Contemplating Winter

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Cold, wet and dark are three of my least favorite things, and winter has them in spades. This winter though, I’ve been attempting to find God’s handiwork in the season rather than just being upset that it’s not spring yet. Needless to say, it’s been a very enlightening experience.

Appreciation of Creation is a way in which we worship the Creator. It’s almost trivially easy to do in spring, summer and fall; the colors and smells draw us into a celebratory and worshipful mood. To find praise-worthy elements of winter has meant being purposeful about noticing the world around me.

One quick example: call me dense, but it took me until this winter to really realize how serene a heavy snowfall can be. There are few sensations as relaxing as standing in a freshly blanketed field looking around at the world covered in a white sheen. This year, the snow was even enough to force cities into a rare and well-needed quietude. Just being able to soak in the silence and sit in the awe of the expansiveness of God’s Creation has been wonderfully refreshing.

What about you? Do you take time to thank God for all of the seasons? Is there anything you find praise-worthy about winter?

Should church be cool? “Hipster Christianity” and the quest for authenticity

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Is it OK for churches to be hip?

“Hipster Christianity” has seen a lot of discussion since Brett McCracken published a scathing article about what he calls “‘wannabe cool’ Christianity”. McCracken identifies hipster Christianity as just another manifestation of the desire to “rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it ‘cool’.” What does that look like?

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

McCracken has also recently published a book on this topic, which is thoroughly reviewed at Religion Dispatches. McCracken’s book seems to present a more nuanced picture of “hipster Christianity” than his WSJ article: he distinguishes between authentic hipster churches that are born of sincere efforts to correct the Church’s course, and insincere churches that just pander to young people with a thin veneer of manufactured cool. The latter are just as phony as any stereotypical “old-school” church that turns up its nose at sinners and refuses to sing any song written after 1788.

It’s hard to know what to make of McCracken’s critiques. A lot of it is spot-on; every time I read an article about yet another provocatively-marketed sermon series about sex at yet another cooler-than-thou church, my eyes roll even farther back into my head. But at the same time, some of the criticism of hipster Christianity verges into the mean-spirited. We all recognize the danger of sacrificing genuine worshipfulness in the pursuit of cool; but it’s important to remember that the main alternative—traditional worship services “the way we’ve always done it”—carries its own risk of phoniness. Unless a hipster church’s “cool factor” actually pulls it away from orthodox Christianity and belief in Jesus Christ, I’m not inclined to criticize too harshly.

What do you think? Is “hipster Christianity” and its desire to make Christianity cool a dangerous trend that should be resisted? Is it a new generation just trying to avoid historical church pitfalls and worship Christ authentically?

Note: see also Molly Hemingway’s post on the topic at Ricochet.

Does your church ever change its order of worship?

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

I’ve been to churches where the order of service hadn’t changed in decades. There’s an unspoken rhythm to worship in such a church that’s calming in its predictability. Having a worship structure set in stone means worshipers don’t expend mental energy following a new order of worship; they can just focus on the service. But that same predictability can also make the service rote or boring.

I’ve also attended a church whose service never seemed to be the same from week to week. The service would start a few minutes late as people filtered in; the worship band would sing three songs or five and the pastor took as much or as little time as he wanted to deliver his sermon. Sometimes the service would make you miss lunch appointments; other times, you found yourself with an extra 20 minutes after the service.

What about your church? Does your church follow a strict order of worship or does it change things weekly?

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Heidelberg-Catechism“What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ….” It’s been twenty years since my Sunday school teachers required me to memorize Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer #1, but it still rolls off my tongue easily. The Reformed church in which I grew up incorporated the Heidelberg Catechism into both worship services and youth education.

As a teenager, I certainly did not enjoy committing huge swaths of a stuffy-sounding theological primer to memory. I envied friends at other churches whose much “cooler” Sunday school curricula involved skits and music. But those pieces of memorized catechism—particularly the wonderfully comforting Q&A #1 above—have been an encouragement to me ever since.

All this came to mind while reading this interview with Kevin DeYoung about the value of the Heidelberg Catechism at the Evangel blog. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a catechism, or if you are skeptical that a long theological treatise penned by 16th-century Protestants could possibly be relevant to your Christian life, give the short interview a read. Among other things, DeYoung describes the ways that the catechism is woven into the life of his church:

How do you use it at your church? And what are some other suggestions regarding how to use a catechism?

Kevin DeYoung: We use the Heidelberg Catechism in our worship. Sometimes we read it responsively. Other times I’ll work it into my communion liturgy. I’ll quote it in my sermons from time to time. I’ve seen the Catechism used effectively as Sunday school material. It’s best to have littler kids memorize parts of it and have older kids explore the nuances of the theology. We also have a section on the Catechism in our membership class and leadership training. And of course, my book on Heidelberg started out a weekly devotionals for my congregation.

DeYoung is talking specifically about the Heidelberg Catechism, but it is not the only catechism written to methodically introduce Christians (and particularly children) to the fundamental elements of Christianity. Depending on your denomination and theological leanings, there may be one or more catechisms written specifically to convey the Christian truths you hold dear.

What about you and your church? Does your church use a catechism as a teaching tool in sermons, Sunday school, or another part of church life?

Does your church ever use “secular” songs during worship?

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Several years ago I visited a local megachurch that was hosting a sermon series on Love. They opened their worship set by showing a music video for “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles. This was the first time I’d ever seen a church bring in something so decidedly “secular” into a worship service.

The church I attend now sings a few songs that are amalgamations of popular songs and worship songs. For example, this past week we interspersed the chorus from Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” (“Everything’s gonna be alright” x8) into one of the worship songs. It’s interesting how those simple lines take on an entirely different meaning when put in the context of a Christian worship service.

Does your church ever use “secular” songs during worship?

Share your thoughts!

Celebrating a God of Abundance and Joy

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Last weekend, my extended family gathered to celebrate my grandmother’s 93rd birthday. It was an epic occasion—dozens of people (ranging in age from 3 months to 93 years) talked and laughed while helping themselves to vast quantities of food (including, of course, birthday cake).

It was an experience that transcended the label “birthday party;” watching all the adults laughing, children playing, and pets begging for food, I felt the joy of true Christian fellowship. We were gathered not just to applaud my grandmother for her long and virtuous life, but to celebrate the blessings that God has poured out on my grandmother and her family. A sense of true peace and happiness was present; not because everybody at the party was free of challenges in their lives, but because God’s goodness was evident and demanded a joyful response.

This came to mind as I read a post at the Journey with Jesus blog about the beauty of Christian celebration. The post reminds us that weddings, feasts, and (for lack of a better word) parties are prominent throughout the Bible. They’re a way for God’s followers to celebrate His goodness, and they also serve as living metaphors for the Kingdom of God. At the wedding in Cana, Jesus revealed a God of celebration, abundance, and joy.

Are celebration and joy things that you associate with your Christian faith? For many of us, the Christian walk can easily acquire a somber, sober cast, as we struggle against sin and guard against temptation. But if our faith leaves no room for the happy, open celebration of God’s grace, we’re missing out on something important.

Does your church or community ever take time to simply celebrate?

Share your thoughts!

How important is community prayer?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

One aspect of church worship that’s always been a challenge for me is communal prayer. Partway through the church service every Sunday morning, a designated member of the congregation leads the church in community prayer, incorporating prayer requests from the community and sometimes asking the rest of the congregation to add their voices to the prayer as they feel called to do so.

Community prayer doesn’t come easily for me. I’m a private person for whom public and community prayer doesn’t come naturally. But there’s something powerful in a group of believers gathered together for prayer, and Bible Prayer Fellowship argues that it’s a crucial part of Christian worship:

Every congregation and all believers everywhere need united agreement in prayer and faith. True, we can play privately, but we must also come together with the church expecting to find one accord in prayer. The church in Acts began in one accord in prayer (Acts 1:14; 2:1). United prayer was a top priority of the apostles and the people (Acts 6:4; 4:18-33; 12:1-25; 15:1-30). United agreement in prayer is necessary because of who we are.

We are related to Christ and each other like the members of our natural body are. Our head coordinates the life and action of all the parts of our body (I Corinthians 12). Christ is the head over all things to the church.

We are one family. We pray to “OUR Father.” Andrew Murray said that it is unnatural for the children in a family to always meet with their father separately and never know a shared relationship with him.

Read the rest of “Why Pray Together?” at the Bible Prayer Fellowship website.

What’s been your experience with communal prayer? What does it bring to worship that private prayer doesn’t? Have you seen tangible effects of community prayer in your community?

Share your thoughts!

Prayer as a powerful means of evangelism

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Today’s devotional comes from A Slice of Infinity, a daily series by noted Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. Drawing on an unusual experience from a visit to a communist country, Ravi shows that powerful witnessing can take place when we simply model for others what prayer and worship look like:

A few years ago, two or three of my colleagues and I were in a country dominated for decades by Marxism. Before we began our meetings, we were invited to a dinner hosted by some common friends, all of whom were skeptics and, for all practical purposes, atheists. The evening was full of questions, posed principally by a notable theoretical physicist in the country. There were also others who represented different elements of power within that society. As the night wore on, we got the feeling that the questions had gone on long enough and that we were possibly going in circles.

I asked if we could have a word of prayer with them, for them, and for the country before we bade them good-bye. There was a silence of consternation, an obvious hesitancy, and then one said, “Of course.” We did just that—we prayed. In this large dining room of historic import to them, with all the memories of secular power plastered within those walls, the prayer brought a sobering silence that we were all in the presence of someone greater than us. When we finished, every eye was moist and nothing was said. They hugged us and thanked us, with emotion written all over their faces. The next day when we met them, one of them said to me, “We did not go back to our rooms last night till it was early morning. In fact, I stayed in my hotel lobby most of the night talking further. Then I went back to my room and gave my life to Jesus Christ.”

I firmly believe that it was the prayer that gave them a hint of the taste of what worship is all about. Their hearts had never experienced it.

Over the years I have discovered that praying with people can sometimes do more for them than preaching to them. Prayer draws the heart away from one’s own dependence to leaning on the sovereign God. The burden is often lifted instantly. Prayer is only one aspect of worship, but one that is greatly neglected in the face of people who would be shocked to hear what prayer sounds like when the one praying knows how to touch the heart of God. To a person in need, pat answers don’t change the mind; prayer does.

Read the complete devotional at Ravi Zacharias’ website.

Pointing people to God doesn’t always mean handing out tracts, preaching to them, or outwitting them in an apologetics debate—sometimes it’s as simple as showing them what worship means in your own life.

Should Christians attend non-Christian worship services?

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Is it appropriate for Christians to attend worship services for a different religion?

I think few Christians would object to the idea of learning about or reading up on another religion, but is there something special about a dedicated worship service that makes it spiritually unwise for Christians to attend? Is there a clearly identifiable line between attending such a service, and participating in the worship?

Share your thoughts!

Worshiping When it’s Not Easy

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

It’s easy to worship God when the mood and setting are pitch perfect, but what about when things aren’t quite right?

Shawn, over at the Youth Specialties blog discusses something key to worship: we don’t always want to. He’s discussing it in terms of youth ministry, however, I think his observation holds true for adults as well.

Here’s an excerpt:

Time after time I’ve seen students enter in to no-holds-barred worship when the “atmosphere is right”: when the place is filled with teenagers lost in passionate worship… when the music is loud and the band is tight… when the lights are set… and when the smoke machine is on. The camp atmosphere… where it’s hard NOT to enter in. You know what I mean.

But I want to challenge our students to remember that God is worthy of ALL of our praise even when the group is small, when the music isn’t on, when they are not in the church building, and even when they don’t FEEL like it.

Read the rest of It’s Not About Us.

We all like those times when the musicians are on and the lyrics what we’ve needed to hear all week. But, as the YS post points out, sometimes the mood is just all wrong. There’s a new drummer who can’t quite keep a beat or it’s a rainy day or you and your significant other were fighting 15 minutes ago in the car; you name it, you’re not feeling it. It’s in those times that worshiping God is more of a decision than an outpouring of our heart.

This is an unformed thought, but I wonder if our ability to worship during imperfect circumstances is a reflection of our spiritual maturity. When we first come to Christ, many of us are so spiritually full we could worship God anywhere at any time, but slowly that ever present feeling fades. It’s then that we face the true worship test: finding God in the midst of a less than stellar situation.

What do you do when faced with a less than ideal worship experience? How do you worship when you’re not feeling like it?