Sunday, April 26, 2020

What Happens When The Style Is Gone

This morning I was reading an article about two prominent Pastors connected to the Southern Baptist Convention.  Both have worldwide ministries and impact.  Literally millions of people around the globe, to say nothing of the several thousand members and others faithfully attending before the COVID19 shutdown.  The article was very specific and graphic about the differences in the ministry of these two men.  While both were deemed to be ‘conservative’ in theology, one would be seen as traditional (although he was and is progressively modern) in his approach while the other one was the lights, sounds, smoke, and more, which many would term as 'contemporary'.. 

Both men have amassed an incredible number of followers from all walks of life.  Different races, cultures, nationalities, and more were a part of each man’s congregation.  At the outset I should offer that, having spent years and years within the traditional (never wanting to try much new) church, my heart has always been to think outside of the box.  Though I am not sure I have always communicated it well, my internal motivation was to do my part, to build His Kingdom.  The deep theologians would say, “He is building His Kingdom, Jesus is building His church.”  And my response is, “Yes, I know that too.”  But I also recognize that Jesus said, “Open your eyes and see the field because they are ready for harvest” AND “PRAY that the Lord would send laborers into the fields” AND the last words of Jesus before the ascension were, “YOU ARE MY WITNESSED, so GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES.”  The funny thing is how many people believe they know everything that the Lord meant in these words, honestly, I can discern some of what He meant, but certainly not all of it.  One thing is clear, God’s redeemed has a definite part to play in the expansion of the gospel among mankind.  We should do it passionately and not apathetically.

Back to our two pastors (who shall remain namely).  For the sake of identity, I shall call one Traditional and the other Contemporary (although these two terms are grossly misleading, they are understandable).

In both the traditional and contemporary traditions of worship, we find people who make their living by criticizing the other. 

The traditionalist criticizes the contemporary as throwing the hymns out.  Article after article is written castigating the contemporary as abandoning hymns in favor of choruses and praise songs.  Articles such as, 10 (or 15, or 35 or 327) Reasons to Sing Hymns are given as an affront to those who sing the ‘Contemporary Stuff.’  After all, so goes the argument, hymns contain great doctrine.  If all else fails, they recite that old, tire adage of calling the contemporary music, as “7-11s’ which for the uninformed means that you sing ‘7 words 11 times’.  In fairness and on balance, this was the case at one time, and as a worship leader at that time, the repeating garnered more participation, but that’s another story for another article, but ‘7-11s are not the standard today.  Taking a moment to read lyrics as opposed to castigating style may be a personal discovery that some of the greatest lyrics written are being penned today.  Some not so much, but we are seeing some super strong lyrics come off the pen of today’s writers.

At the same time, the one who attends or leads a contemporary service criticizes the traditionalist as being stuck in the past, locked up in a historical box, not speaking the language of the day, and singing songs which are largely not understood.  It is at this point that someone asks, “What is an Ebenezer?”  I offer two quick thoughts before proceeding.  1) There is no doubt that the lyrics of the hymns contain good theology, but if they teach theology, how is it that the past two generations are the most theologically ignorant people in the past two hundred years?  2) If we were indeed so theologically and Biblically astute, we should all realize that Ebenezer is spoken of in 1 Samuel 4-7 and is about worship. 

Having said all of this and to be transparent: my perspective is somewhat unique, though not as unique as it once was.  Having been a professional church musician for almost a half-century, serving as a vocational music minister (remember those) for almost 20 years, a senior pastor for a little more than 20 years, and now a Director of Missions, I have born witness to the workings, ministry, and mission, of God’s church from almost all sides and have seen many of the modern-day changes which have taken place.  Admittedly, in my desire to see every church I have been privileged to serve reach beyond themselves, my leadership has pushed the envelop to stay in tune with the times.  My goal has always been to give the NEVER-CHANGING GOSPEL TO THE EVER-CHANGING WORLD SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE THEY UNDERSTAND.

Having said all of these things, here is the question which keeps me up at night:  “In America, what would the church members do “IF” their style  was taken away?”  What if the contemporary church was relegated to only hymns once again?  What if the traditional church were changed to only sing contemporary songs?  What would the ensuing chaos be like?

Let’s take it one step further:  What if ALL MUSIC WERE TAKEN AWAY?    What if we came together (after the lockdown) and prayed, preached, shared hearts, receive God’s tithes, and went home?  What if?

I ask that for a few moments we give this some honest consideration.  What if there was no organ or drums, piano or keyboard, choir or praise-team, or even lighting effects or stain-glass window, how would that impact you?  What would it do to your personal faith and worship?  If you are one of the few who invites people to “Church” (actually the church service), what are you inviting them to?  To hear the music or the message, to meet your friends or your savior, or to witness the media or the power of God in our lives? 

Let me be clear, no one owes me an explanation, but I read in scripture about how many people are going to be surprised and how we are told to ‘examine ourselves’, this short blog is one of the many calls to do just that.  Someone tells you that the ‘traditional way’ is the only way or that the ‘contemporary approach’ is the only spiritual way’, be careful.  Personally, it grieves me that when we put these things in a box, it is OUR box, it is what “I” am comfortable with.  Yes, I have a personal preference about public worship, but my personal preference is not necessarily more spiritual than someone who doesn’t share my view.  After all, like it or not, be angry with me or not, even agree with me or not, style is not what gains us an entry into a right relationship to God and eternal life.  It’s Jesus.  Admittedly in His day, He was the tradition breaker. 

If anyone takes the time to read this, I expect (so it’s okay) to be attacked vehemently.  Why?  Because you do not question someone’s god and not get pushback.  Based on what I see, on both sides of this style argument, style has become a god in the American church. 

One of my wonderful pastors lamented, “We need to be careful about building a church based on style”.

Thank you Matt Redmon for, years ago, telling us about your and your church’s journey:

When the music fades
All is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring
Something that's of worth
That will bless Your heart

I'll bring You more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what You have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You're looking into my heart

I'm coming back to the heart of worship
And it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus
I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it
When it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus

For people who know this song, it is likely that they will read over them without READING them.
As I close I offer this.  As a young man, some of the things I thought essential are the very things today that I wonder if God may one day say, “And you thought that was important?  I’m sorry you missed out.”

The essentials of the faith are just that, ESSENTIAL.  But there is not one word about style because style seems to change and be a personal preference rather than a theological requirement.
When all is stripped away, it’s not about style, it about the Savior.  And style, traditional or contemporary can open our eyes or occlude our eyesight to the Savior. 

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