadership of that local congregation?
  • Can we not raise up a generation of men who see the value of serving the church for whom Christ died, whether he preaches to 25, or 50, or 5,000 members?
  • Can we not devise a system where a man can preach for a small congregation without being forced to live on government assistance? We have created a caste system of ministry – we have those who feast sumptuously on caviar and others who cannot even feed their families without taking a second job.

I will freely admit I do not know all the answers – but I just feel in my bones that the road we are traveling down is the wrong road. I see no lasting solution in selling our spiritual birthright for a mess of evangelical porridge. We can do so much better.

But, I think the solution is to begin by learning what it means to take a towel and start washing some feet.

We will climb higher only by descending lower.

Praise Teams (Again)

I was mildly rebuked following my last post. I knew I would be, and I really don’t mind. “Praise Teams” are a touchy subject. Those who have them, or want them, cannot see any harm or fault in having them. Those that do not want to have a “praise team” in their worship are pretty firm in their convictions. There really is not much of a middle ground.

I am going to make a generalization based on my experience, but it is my belief that those who argue for “praise teams” do so for one simple reason: it makes the song service sound better. There is no biblical or theological reason for the addition of “praise teams.” The issue is either that there is a large, but basically empty, auditorium that kills the sound of the congregational singing, or that the congregation is getting old and feeble and therefore cannot sing as vibrantly as they once did, or that the congregation doesn’t know the new songs and therefore cannot sing them very well. Whatever the specific issue, the argument for “praise teams” revolves around aesthetics. It is all about making the song service sound better for human ears. At the risk of offending – it is all about entertainment.

We are a nation of pragmatists, virtually every decision we make is based on one bottom line – does it work, or does it work better, than what I am currently doing? The church is particularly stricken with this disease. Because of our (I speak as a member of the Churches of Christ) aversion to theology, we have surrendered our commitment to deep theological thinking long, long ago. When a church surrenders its theological foundation, the only thing left for it is pragmatism – what works. So, if a congregation is faced with a problem (poor singing) it does not search for a reason that can be found in the realm of the Spirit, but only what will “work” to fix the problem, ergo, “Let’s form a ‘praise team’ of some really good singers, give them all a microphone, and our singing will improve overnight.” The problem is, it doesn’t. Having a “praise team” is putting a band-aid on a cancer. A “praise team” might make the auditorium singing sound better to human ears, but it does nothing toward engendering a more spiritual worship service. It is all a part of the “Seeker Sensitive” movement that caters to the whims and fancies of the world at the expense of theological content. In a sentence, there is no “there” there.

I pointed out in my last post where I think “praise teams” violate the spirit of Scripture, if not the letter. I will not rehearse those reasons – none of those who took the time (and I thank them!) to converse with me attempted to address those issues. However, I want to add another voice to the conversation, one who speaks with the theological understanding of which I find so abysmally lacking in so many conversations about the church today:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality an autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing. Of course, this truth is only gradually and by patient practice disclosed to our oversophisticated ears. Whether or not a community  achieves proper unison singing is a question of its spiritual discernment. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], p. 67. Additional note – these words were written in 1938.

This is thinking theologically. This is looking to the Spirit for answers to questions of the Spirit. This is taking a human, temporal problem and seeking to discern the moving of the Word and Spirit. This is the kind of thinking that is virtually non-existent among Churches of Christ today. We use John 4:24 as a textual battering ram and yet when everything comes down to a point we are all about what works; what looks, sounds, and what feels, “better.” We have attained all the spiritual depth of a thimble.

Bonhoeffer goes on to add words that could have been written yesterday:

There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of it own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally, there are often those who not not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community.

In case you missed it – Bonhoeffer is arguing for pure unison singing – as in no parts – no soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Unison singing, because it is only in unison singing that we sing in the unity of the Spirit. Unison singing, because if God can take Jew and Gentile and make out of two nations one family, then he can certainly take four vocal ranges and make them into one voice. Unison singing, because it is in unison singing that we all, old and young, male and female, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, can submit our voices to each other and join in one ephemeral voice to lift our praise to God. These are radical words – restoration type words – of which the Restoration Movement should be able to hear. But I doubt that we can.

We are too wrapped up into what works.

To my conversation partners: I get it! What I said about “praise teams” can also be said about single song leaders. What I also did not say, but also firmly believe, is that we have created, or are dangerously close to creating, a “professional” class of preachers who are approaching idolatrous standing. (Maybe my next series of posts?) But this is what I don’t get – if someone points out that driving over the speed limit is dangerous and illegal, and then someone else points out that driving too slow is also dangerous, that does not make driving over the speed limit less dangerous or more legal! If a congregation worships a song leader, that does not make “praise teams” more acceptable. Just because a single song leader can be in love with his voice and dominate a song service, that does not absolve “praise teams” from that very same sin. I still maintain the basic premise of my first post: “praise teams” are inherently divisive, they are elitist, they elevate one member’s position to praise above another’s for the simple reason of their natural singing ability.

I happen to believe that the church has a higher calling than just to have a song service that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

I happen to believe that our song service is supposed to be praise to God, and not to human ears.

And, yes – if that means a total and complete return to unison singing, count me in.

I happen to think that is ascending higher by climbing lower.