It Makes Me Wonder…

There is a lyric in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” that I often find myself cynically singing when I read the paper or watch the news.

“Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder”

Last night, I watched about five minutes of the Chiefs/Texans game. I have very little interest in the Chiefs or Texans because my NFL loyalties are split between the Bears and the Colts.

Anyway, I wanted to see what the opening game of the season was like. With the limited number of fans and other coronavirus-related procedures, I just wondered what football will look like this season. Not only that, I must admit that Mahomes and Watson are exciting quarterbacks to watch.

The five minutes I watched were relatively boring and uneventful.

This morning, while enjoying a wonderful cup of recently roasted Costa Rican beans from Old Crown, I watched the morning news. It seems like I had missed the controversy.

Players and coaches from both teams gathered for a moment of unity. The goal was to symbolically call us towards racial unity and equality. In reality, this is something we should all be praying and working towards. It doesn’t seem like this should be a controversial moment, right?

Well, some fans, not all the fans, but some fans were not having it. Audible boos could be heard as the players and coaches locked arms in a display of solidarity. Booing during a moment of unity, really? Let us remember, this was a limited crowd. The fact that the boo’s could be heard indicates that this wasn’t a few inebriated fans in the end zone. Again, I understand the majority of the crowd either supported, were indifferent or simply tolerated the moment. However, some audibly expressed their frustrations that these highly paid athletes would use their position to call for unity.

Texans defensive beast, J.J. Watt had this to say, “The moment of unity I personally thought was good. I mean the booing during that moment was unfortunate. I don’t fully understand that. There was no flag involved. There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”

As a Colts fan, I’m conditioned to root against Mr. Watt. However, on this day, I find myself standing in agreement with the man. J.J., I really don’t understand the booing either.

In some ways, the booing is unfortunate. In other ways, the booing is damning. Folks, we have lost our way.

On the eve of 9-11, some fans found it appropriate to boo during a moment of unity. The tragedy of 9-11 momentarily united our divided nation. We banded together and displayed genuine care and concern for one another.

What does it say about our nation when some are so brazenly bold as to think it appropriate to boo a moment of unity?

I suppose they were just exercising their freedom, huh? Some will attempt to deflect and say, “Well, what about all those violent protestors?” Yep, the violence displayed in some of the protests is an inappropriate expression too! But, the boo’s also reminded me why we protest.

I just don’t get it. Yet, at the same time, maybe this is a teachable moment?

Some people question why politicians, celebrities, athletes, religious leaders and others protest and keep the issues of social justice, racial justice, equality, LGTBQIA protections and other concerns in front of us.

The audible boo’s from some in the stands last night remind us that there is still work to be done. The voices that are defending those boo’s remind us that there is still work to be done.

Yes, we’ve come a long way. But there is still work to be done.

“Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder”

By the way, if you want to hear an amazing cover of “Stairway to Heaven”, check out Frank Zappa’s reggae-esque interpretation of the tune on the album, “The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life”! The horn section taking the guitar solo…gets me every time!

Majoring in the Minors

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Christians have a way of majoring in the minors. In fact, given that matters of the Church are not the area of focus for rocket scientist’s, that may not be who we would want to call when it comes to the Church.

So, let me rephrase…it doesn’t take an experienced church consultant to figure out that Christians have a way of majoring in the minors.

Think about some of the things that we Christians spend a great deal of time focusing on…

  • Dancing, drinking, smoking, playing cards, tattoos, having fun in general
  • Style of dress (if you dress casually that must mean you take your faith casually, right?)
  • Care of the environment (if the rapture is going to take place and there is a new earth, do we really need to take care of this one? Yes, yes we do!)
  • What areas of the building the children can use and the overall appropriate behavior of children (didn’t Jesus say something about having faith like a child?)
  • Pews, chairs and tables (what kind and whether or not someone is in “my” spot)
  • What type of coffee and donuts to serve (wait, that one is pretty important!)
  • What to call “deviled eggs” at the community Thanksgiving meal

One of the more obvious ways we tend to major in the minors revolves around styles of worship. While it is not the only adventure in missing the point, it is one that just doesn’t seem to go away. We have beaten the dead horse of the “worship wars” for far too long.

Unfortunately, our focus on which style of worship is most effective has reduced “worship” to “music”. Worship is so much more than the songs we sing. Worship is holistic – it is built into the very way we live and move and have our being (thanks Acts 17). Worship is about the head and the heart connecting with God in transformational ways. Church “experts”, consultants, pastors and leaders helped create the ongoing worship wars.

For years, churches were encouraged to start “seeker sensitive” services to reach the unchurched. We should make people comfortable, remove as many “churchy” things as possible, and then do the old “bait and switch.”

Churches were encouraged to start contemporary worship services to reach young families. If there’s anything young families are looking for in a church, it’s the latest, unsingable release from Chris Tomlin.

Churches were encouraged to have an “edgier, more modern” style of worship to reach young people. I’m not even sure what this one means because I’m 45 and I’ve aged out of “modern”.

But, here’s the deal…it hasn’t worked. With the rise of the worship wars, the Church has experienced a slow, steady decline. The number of people actively engaged in the life of a faith community has been on a downward spiral, while those professing no religious affiliation (often referred to as the “nones”) have been on the rise.

Let’s be honest, we’ve done it to ourselves. We’ve focused on the next “quick fix” to compete with the church down the street, rather than on our call to love and serve our neighbors as we go and make disciples. We’ve been so focused on the latest trends and styles, we’ve put more energy into that than loving and serving God by loving and serving our neighbor.

So, we start a “seeker sensitive” service that is shallow and nothing more than a self-help seminar. It doesn’t “feel” like church because we remove every aspect of “church” as possible. Willow Creek, who led the “seeker” charge, released a study a few years ago that revealed that, while they reached amazing numbers of people, they struggled to make disciples. People just weren’t maturing in their faith. They were swept up in the “show”.

We start a contemporary service. In many churches, contemporary worship often sounds like a cheesy, soft rock rip off. Many contemporary services reflect a musical style that is 10-20 years behind the times.

Next, we begin an “edgier, more modern” service. I’m pretty sure all that means is less lighting, louder music, skinnier jeans, more hair product, and the potential use of loops, programmed drums, and a shiplap background.

Then, there are all the variations – cowboy church, hip hop church, dodgeball church and so on. Those outside the worshipping community just might see it all as another gimmick to lure them into the doors of our facility.

Of course, traditional worship folks aren’t off the hook either. We tend to be a bit elitist (“our music is better, our musicians are trained, our choir can read music, we show respect to our faith”). And, we’re just as competitive with the traditional churches around us as the contemporary churches are with one another. And, let’s be honest, some churches offering traditional worship lack passion, quality and creativity.

Now, none of the churches I’ve served have struggled with any of this. All the churches I’ve served have been perfect…at least while I was there…and according to me!

Here’s the deal, it’s all an example of majoring in the minors. Our worship style shouldn’t be the main thing. Our preference for a particular style of worship is just that…a preference. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, we should not place varying levels of superiority, effectiveness or holiness based on a style.

Churches shouldn’t worry about becoming something they are not. Churches should figure out what they have the capacity to do well and then do it well. If that’s traditional worship, be the best traditional church you can be. If that’s modern worship, be the best modern church you can be. If that’s dodgeball church, be the best dodgeball church you can be (“if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”).

We gravitate towards stylistic preferences because we happen to connect better in some environments than others. I get that.

While I have a great deal of experience leading contemporary worship, I prefer more traditional, liturgical styles of worship. I prefer hymns over praise choruses. I appreciate and connect through the liturgy. However, I try not diminish one style over another.

Worship is a matter of the heart. Music is an avenue to usher us into the presence of the holy. Hymns and praise songs have an opportunity to teach theology, to tell a story, to bridge a gap between human experience and the mystery of the holy.

If we are ready and expectant, we should be able to worship regardless of the style. When entering a place of worship, maybe we should begin with a prayer – “God, open my heart to experience You in this time and place.”

Worship style isn’t the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. If the worship style helps point others to Jesus, then it’s an acceptable style of worship! While it might not “work for me”, it might work for someone else…and I need to bless that, rather than diminish or dismiss it.

Let’s be honest, as I pointed out before, the Church is steadily losing ground. Shifts in worship style have not proven as effective as the experts would have led us to believe. There is not a quick fix.

To be honest, I don’t know many unchurched folks who even know what traditional or contemporary worship even is. Surprisingly enough, there are not many unchurched people listening to Christian radio. I don’t know many unchurched folks who are hoping we’ll sing the latest release from Hillsong United. I don’t know many unchurched folks who are hoping we’ll pull an obscure Charles Wesley hymn out of the hymnal.

Emerging generations have less and less experience with the Church. What they know about the Church might be from a wedding or a funeral (neither of which really reflect what we do on a typical Sunday – though some worship services feel like a funeral!). What they know about the Church might be from watching “7th Heaven” on Hulu because it was on the recommended list.

When someone bravely walks through the doors of the church, I’m not sure they are looking for a particular style. I’m not sure they are looking to be entertained. My guess is that they are looking for connection. They are looking for an inclusive spirit that says, “You are wanted here.” They are looking for something beyond themselves that provides a sense of purpose and direction. And, that is not dependent on they style of the songs we sing.

Maybe rather than worship style, we should focus on creating a safe, welcoming and hospitable environment for all. Do others feel safe, welcome and wanted in our congregations? If not, we need to wrestle with that more than with the style of worship.

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, we should focus on creating an honest church, led with integrity. The latest religious headlines do not shine a positive light on Christians and the Church. Deception, dishonesty, lack of restraint and a great deal of hypocrisy seems to rule the day. How refreshing it might be if Christian leaders would be willing to admit that we could be wrong! What could happen if Christian leaders were honest, rather than put on a show to keep up appearances?

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, we should focus outwardly – looking for those gaps in our community the Church could fill. Could the Church become a lighthouse of hope for the marginalized, outcasts and most vulnerable among us?

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, we should be focused on our role in seeking justice for all. Could the Church play a major role in healing the woundedness, brokenness caused by the sin of racism, sexism, bigotry, and all of the phobias and isms that have infected our world?

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, theology is much more important. There are some churches with incredible music – both contemporary and traditional – that possess lousy theology! They lure you in with amazing music, and then unveil their twisted and oppressive theological perspectives once they believe they have you hooked.

Maybe we just need to stop trying to diminish one another’s efforts. Instead, we should celebrate, support and encourage one another. It shouldn’t be a competition between congregations and styles of worship. Our enemy is not the church down the street! We should be the biggest fans of the church down the street. When they score a win for the Kingdom, we all win!

When it comes to styles of worship, can we agree that it’s a matter of perspective?

Find a church that works for you. Find a church that offers a style of worship that helps you connect with God and others. Maybe you’ll even discover that it doesn’t matter if you sing hymns, choruses, or spend 30 minutes in quiet contemplation – but, it’s the connection to the people, the stories about Jesus, and the hope that is shared that matter most.

Let’s keep the main thing, Jesus, the main thing!

Do The Right Thing

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

As we continue to navigate our way through a global pandemic, a new mantra is becoming the rallying battle cry of many.

“It’s a mandate, not a law!”

The reality is, no one can really argue with that. Mandates being issued my governors and other government officials are not law.

I guess my question is, do we really need a law in order to do the right thing? Whether it is wearing a mask, jaywalking, turning the lights off when you leave a room, using a coaster when setting your coffee on a table, there are some actions that should not require laws to motivate appropriate actions. It’s like my mom used to say, “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” Just because you don’t have to wear a mask, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Now, I realize that wearing masks has become a highly politicized subject. Some view mask mandates as a threat to our freedoms.

Many of the folks I’m connected with on social media who are of the “mandate, not law” persuasion have also been strong advocates for protecting religious freedom. For me, that’s where the hypocrisy becomes most evident.

Some who loudly advocated for protecting the religious freedoms of individuals and businesses are now crying “foul” when businesses are requiring customers to wear masks. So, we would advocate for the freedom of a business owner to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. But, when that same business asks me to wear a mask, well, that’s a violation of MY freedom. And, let’s be honest, that’s really what it’s about…my freedom, my rights.

While we have the freedom to not wear masks, we must also accept the repercussions. There will be places I cannot enter when I am not wearing a mask. I have the freedom to go somewhere else.

Think about it this way, we have the freedom to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol (if we are of age, of course). However, we cannot smoke or drink wherever we desire. There are health risks associated with smoking and drinking.

We have the freedom to wear a mask or not. However, there will be places of business and worship we cannot enter if we refuse to “mask up”.

Then, there are the labels that we toss around. Some call those who are being more cautious “fearful, scared, afraid.” Could it be that they are just being cautious?

Some call those who are being less cautions “reckless” and “ignorant”.

We have even started using masks as a way to gauge the faith of others. Those wearing masks have chosen “fear over faith.” Those not wearing masks have chosen “faith over fear.” If only it were that simple.

Some of used masks as a way to gauge the political affiliation of the wearer or non-wearer. No mask…must be a Trump supporter. Mask…must be in Biden’s camp (or still holding out for a Bernie miracle).

Many of us have been praying that God would deliver us and bring healing to our land. What if God has answered that prayer? What if the answer is: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, and keep your distance”?

My friends at Deathwish Coffee have a new t-shirt that sums up how I feel about physical distancing. It’s the mandate I’ve been waiting for my whole life…”When this is over, please continue to stay six feet away from me!”

We shouldn’t need a law or a mandate to motivate us to do the right thing. Of course, that’s part of the argument too. People on every side of this issue can find research that supports their particular point of view.

While there happens to be a seatbelt law, I’d still wear one even if it wasn’t required. Why? Well, 99.9% of the time, I don’t really need the seatbelt. But, for that .1% of the time that I do need it, well, I’m thankful it’s there! It’s the right thing to do, law or not.

What if when all of this is over we find out we didn’t really need the masks? All we’re out is the inconvenience of having to wear a masks.

What if we find out the masks are essential and what have kept many of us healthy? Well, I’m guessing we’ll be pretty thankful we wore masks.

Christianity in America seems to have become highly individualized and politicized. We are more focused on self and blind patriotism than we are on the teachings of Jesus. Some of the loudest voices regarding “MY freedoms” are coming from people of faith.

The teachings of Jesus call us to focus on love, service and embodying an “others first” mentality.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus reminds those who have been feeding the hungry, providing water and clothing for those without that, “whenever you do it for one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

What if the most loving thing we could do today is wear a mask? While it might infringe upon our freedoms, consider it an act of service for the compromised and most vulnerable among us.

“Blessed are the Weird People”

Throughout my ministry, church growth experts have encouraged clergy and congregations to have a narrowly-defined target.

I understand the need to have an idea of who God is calling a particular congregation to reach. When asked, “who is your target audience” or “who is God calling you to reach”, many pastors and congregations will answer with “everyone”!

Most of us can recognize the challenges presented when one attempts to “be all things to all people.” So, congregations are challenged to consider how they can narrow that down.

Several factors play into the narrowing of the target. The physical location of the church should play a role in determining the target. The demographics of the surrounding neighborhood should impact the target. The current make-up of the congregation might influence the target. The current worship style might influence the target. The financial health of the congregation might influence the target. The theological perspective might influence the target.

Ultimately, the main factor in determining the target should be God’s lead. Through a season of prayer, who is God calling the congregation to reach? While some of those other factors might influence the target, God might desire to disrupt us in our places of comfort and strength!

The reality is, when we leave it up to ourselves, our intentional targets look a lot like us (well, most likely a younger version of ourselves).

When we leave it up to God, well, we may be challenged to move well beyond our comfort zone. When we allow God to lead, it might mean that we go through a season of change. God’s target might lead us to restructure our staffing, change our worship times/styles, move from one location to another or any other seemingly major shift that disrupts our comfort.

As I have recently started a new appointment, I have been spending a great deal of time considering the question, “who is God calling us to reach?”

Last night, a friend (who just happens to be a denominational leader) asked the question, “what if the target was less about demographics and more about an ethos?” He continued, “Your church is blessed with a physical location people are willing to drive to. Therefore, geography doesn’t have to be as much of a consideration.”

When I got home, I looked at the print of a poem on one of our walls. When I read through the poem, I found myself having a “eureka” moment! I have a sense that God is calling us to reach the “weird people”! And, yes, I know what some of you are thinking…”Jason, you are the weird people…that’s not much of a stretch!” And, maybe that’s true…but for a congregation to focus on reaching the creatives who are often marginalized and outcast can be a challenge…and it can get messy too!

God, help us reach the “weird people…for they force us to see the world differently!”

Learning from Robert Schuller

I’ve never been a big fan of television pastors. In late college, I grew to appreciate T.D. Jakes, but that was mostly due to his preaching style and delivery. I may not have always agreed with his theology, but I was definitely convinced that he passionately believed in whatever message he was sharing.

Every so often, I would tune into the “Hour of Power” with Robert Schuller. As he aged, his increasingly gentle demeanor came across as sincere and trustworthy. However, I was mostly tuning in to find out what celebrity he would have as a guest on the program.

These days, I tune in from time to time to hear the choir and see what kind of message Schuller’s grandson, Bobby, is sharing.

As many of our churches have transitioned to online ministries, I’ve found myself thinking that maybe we all have something to learn from Schuller. And, as many of our churches begin to consider how to re-enter into the world of in-person gatherings, we also may have something to learn from Schuller.

Schuller (and others like Charles Stanley) always shared a broadcast from an actual church gathering. There was a physical congregation present to engage, respond and participate. For me, the temptation would be to primarily focus on the gathered community and just allow the digital community to peek into what we are doing. This sets the stage for a physical church with an online presence – we do things gathered together and broadcast it for others to observe.

However, Schuller always found ways to engage the virtual audience. He didn’t pretend that they were not recording. He would refer to the televised audience, offer ways they could participate and invite them to be fully involved and present in the gathering. It expresses the importance of those not able to be physically present. This sets the stage for a connected community – both digitally and physically present.

As we return to in-person gatherings, we need to take this lesson from Schuller and not proceed as if the digital congregation is not present. We need to find ways to interact and engage those digitally present. We simply cannot dismiss what has become an essential practice for our congregations.

Schuller also never hesitated to “make the ask.” He always invited the televised audience to fully participate in the ministry of the Crystal Cathedral through their financial gifts and prayers. Now, since the Crystal Cathedral did end up filing for bankruptcy, maybe he needed to ask for more! However, he always extended an invitation to partner in ministry.

Schuller didn’t stop with the ask. He also found ways to express gratitude. Most of the time, it was some kind of cheesy gift. Yet, it was a way to say, “we appreciate your support of the ministry.”

If we have a physical or email address, a note of appreciation goes a long way. Communicating words of gratitude for those physically present and those digitally present are very important. Telling stories of how those gifts are being utilized cannot be underestimated.

Schuller also would share paths for engagement. Whether it was an invitation to join together in prayer and praise, participating in a devotional study or some other way to be engaged beyond the worship gathering, there was always some kind of invitation.

As we begin to relaunch our in-person gatherings, finding ways to offer points of connection will be important. Whether it’s providing avenues to share prayers and praises, paths to connect with others via Zoom or other digital platforms, having weekly all-church studies or reading plans are ways those who cannot be physically present and still be holistically engaged.

So, while I have largely dismissed those TV preachers, they just might have something to teach all of us!

Orange County Register photo by Bruce Chambers – photo taken 1/1/06