Middle Isaiah and the Churches of Christ

This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.

One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.

What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).

So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.

In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.

Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.

I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.

Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”

The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.

How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?

You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.

We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.

May we all ascend by climbing lower.

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

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!

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 Рuntouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess Рthe 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 Рthese 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.

A Pox on ‘Praise Teams’

If you have read very many of my posts you have no doubt noticed that I am not a fan of “praise teams,” those Hydra-headed creatures that have become synonymous with contemporary worship these days. Some may wonder why I am so irked, so non-plussed, so aggravated.

Well, for one reason, I’m a nut – a knuckle-dragging troglodyte that would rather be using a typewriter than a computer, and would really prefer to be using a fountain pen. I was born shortly after the crust of the earth cooled, so anything after the invention of the wheel is flat out revolutionary.

But, those failings aside, I think I have some pretty good reasons for my position. While I firmly believe there is no “thus saith the Lord” or “book, chapter and verse” that specifically condemns the use of “praise teams,” I believe their creation and use does fray the very fabric of the concept of worship. Let us examine the question.

At the very outset, let me say I am not against special singing groups in the church. I actually think they are wonderful, and fill a special place for those who love to sing (regardless of talent!). I have been greatly edified by the service rendered by quartets, sextets, octets, and larger choruses. My life would be much poorer without them. I feel the same with instrumental music. I absolutely adore music – one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave to me was an appreciation of music. I can’t play it if I had to save my life, but I sure do love it. So, my animosity to “praise teams” does not stem from an irrational hatred of special singing groups, nor even of my disapproval of instrumental music in worship. I pray it is not irrational at all.

In James 2:1-7, James condemns the sin of partiality. In the specifics of the text, he is condemning the elevation of the rich, and the humiliation of the poor. Note, however, that the poor are not excluded from worship, but there is a clear distinction of status based on the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor. Now, just replace “rich” with “glorious singing voice” and you have a praise team – those who are elevated, and ironically those who are “praised” for their voice tones above those miserable wretches who can only sing with joy and gladness in their hearts, but have no “America’s Got Superiority Issues” talent.

The two primary texts that mention singing in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) both stress the “one another” aspect of singing – we sing with each other, we sing to each other, we sing for each other. But “praise teams” are elevated – they have a special place, or at the very least, they have microphones so their voices are just a little more special, than those of the hoi poloi, the common singer. Here again, there is no clear violation of the text, but the spirit of the text is shredded. It is clear that when a select group of individuals are highlighted and “praised” for their talents, that the “one another” aspect of worship is being minimized, if not eliminated.

This, of course, leads to the basic hypocrisy of the “praise team” movement. On the one hand we are told the “praise team” is no different, is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation in song. But the very formation of such a group utterly destroys that argument. A director, usually known as the “worship leader” must select, or recruit, suitable members. How will he/she choose such members? Through an audition, of course. What are the criteria? Perfect intonation, the ability to read music, and a desire to be “front and center” are obvious items. I would argue there are other, less honorable, measurements – such as age, gender, age, perfectly coifed hair, age, the wealth to purchase cultural appropriate clothing, and age. I’ve seen many, many pictures of “praise teams,” and have experienced a couple in person, and I would suggest that the average age of most “teams” places their birth after the election of Ronald Reagan, some after the election of Bill Clinton.

I’ve often wondered, how does a “worship leader” dismiss a “praise team” member wannabe? “I’m sorry, but you are just not good enough to praise God here at our church.” Regardless of the wording, that is the message. Ouch.

After their selection the team must rehearse, of course. They are allowed to have the songs for that Sunday service days in advance of the rest of the shmucks that sit in the pews (oops, let my snark come through there). They, ¬†therefore, are “in” on the worship – the congregation is on the “out.” One particularly egregious example of this I witnessed personally – the “praise team” was seated at the front of the auditorium, and they were the only ones who had the sheet music for the songs – just the lyrics were projected on an overhead screen. The “team” was mic’d at an ear busting volume, and the result was a total projection of their voices and a few mumbles from the congregation as we struggled to keep up with the melody – which only the “praise team” was privy to.

So, the argument that the “praise team” is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation, is just to educate the congregation, is just specious. It is hypocritical at best, and divisive at its worst.

That leads me to my last point, that of the name of the “praise team” itself. Is not the congregation itself the praise team? Are we not all, as members of the body, called to speak to one another, to lift one another up in song, are we not all, regardless of talent, supposed to lift our voices in gladness? “Praise teams” are inherently divisive – they divide according to (perceived) talent and according to other criteria which clearly separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

I will admit I struggle with the process of corporate worship. On the one hand I genuinely love the spontaneity of an un-planned, “ad-hoc” type of worship. I had the incredible experience one time of guest speaking at a congregation. The song leader had no idea of my topic – but he formulated the most powerful, the most enriching, the most moving, the most theologically profound, series of songs that I can honestly say that I ever remember in a worship service. I was moved to tears, and introduced my sermon by apologizing to the congregation for interrupting that awesome experience of worship.

On the other hand, I have benefited from a well-planned and carefully thought-out worship where the songs, the Lord’s Supper memorial, and the sermon were all carefully integrated. That takes time, work, and some very close relationships between speaker, song leader, and any other worship leaders. For many congregations, that kind of close working relationship is not likely on a week-to-week basis. It takes some real dedication and communication. It also removes some of the immediacy that inspires so much of worship. It is hard to know on Monday or Tuesday what the mood of the congregation will be on Sunday. It tends to be confining, even as it is designed to create more expressiveness.

All I can say for sure is that for this knuckle-dragging troglodyte, “praise teams” are just a huge burr under my saddle, and I will never be comfortable sitting in an auditorium and being entertained by their glorious voices and perfectly coifed hair.

And I just wonder what James would have to say about our 21st century form of discrimination disguised as super-spirituality.