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.

I Don’t Get It (Church Division)

I have often said, and now once again confess, that I am not the sharpest bulb in the drawer, or the brightest blade in the box. There are many things about which I am confused, and when someone explains them to me I want to say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” So, the following conundrum may not be a problem to you at all. But for me, well, I’m stuck . . .

The problem to which I refer was illustrated by a recent conversation when, in a room full of individuals representing many different churches, a person said, “We are all Christians, we may have different labels, but we all believe the same thing, believe in the same God, believe in Jesus.” To which I thought to myself, “Um, no we don’t.”

You see, in my limited intellectual capacity, you either believe something or you don’t. If you believe something, it is important to you and you are at least willing to defend it as a personal belief, or you are willing to discuss your belief in the hopes of arriving at a better belief. Let me state a necessary deduction to my way of looking at the world:

Those who claim that all “Christians” believe the same thing and are simply divided by different “labels” are either (a) ignorant or ambivalent about the beliefs of their own church or are (b) ignorant about the beliefs of other churches or (c) are of the opinion that said beliefs are totally irrelevant.

If you hold position (c), then my only question is why do you affirm any of your current beliefs? If such beliefs are irrelevant, then it seems to me you would discard those beliefs and accept the beliefs of other who are utterly and totally convinced of the importance, and correctness, of their beliefs. So, let’s look at positions (a) and (b), which are really just two sides of the same coin.

To be as honest as I can, and to be as gentle as I can and still be clear, it is simply impossible for followers of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and various other stripes of free church theology, to be “united” in any realistic sense of the word. For example –

If you are a Roman Catholic, and you firmly believe in such dogmas as Papal infallibility, apostolic succession, transubstantiation (and its related dogmas), the veneration/adoration/worship of Mary (and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well), then it is simply impossible for you to be “united” with those of us who reject those dogmas. Those doctrines are not just incidental to the Catholic faith – they are what makes Roman Catholics what they are. If you reject Papal infallibility, if you reject transubstantiation, if you reject any kind of special place for Mary – well, it is very difficult for you to consider yourself a Roman Catholic. And if I reject those doctrines, how can you say you are in fellowship with me?

Likewise with Lutherans – if you  hold to consubstantiation, if you hold to the doctrine of “faith only,” if you defend infant baptism, then I would suggest it should be impossible for you to consider that a Roman Catholic on one side or me on the other would be faithful Christians. The Catholic should (if he/she is being true to Catholic doctrine) reject the idea of “faith only,” as do I, for entirely different reasons. The Roman Catholic and I both believe we are saved by faith, but I flatly reject (and I have reason to believe the Roman Catholic would too) the addition of the word “only.” Martin Luther added it to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians (and elsewhere) and in so doing completely changed the meaning of the text.

Calvinists (and all their permutations in the Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) are in more of a pickle than Lutherans, in my opinion. If you hold to the traditional TULIP explanation of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) then I am so far away from being a Christian as to be an atheist – I reject every one of those doctrines. But, if you reject any one of those teachings, the house of Calvin folds like a wet paper bag. You cannot hold to total depravity and reject irresistible grace. You cannot believe in unconditional election and reject the idea of limited atonement. In other words, to be consistent, you have to hold all of these concepts in a tight bundle, or your concept of Christianity comes unraveled. I would certainly not be in the “family” as it were.

The point I am trying to make is that when someone makes a statement like, “All Christians believe the same thing and we are all saved by Christ and the only thing that makes us different is our different names,” they either are woefully ignorant of the differences they claim are unimportant, or they do not really believe the fundamental tenets of their respective church.

If you believe that Christ is sacrificed every time the priest blesses and elevates the host, if you believe that Christ’s body is physically present in some form in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, if you believe that an infant needs to be baptized and receives the forgiveness of “original sin,” if you believe that a person is born to eternal salvation and someone is born to eternal damnation – then I suggest that you and I have very little in common except some generic teachings of a wandering rabbi who lived approximately 30 years before the final destruction of the Jewish temple. Jesus then becomes a more pious Plato or Aristotle. If you think that those distinctions are merely “opinions,” then I suggest you need to reject those opinions, because it is those “opinions” that are the main sources of division between churches who claim the name Christ.

I also want to make another point very clear – some of my favorite authors and “mentors” (in an impersonal sense) hold Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinistic) beliefs. When I want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines I find that more often than not I am drawn to Roman Catholic authors (or, Anabaptist writers). When I want to learn more about the Old Testament, chances are I will end up with a Presbyterian or Anglican author. If I had to get rid of every book in my library except for one author, I would keep my collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran and someone to whom I am deeply indebted for my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So, am I making a blanket condemnation of those who hold these various doctrines? No, I hope not – that is not my intention. My only goal in this little exercise in rambling incoherence is to point out that despite our best intentions, and regardless of what sweet sounding words we may use, if we truly hold to the major confessions of our faiths, we are NOT united as Christians.

I freely confess – I am a child of the Restoration Movement and I am convinced that if disciples of Christ would simply return to the teachings “once for all” delivered to the saints (and in my world that would be Genesis-Revelation), then we could call ourselves united. Then there would be differences of opinion (types of worship, perhaps, other truly incidental and transitory questions), but we could at least convey to the world that we are united on the very basic core of our Christian beliefs.

Maybe someone can explain to me how people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints can be said to be one united faith, but until someone does, I just don’t get it.

Why Are We Divided?

I responded to one of those on-line questionnaires the other day, the kind where you are asked a million dollar question and you are given about 25 cents worth of space to answer. The questions were really good, don’t misunderstand me. I just did not feel like I could answer fully in the space allotted. Sometimes questions can be too good.

So, after some time to cogitate just a little more, here is a little more depth to how I responded.

First, are “main line” Churches of Christ divided, and if so, why? My response: I’m not sure that there is a “main line” Church of Christ, and maybe there never was. So, I guess I would have to say, yes, we are divided. Why? Well, as the questionnaire stated, it’s complicated.

First, I said we do not know our history. Many even deny we have a history. We have a history of historylessness. It is a grammatical and sociological impossibility, but somehow we have managed to pull it off. When I was an undergraduate one of the most despised courses (except for a few souls) was the course on Restoration History. The prevailing feeling among my fellow students was that we were just so much smarter than Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Racoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, et. al. Everybody wanted to spend time studying the modern gurus of religion like Bill Hybels. How is that working out for you now, fellas?

I once had a good brother express genuine shock when I explained that one cause of the split between the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church and the Churches of Christ was the introduction of any kind of musical instrument into the worship service. He had been under the impression that it was the Churches of Christ who caused the division because we decided we hated music and therefore kicked everyone who wanted to use an instrument out of the building.

Oy vey.

It’s trite, it’s been overused, but the saying is still true – those who do not know and understand their history are doomed to repeat it. You cannot learn from a lesson if you deny the existence of that lesson, and if you refuse to even hear the lesson taught to you. Our current state of disunion is nothing more than the seeds of previous generations sprouting in new soil. But, the overwhelming majority of folks just cannot see that, because they do not believe we have a history.

Second, I pointed out that we as a community do not handle ambiguity well. I fear I will be misunderstood here so let me qualify my statement. I DO NOT believe the Bible to be ambiguous. However, today’s culture is rife with ambiguity, and as a distinct religious community we have focused on the cut and dried, the black and white, of faith. As an aside, I think our focus on the New Testament is the major culprit here. The Old Testament speaks openly of ambiguity, of anguish, of pain, and to be honest, of doubt. Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms, major sections of the Old Testament – all contain long and wrenching passages that express that this world is not what it is supposed to be, and why doesn’t God do something about it. Job, Jeremiah, and the various Psalmists all believed in and proclaimed the truth of God’s message – but they had no reservations but what the world is full of ambiguity. I just do not think we handle the ambiguity of our culture very well. I know I don’t. I am a child of my tradition, too.

Finally, I pointed out that we as a community do not have any mechanism for communal lament and confession. Shameless advertisement here – I wrote my doctoral dissertation of this very issue, so I think I know a little of which I speak. We are very capable of confessing the faults of other groups. Confess our own? Perish the thought. We have no faults. We are perfect. We have never sinned in thought or deed, and an anathema be upon anyone who suggests otherwise.

Um, 1 John 1:8-10, anyone?

So, yes, the “main line” Churches of Christ are divided. Probably always have been, it is just that maybe the lines of division are becoming a little more obvious than in past generations. We now have “super” or “mega” preachers that openly teach and preach positions that are diametrically opposed to biblical doctrine. Scripture is not inspired, it is merely inspiring. Scripture is relativized. Cultural standards are held to be more authoritative than God’s word. I would suggest that the majority of Churches of Christ have gone “mainstream” Evangelical – we have certainly lost our apocalyptic (counter-cultural) roots. Alexander Campbell would probably be welcome in the majority of congregations, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb would not.

It is not my job to “fix” the Churches of Christ. All I can do is guard my own teaching – follow the principles of biblical interpretation that I have been taught and hold to be valuable, share what I have learned and what I feel to be important, and rely upon the grace of God to “fix” what is deficient in my admittedly human understanding.

I don’t ever want someone to think or believe something because I said it. I want people to think or believe something because they can find it in the Bible – something that God wants them to think, believe, and obey. May we all have Philippians 2:1-11 as our polar star.

We ascend higher when we climb lower.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

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.

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.