Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Helping Apollos

In Acts 18:24-28 we are told of a time when Priscilla and Aquila ran across a follower of Jesus preaching in the synagogue.  He was eloquent in speech and very bold in proclaiming the way of the Lord.  We are told that he "taught accurately the things concerning Jesus".  Yet, interestingly, Priscilla and Aquila saw a need for further training.  We are told, "...they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately".

I've been a Christian for almost thirty years. I've taught Sunday school, youth groups, small groups and have preached more sermons than I can remember.  But sometimes I wish I could burn all my sermons and erase the minds of everyone I ever taught both formally and informally.  Why do I feel that way?  Because, even though I knew the Scripture, loved Jesus and had a zeal, I had almost zero real guidance.  No real discipleship. What teaching I did have came from so many odd and, often times wrong, sources.

Twenty years after being called by God to follow his Son my theology had been cobbled together from so many different and competing sources that I found it increasingly difficult to give a one sentence explanation of what I believed.  Reformed, Charismatic, Anabaptist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Wesleyan, Finnian, and more.  Needless to say my teaching and sermons sometimes took on flavors of all these schools with me having a constant battle inside my heart and my head for one system and then another.  Not a few times I despaired.  Not because I was worried that I would never know right from wrong, but because I lamented the fact that what I had once taught (sometimes just a few weeks earlier) was being challenged and I wasn't sure I had taught the right thing.

Now let me assure you, before I continue, that my core beliefs never changed much.  For example, since I was born again I have always believed that I was saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  So it wasn't like I was off visiting cultville at any time.  I preached the truth of the gospel.  But I so desperately needed and wish that someone had come along to explain the way of God more accurately.  It would have saved much heartache, confusion and frustration.

Even now I must admit that I still don't have a team Priscilla and Aquila in my corner. I have had to turn to the Internet and a shelf full of dead people to get to where I am today. How do I know I am right in what I believe now?  I am sure I am not right in everything I believe.  However, I do know the things I use to teach which are, according to the entirety of the Bible, dead wrong.   And that is a very good thing.  So I am not saying that the growing will ever be over this side of the veil or anything like that.  What I am saying is that those of us out there who have the ability to teach and an understanding of biblical (dare I say, Reformed) doctrine have a responsibility to disciple everyone and anyone who will submit to being discipled.

Notice in the text Apollos was actively preaching the gospel. This wasn't your Sunday Christian who signs up for membership classes and then never shows up because he forgot about soccer practice or the new convert who can't be bothered to even show up on Sunday.  This is one of those people who just "gets it" and, for good or for bad, jumps in - not feet first - but head first!  This kind of person is every teacher's dream student.  But today many would just let him do his thing, saying things like, "You are so mature for someone who has just started following Jesus".  At least he loves Jesus, right?  At least he loves people enough to tell them the gospel, right?  Wrong! Those things are great, but in the case of our text, at least two people thought he needed more and so they took him aside and explained the way of God more accurately.

It is true that many big personalities out there will not listen to instruction and that typically is what makes them horrible teachers, peddling false doctrine and destroying lives.  But many more are not like that and I wonder sometimes where our churches would be if we had more Priscillas and Aquilas ready and able to teach and more Apollos ready to be taught.







Saturday, August 01, 2015

Nine things, yea ten, I wish congregations would tell their worship leaders


My family and I spent a few years living with a very conservative Anabaptist group in the mid-west. We lived communally and although there are a number of things I miss about that life, one in particular was our singing.  Everyone sang together, no leader, no instruments.  I'm not against either leaders or instruments, but there is something to be said for the simplicity and purity of worshiping God in an uncomplicated manner in which the voices of the worshipers are clearly heard.  Whenever I go to worship these days, overburdened with its intricate sound systems, multiple instruments, complicated song arrangements and questionable doctrinal content I find myself missing those days.

What follows are ten things I wish we could finally deal with in our congregations. Leading worship can be a burden and I don't want to add to it but these things have been heavy on my heart for quite a while and, in a way, I'm hoping I am not alone.  I believe something has got to change, and perhaps drastically, if we are going to see true reformation in our churches.

Let me also offer somewhat of a qualification here.  I love music. All types of music. There are very few genres of music I don't like.  On top of that I've been playing the guitar and piano since I was young. I've written songs and sung in front of both small and large crowds for churches, weddings and other gatherings, solo and in groups.  I'm not here indicating that there is not place ever for instruments and various types of music in our worship of God.  I am addressing a very specific circumstance and setting;  specifically the Lord's day.

There has been a well intentioned if not misguided teaching in the church over the past fifty years or so in which some have argued that the church gathering should be like any other gathering and where we should be free to express our love for God and each other the same way we do all week long.  This idea began  as an attempt to remove the two story separation between the sacred and the secular by bringing the sacred back into the secular of everyday living. Although this was good and important as the split was artificial and contrived in order to remove God from having any influence in our society by secularists, proponents attempted to go one step further in order to fix what could be argued as not really needing to be fixed in the first place.  That is, when it came to the gathering of God's people they brought the secular into the sacred.

"There is a difference between a private devotional life and a corporate one. Solemnity is proper in church, but things that are proper in church are not necessarily proper outside, and vice versa. For example, I can say a prayer while washing my teeth, but that does not mean I should wash my teeth in church."  C.S. Lewis

This move manifested itself in the ditching of the suits, ties and dresses, the removal of the pulpit, the renaming of things like the chancel to the stage, the narthex to the welcome center and the sanctuary to to meeting hall or auditorium.  We got rid of the organ and, many times, the piano and brought in worship bands.  We stopped using  hymns and wrote music that would sound more like what we were hearing on the radio every day, often times substituting the rich theological message of the hymns with a doctrinally anemic one.  The pastors, worship leaders and elders started dressing in jeans and t-shirts, sandals, sneakers and shorts.  Tattoos and ear rings became common place and  the exposition of God's Word was replaced with vignettes and skits, sprinkled with jokes, personal stories, and rants augmented by lights, video clips and power points.  Social justice became the focus of the church and soon replaced in part or in whole her original mandate (Matthew 28:19, 20).

Not every church is doing all of these things but many or most have seen quite a few of them and make it into their ecclesiology.  These changes were not necessarily sinful in and of themselves and, as I've already mentioned, they were  done with the best of intentions (most of the time).  But now that we've had a few years to see the effects are we happy with the state of the church today?  Are we satisfied with the results?  More importantly, are we sure God is happy with the results?

I have more I'd like to say about this subject, but I'll save that for future posts.  For now I am dealing with that thing we call "worship" and, more specifically, congregational singing.  So let me simply give you the list to chew on and we can discuss it later after we've both had time to digest it.

1.  We want to worship together, not watch you do it.  If we wanted to go to a News Boys concert we wouldn't be worshiping with you on Sunday we would be listening to the News Boys.

2. Just because a song is popular doesn't mean it is singable.  Syncopation is notoriously difficult to sing to (if you don't know what syncopation is you may want to pick a different ministry), especially as a group, so if you notice that most of the congregation is listening and not singing you may need to evaluate the songs you are using for worship and see #1,

3. Stop stealing the show. There is nothing more irritating then for a whole congregation to be singing together only to have the worship leader continually break in with exhortations or loud harmony or repeating phrases and bits of the refrain above everyone else.  Not only is it distracting but it comes off as self glorifying.  How we long for the days when the leader/director got the congregation started and then stepped back from the mic, letting the beautiful sound of God's people fill the sanctuary, the director coming forward to the mic only to start the next verse or help keep the singing unified.

4. "The music is too loud!"  You've probably heard this from not a few people you brushed off as being too old to ever get with the program.  But you may want to give a second listen.  They may be right.  Not only have I found a lot of worship "bands" painfully loud, but even the ones which are not are loud enough to mask almost any sound of the congregation singing (see #1...again).  If we want to listen to loud music we'll just put in our earbuds.  We really don't care how fancy you are, what great rifts you can burn on the guitar, what radical rhythms you can churn out on your huge drum kit, or what Jerry Lee Lewsesque  things you can do with your keyboard.  We want to worship our God. Not you and your talents.

5.  Quit lying to yourself.  You say you only want to lead God's people into true worship but you start right off by doing the very thing that will disqualify you from worshiping the God of truth:  You lie to yourself.  What you secretly desire is for everyone to see how grand you are.  It isn't entirely your fault though.  We call your group a worship "band", we call what you stand on a "stage", we have all of the lights pointing at you, we pay money to have good (even great) sound systems put in for you and we put you right in front of the entire congregation where you are what everyone sees and hears for the next half-hour.  So it is no surprise that you've gained an elevated sense of self-importance.  But here's your chance to fix it. Don't let the church you are a part of or the "band" you are a member of get away with it.  Get out your Bible, get on your knees and fix it.

6. You aren't needed.  Don't get me wrong, we want you, we truly do.  But let's face it, congregations have been worshiping God without a worship leader or, at least, without a "band" for a very long time.  You are really icing on the cake, as it were, and aren't essential to what we really, really want: to worship our God together.

7.  We aren't Vulcans, but neither are we hedonists.  We may not always act like it, but we know that emotions can be very deceptive.  You sing a song that tugs our heartstrings (you know which songs those are and when to bring them out) and we get all teary eyed and declare that God is among us.  But deep down we know that our emotions really haven't much to do with it.  So please stop toying with our emotions.  Don't worry if the song makes us shout, or raise our hands or cry or laugh.  How a song makes us feel is a terrible reason for choosing it.  There are far better reasons (continue reading).

8.  If a song is popular, fun, sounds great and makes us feel good but is the doctrinal equivalent of singing "B-I-B-L-E" or the Happy Birthday song, then it really is useless so please don't make us sing it again.   We need songs that will teach us and introduce us to the one, true God.  Songs that aren't just doctrinally correct but also theologically rich.  You don't have to sing just hymns, but you may want to take a look at the great hymns of the past to discover what truly made them great.  It wasn't just their catchy tunes.

9. Do you know who wrote the song?  We don't, but we are trusting you.  It is ok if you don't know and we understand not every great song came from an equally great Christian.  But if you are singing a song by people who are members of heretical groups or cults (think Phillips, Craig and Dean or Jesus Culture) could you please choose something else?  We say this for two reasons.  First, you are indirectly promoting those people or organizations, even if that isn't what you intend.  Second, the "Jesus" and "God" they wrote about is clearly not the one we are worshiping.  Besides those reasons, there are so many perfectly good songs by truly orthodox Christians that will suite the goal in mind here.

10.  We don't care if you are culturally relevant.  We really don't.  The shorts, earrings, tattoos t-shirts, scruffy beards (on the men), miniskirts (on the women), skinny jeans, what have you don't help.  In fact...most of the time it hurts.  It just draws attention to you (see number...oh forget it). There is nothing more culturally relevant than God, so direct everyone's attention to him.

Let me close with a Bonhoeffer quote from his book "Life Together":

"There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated. There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing. There is, first, the improvised second part which one hears almost everywhere. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing fullness to the soaring unison tone, and thus kills both the words and the tone. There is the bass or the alto who must call everybody's attention to his astonishing range and therefore sings every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant from a full chest and drowns out everything else to the glory of its 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, and finally, there are often those also who because of some mood will not join in the singing and thus disturb the fellowship."

Perhaps a bit over the top, but point well taken.