“How far is Heaven?”: Study Guide

For those who missed yesterday’s sermon, “How far is Heaven?”, you can click the link below to download a printable study guide for small groups, personal reading or to share with friends and coworkers:

Dirt Under His Nails Handout 3

Be checking back this week for more updates on this series, and be here at Tri-State Fellowship this Sunday for the message: “Party Crashers” from Luke 11.

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The Contagious Gospel: Jesus as a Friend to Sinners

To finally put the last piece on this week’s series of posts, we need to go back to Luke 5.  It’s right after Jesus heals the paralyzed man who’d been lowered through the window.  And, as we saw, Jesus calls Levi away from his life as a tax collector to be a disciple of Jesus – and the “establishment” is a bit concerned about the company that Jesus seems to be keeping.

If your memory is really good, you’ll remember that we learned in Luke 4 (when Jesus read the selections from Isaiah) that Luke’s gospel intertwines the ideas of forgiveness and healing.  It’s what Wright calls “the gift of shalom:” restoring God’s original goodness, or shalom, to each individual, both physically and spiritually.

CONTAGION

But the metaphor of healing can be taken another way, too, can’t it?   You could easily see how sin might be viewed as a contagion – something “dirty” in that culture.  That was the attitude of the Pharisees.  They’d already started whispering rumors about Jesus behind His back.  Jesus even picks up on it: The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34)

See, the central lie of religion is this: when the sacred encounters the profane, the profane always wins.  Jesus spent time with some people religion tended to frown upon.  The religious leaders assumed that if Jesus spent time with these people, He must be one of “them.”

QUARANTINE

Religious moralism is so concerned with keeping up appearance that it avoids broken people at all costs.  The problem, as Jesus identifies it, is that healthy people don’t need doctors; sick people do.

Which means that when we look at Jesus, we don’t find a guy who’s actively trying to pursue the “wrong crowd.”  He had a message of hope and healing, and that naturally drew people to Him.  Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, writes:

“Jesus thus defies the conventions of his world by his intimate association with a group of people deemed traitorous and corrupt in his society.  Still, he does not condone their sinful lifestyles but calls them to repentance, transformation and discipleship.”  (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 102)

There is no “quarantine” procedure for Jesus.  He gets right in and heals their brokenness.  And He does so not by overlooking their sin, but by absorbing it.

JOHN COFFEY: ABSORBING EVIL

Most are familiar with the film The Green Mile, the film based on Stephen King’s serial novel.  The main character is John Coffey, a death row inmate who proves to have an extraordinary power to heal.  When the prison guards discover this power, they sneak Coffey from prison temporarily to see if his power can heal the warden’s wife, who is dying of terminal brain cancer in her home:

The clip shows an unexpected healer, bringing a shocking level of intimacy to this broken woman’s home.  The fracture of the clock, the shaking ground – these things almost seem to call to mind the events of the cross: the earthquake, the tearing of the temple curtain.  John Coffey’s initials are no accident, allowing the film to present us an unlikely Christ figure who absorbs the evil around him, bringing wholeness and purity.

We don’t have time to analyze all of the films themes (including where the film ceases to harmonize with Christianity), but Jesus does something like this: He can offer healing only because He takes evil on Himself through His sacrificial death on the cross.  “The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote St. Augustine.  “On Him is the punishment that brought us shalom, [wholeness, goodness, peace].” Isaiah wrote.  “By His wounds, we are healed.”

HOW GREAT A DEBT

This is something that no other religious system before was capable of.  Even the various sacrifices of the Jewish legal system were meant only to point to the day when Christ would be sacrificed once-for-all.

In Luke 7, we see Jesus interacting with a “sinful woman.”  The scene is right after Jesus’ complaint that the Pharisees think Him a “drunkard.”  Luke places the story here because he has a point to make: the lie of religion is not always right.  The Jewish laws stipulated that certain people were clean and unclean, just as we saw yesterday.  But when the profane encounters that which is most sacred, the sacred wins.  Jesus brings cleanliness through forgiveness of sins: He is the true and better sacrifice who can do this.

So it’s actually quite shocking when a woman of a “sinful” reputation (many believe her to have been some sort of prostitute) is associating with Jesus.  She anoints Jesus’ feet not only with expensive perfume, but her own tears.  But here’s where it gets messy: she lets her hair down.  In Jewish culture, this was a level of intimacy that was potentially scandalous:

“The woman’s actions…need not be viewed as inherently erotic, but the observers would have viewed that at best as culturally inappropriate…and at worst as so sexually suggestive as to be shameful.  [One commentary writer] points out that loose hair did not in and of itself link a woman with prostitution, and if she were unmarried it produced no stigma at all.  But Simon’s response…clearly implies that her behavior here gave the assembly reason to disapprove of it.”  (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 133)

When questioned, Jesus tells a story about the magnitude of forgiveness.  Two men owe a great debt: one owes just over two months worth of wages.  The other owes two years.  Obviously the one who had been forgiven the greater debt was the one who showed greater love.  Jesus acknowledged the woman’s “many” sins (7:47).  But because of this great relief she could show love in a way that the Pharisees could not.

INFECTING WITH LIFE

In chapter 8 we see this pattern continue, and Luke gives us two stories back to back in Luke 8:40-56.  One is a woman with some type of bleeding disorder – apparently some type of menstrual issue.  The other is a young girl, only 12, who dies before Jesus can even get there.

Both women remain nameless.  Both are ceremonially unclean: the woman because of her menstrual bleeding, the daughter because she is dead.  And notice in verse 43 that the woman had been bleeding for 12 years, the same amount of time the little girl had been alive.

But despite her uncleanliness, she reaches out and touches Jesus’ robe.  And that’s when the miracle happens.   Jesus does not become unclean from her touch, but by touching Jesus she becomes clean.  When she confesses what she had done, Jesus tenderly calls her “daughter.”

Jesus’ healing does not stop there.  When he gets to the little girl’s home, she has already passed on.  But a touch of Jesus’ hand and the command of His voice lift her from the dead.

The Pharisees were worried that the unclean would infect the clean.  Jesus infects everyone around Him with life.

SPREADING THE CONTAGION

This means that we have a whole new paradigm to look through.  We don’t have to be like the Pharisees, sneering at others while we perform our quarantine procedures.  The gospel teaches us that there is no division between the “good” people and “bad” people, only a division between the proud and humble, the forgiven and the broken.

This is a powerful theme of Luke’s gospel, one that is central to his entire portrait of Jesus.  It is a message that Jesus’ followers are to carry out in their own day and age – to spread Jesus’ message of hope and healing in our own communities.

We’ll close with the testimony of Brian “Head” Welch, former guitarist for the band Korn, now a follower of Christ:

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“Half-Price Messiah:” Discussion Guide

If you were here at Tri-State Fellowship this past Sunday, then you know the series “The Dirt Under His Nails” is off to an excellent start with Randy speaking on “Half-Price Messiah.”

To facilitate discussion, we’ve put together some resources for you to use as you follow along with us in this series.

So click the link to download the first handout of our series:

The Dirt Under His Nails Resource 1

WHERE TO USE IT

This might make a good resource for small groups or simply discussion among your church friends.

But it also might be a great way to connect the sermon material with your friends and neighbors.  And I know most people cringe at the idea of handing out “tracts.”  That’s not what this is.  The purpose here is to help you process the sermon in such a way that you can have dialogue with people in your social circles each week:

“What’d you do this weekend?”

“Well, we had a great time at Church; we even started a new sermon series.  Mind if I share some things?”

And there’s an open door.  Now, maybe you’re not going to go through every point in there, but having a pamphlet lets you be equipped to dialogue about your faith with others.

 HOW TO USE IT

These guides will be available in print on Sunday mornings, but also online.  If you’re downloading online, here’s how to use it:

(1)    Print it out.

(2)    Lay it so that the middle “Join our Dialogue” section is facing up:

(3)    Fold Column 3 over inward, over Column 2.

(4)    Fold Column 1 inward, so that the main image becomes the cover.

Keep checking the blog for more posts on this series, and be sure to come back next week for “No Reservations.”

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Coffee with Theophilus

The following story is, obviously, fiction.  It’s a conversation that might have happened if the events of the early church had happened in our culture.  Luke was the author of one of the four gospels, which tell the story of Jesus, and the sequel book called Acts.  Both were written to his friend Theophilus, as well as to the surrounding community.  Not much is really known about Theophilus, but this short interchange reflects the parallels between his world and our own. 

 

The buzz of my phone ranked somewhere below the din and clatter of the busy coffee shop.  I glanced at the screen to see the name “Theophilus” in my list of text messages.   “on my way” he wrote, though knowing him that meant he hadn’t left the meeting yet.  I’d made it through the first third of my latte before he walked through the door, dressed in his usual finest.  I waited to greet him until after he’d ordered and sat down.

“Most excellent Theophilus!  How’s life in the rat races.”

He shook his head and smiled, stirring his caramel double-shot whatever concoction he was undoubtedly addicted to.  “Oh, you know how it is, Luke.  Blow this next contract with Rome and heads are gonna roll.”  I honestly didn’t know if his laughter was nervous or not.  “What about you?  Given any more thought to heading back into medicine?”

I shook my head, suddenly a bit far-off.  I remember what people said when I took off to travel with Paul to be a missionary.  Most thought it a bit strange, especially since the word “Christian” was still unknown to so many.  “No, no.”  I replied.  “I’m sure there’s something else God has planned for me.”

Theophilus furrowed his brow a bit.  “Yeah, I guess maybe.”  He didn’t quite make eye contact.

“Still not sure about the whole God thing?” I asked.

“It’s not that, I mean…I love God, sure…my parents made sure they gave me a name to remind me of that.  And I even hear really great things about this Jesus guy and all.  It’s just…I dunno…the whole church thing…”

I broke the momentary pause.  “What about it?”

“Well, you run with that crowd.  They don’t seem to be able to agree on much of anything.  Besides, it seems like the kind of thing that appeals more to the people who have been, you know, religious all their life.”

“You mean the Jews?”

“Yeah.”  He became more animated on this point.  “I’m not saying I’m against them or anything like that, it’s just…I wasn’t born into that.  And now, who’s to say what it really means to be a ‘Christian?’  Some say you have to go back and follow all their religious practices and all but…gosh, I don’t even know where I’d begin.”

That stung a bit.  Especially since neither of us really got the whole “tradition” thing the same way that so many of Jesus’ followers did.  Even Jesus had come from a Jewish home.   Traveling abroad, I’d gotten to see so many cultures.  And it was strange, you have to admit: no other community was as racially and culturally diverse as Christianity.

“Plus,” he continued.  “I mean, I get it Luke.  You’ve been all over the world.  But Jesus…we all know He died a long time ago.  It’s been what…20, 30 years?  How can we really know how this whole ‘Christian’ thing is supposed to really work?  Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I love Jesus.  The things I hear about Him are great.  And yeah, I’ve even been to some of these churches that have been meeting in homes.  These people…they risk their lives.  I mean, the Jews…people are willing to put up with them, I mean the government’s even helping remodel their temple.

“Well, not everyone’s all that thrilled about that.”

“Yes, but at least they’re respected.  I heard the other day that some people were starting to call Christians atheists, because they don’t follow Jewish or Roman gods.”

“Well, you can’t judge by stereotypes.”

“I know, Luke.”  He wiped his face with his hands.  “But perception is reality you know?  Again, I love Jesus; I think what you’re doing is great, I just…I guess I just don’t see what it has to do with me.” 

I understood right then and there what it was my dear friend needed.  I remember medical school, where we read a dusty textbook by a man named Galen, who used to talk about “carefully investigating” the symptoms of his patients.   And I realized that this is what my friend needed.  Jesus was now a major topic of conversation.  I even heard that whole books were slowly being circulated about Him.  Maybe it was time to add my own voice to the mix – not just for my friend here, but for anyone struggling to understand how to love Jesus and fit into His church.  And we needed this desperately, before people’s ideas about Him began to eclipse who He actually was.  So I committed right then to find out more, and I committed right then to tell my own story along with it.

I asked Theophilus if I might pray for him.  He had already stood up to leave when he nodded vigorously.  He was a busy man.

And right now, so was I.

Discussion Questions:

The following questions could be used for a small group, but they’re also great ways to start spiritual conversations one-on-one with friends or co-workers. Feel free to post responses (yours, or even theirs with their permission) in the comments below.  

(1)    As we see, Theophilus was a well-to-do, educated man who knew some things about Jesus, but didn’t really know how he fit into the culture of the church of his day and so it’s not clear that he was ready to make that next step.  Do you or someone you know fit this description?   What would it take from having good ideas about Jesus to trusting Him totally?

(2)    Part of the barrier that Theophilus encountered was that with all the diversity of the early church, including those who insisted on maintaining Jewish practices, he wasn’t sure what he should believe and why.  Are there “Christian” practices and beliefs that can be a barrier to belief?  Which ones and why?

(3)    Theophilus also had trouble understanding how he fit into the church because of the negative perceptions people had of the church (called “atheists” by the Romans).  What are some negative cultural perceptions of Christians?  Why might these be a barrier for people to believe in Jesus?

(4)    Luke mentions that there were, by this point, there were many other teachings out there about who Jesus was.  What are some of the ways Jesus is portrayed in our culture today?  Where do your own ideas about Jesus come from?

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“The Dirt Under His Nails”

Starting this Sunday, we’ll be starting a new, exciting series at Tri-State Fellowship called “The Dirt Under His Nails,” which is all about Jesus.  In the area?  Don’t have a local church?  We’d love to welcome you.  And don’t forget to hit the “share” button to get the word out over social networks. 

In addition, I’ll be blogging through some of our topics in the next several weeks, so stick around and enjoy.  

JESUS.

No other name is tied to so much emotion, and no other name sparks so many opinions.  Who was Jesus? Many have their opinions formed about Him long before they ever see His face.

For some it’s a stained glass Jesus: a religious figure not terribly concerned about others. For others, it’s a fake-plastic Jesus: a cheap misfit who offers us friendship without ever truly being connected to the world that we live in.

But beneath the stale images of our past, we find a Jesus who walked among His people, a Jesus who swung a hammer with His daddy, a Jesus who laughed, and a Jesus who cried.

In this series of sermons, we’ll be following the ancient writer Luke as we meet a Savior with calloused hands and dirty fingernails. Whether this is your first time meeting Jesus, or even if you’ve known Him for years, we invite you to join us as we experience this vividly fresh portrait of the Savior.

 

Schedule:

February 26 “Half-Price Messiah”
March 4 “No Reservations”
March 11 “How Far is Heaven?”
March 18 “Party Crashers”
March 25 “Character is a Four-Letter-Word”
April 1 “Why Jesus Wants You Dead”
April 8 “Hearing is Believing”

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David Grohl: The Grammy’s, Art and the Gospel

If you saw the Grammy awards, you know that what rocked the house was not the presence of all the rising young stars, but the speech David Grohl made when the Foo Fighters earned the award for best rock performance:

“This is a great honor because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine.  To me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [the heart] and what goes on in here [the head].”   David Grohl, 2012 Grammy acceptance speech

The reason everyone’s talking about this is because, well, there’s some truth to it.  When Nicki Minaj becomes a pop icon, we really have to scratch our heads and wonder what exactly is wrong with our culture.

So we’re not just thankful for Grohl and the Foo Fighters for staying true to their craft, but we also can find some deep, spiritual insight in his comments.  Christian theology has always emphasized that man was made in the imago Dei, the “image of God.”  This means we resemble God, perhaps not in appearance, but in His character traits.  And the phrase “image of God” first appears in the opening chapter of Genesis, a chapter that primarily emphasizes God’s creativity.  This means that all humanity is similarly gifted with the capacity for creativity.

This means that all creative expressions have a spiritual side to them, even though they might not necessarily be explicitly “Christian” in nature.  Art – all forms of it – becomes a spiritual act.  But because art is a spiritual act, it has profound implications on the shaping of our souls and character.

In his work An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis observed that we can either “receive” art, or we can “use” art.  He explains:

“We sit down before [a work of art] in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it…[When we ‘receive’ art,] we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist…[When we ‘use’ art, we] treat it as assistance for our own activities.  ‘[U]sing is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”  (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)

What Grohl is (perhaps unknowingly) reacting against is the tendency to “use” music for the thrill of temporary, subjective experience.  Grohl admits the lack of perfection in his own art, but recognizes its value in contrast to the inherent  “forgetability” (yes, I made that word up) of so much pop music (remember the Spice Girls?  Neither do I).

And the problem, spiritually speaking, is that a tendency to “use” rather than “receive” numbs us to the inherent beauty that God breathes into the world.  When we teach ourselves to put on our iPods and “use” art that glorifies shallow, transient relationships, when we teach ourselves to medicate ourselves with synthesizers rather than musical chords, when we teach ourselves that excellence is determined by popularity, we have allowed ourselves to be shaped into people who fail to appreciate beauty and depth.

The problem, as I see it, stems from at least three key factors:

(1)    The subjectivity of beauty.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we’ve repeatedly been told.  This means that no longer are we concerned with traditional standards of beauty such as proportion, rhythm and progress, but rather evaluate beauty on the basis of subjective experience.  No longer do we ask, “Is the music good?” but, “Do I like it?”  And a generation beneath us is having an increasingly difficult time differentiating between those two questions.

(2)    The loss of moral center.  The artist Paul Klee once wrote that “The more horrible this world is, the more abstract art will be, which a happier world brings forth a more realistic art.”  Our world is fractured and broken.  The wave of technology has only brought such brokenness not only to our front doors, not only to our living rooms, but constantly fed to us through hand-held devices.  Just as the horrors of the last century brought us the abstraction of artists such as Kandinsky and Pollock, so our present world will continue to churn out “low” forms of pop music, often in an effort to numb us to the brokenness that we inhabit.  Stated another way, what’s the point of creating beautiful music if the world isn’t beautiful?

(3)    The culture of charisma.  Traditional cultures value the presence of authority, systems that help us evaluate things such as meaning and beauty.  But today popularity is governed by the ubiquitous cult of celebrity.  Value is determined by one’s number of Twitter followers.  In such a climate, we are forced to “use” art, because by its very nature it can never truly add to our lives or improve our character.

The Christian doctrine of creativity helps us navigate our way out of these problems by offering us a viable solution.

(1)    Valuing reflection over entertainment. In his excellent book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes the way our culture has been shaped into something that resembles Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Postman argues that Huxley “was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”  (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 163)  The solution, therefore, is to be a people who critically evaluate the standards of our beauty and creativity in the world around us.

(2)    Suffering should nurture, not stifle art.  In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy and Red discuss the value of music.  Red insists that music doesn’t “make much sense in here,” referring to the bars of their prison world.  But Andy protests: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget. … Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.”  What’re you talking about?” Red asks, to which Andy replies: “Hope.”  

The optimism of a previous century collapsed under the collective weight of wars and rumors of wars.  Art gives voice to a culture that yearns for beauty and meaning, values that are integral to the Christian story.

(3)    Blurring the line between sacred and secular.  The language of common grace tells us that beauty, goodness and truth may be found in creative expression regardless of the faith of the artist.  There is no more “hard surface of secularity” (to borrow Barth’s phrase) in a culture that has become enamored with spiritual exploration.  It’s no accident or clever phrasing that the former pope spoke of the via pulchritudinous (“the path of beauty”) as a vehicle toward the via veritatis (“the path of truth”).  The arts form a natural bridge for truth in a world that suffers without it.

I’m thankful for Grohl and his optimism that beauty and authentic creative expression can be recovered.  And I’m glad to hear that great garage-band sound back in their music.  Is it “high art?”  Maybe not exactly.  But certainly award-worthy, and certainly a great teachable moment for a culture that has lost the capacity for reflection on such things.  I mourn the fact that such a moment moment will quickly fade with the “next big story” about a Kardashian wedding or something (the consequence of the “culture of charisma,” as I mentioned above).  Still, a good chance to pause and reflect, and to appreciate art far as the curse is found.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 12): “Own Worst Enemy”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Dawn’s final chapter is entitled “The Church as its own Worst Enemy: Is it Happening Again?”

DEFINING “AGAIN”

Dawn recognizes the way that many historic denominations have systematically relegated themselves to cultural relevance at the expense of spiritual significance.  There was a time in history when the so-called “mainline” denominations sought to have a voice in the culture.  The result was a shift away from orthodox Christianity into the realm of social justice Christianity.  Today, the shift has been so drastic that the word “mainline” has been replaced in favor of calling such churches part of the “social justice denominations.”

The rise of ecumenicalism has also meant a shift away from the uniqueness of the Christian message and toward the more shallow approach to religious diversity and tolerance (often to the neglect of the deep distinctions between major religions).  One might add to this list a whole host of issues that are of (relatively )lesser importance.

The problem with such an approach was simply this: culture changed its own values.  We now have a culture that embraces such values as tolerance, diversity and justice for the poor and oppressed.  What happened historically was that the Church gave short shrift to the gospel in favor of having a voice in the public square, and in so doing negotiated themselves into premature obsolescence.

POST-DENOMINATIONAL WORLD

The problem of today’s world is that we have churches that seek to bend themselves to meet the consumer demands of culture.  There is little wonder why we employ the term “post-denominationalism,” since most churches are ruled not by theological conviction but by musical style and congregational preferences.

But the problem, as mentioned before, is that such approaches only dilute the rich character of the church to such a degree that it raises questions as to its value.  When the church becomes a purveyor of ideas of how to improve your marriage, manage your finances and finding meaning and fulfillment, why do we expect people to come to church for a message that can be just as easily obtained from Dr. Phil?

THE CHURCH AND THE GOSPEL

Only when the gospel becomes paramount – that is, defined well, taught well and lived well, can the Church hope to be an effective witness to the world.  This means passing on the language of faith to the next generation, as well as passing on such language to a world that needs it.

CONCLUSION

I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk through Dawn’s book, and that her occasionally acerbic tone has not precluded genuine and thoughtful reflection on this difficult issue.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 11): “Reaching Out”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

THE FATAL FLAW OF “DUMBING DOWN”

Dawn, citing William D. Hendricks’ book Exit Interviews, voices concern over a seeming paradox here in America: on the one hand, churches are growing.  Yet people are increasingly disillusioned with the faith.

She returns to her earlier tension between tradition and relevance – the church can afford to be neither a stale traditional institution, nor “trivialize” the love of God and neighbor by revitalizing worship at the cost of substance.  And this is the predicament that many churches today find themselves in.

Dawn argues that the solution is to hold fast to the “richness of the Church,” because even those aspects that run counter to today’s culture will seem a welcome breath of fresh air in a culture devoid of beauty, goodness and truth.  It’s no wonder, then, that many voices have observed that the missional church has been dominated and led by artists rather than the CEO mentality of the megachurch world.

The problem, again, is that in catering to consumer demand, churches have suffered from trying to offer too many choices.  To paraphrase heavily and offer an analogy from our culture, we often speak in terms of “going viral.”  We love clever videos, bullet points and stories.  The problem is that germs usually don’t live long.  Who remembers what “went viral” thirty years from now?  Granted, such tools may be useful in the short term, but if the Church is to survive the harsh tests of time it must learn to offer something far more durative.

Durative worship makes God the central focus:

“We dare not make worship too easy, for God is always beyond our grasp.  Worship cannot be only cerebral or only emotional, for God is mysterious and wise.  Worship must be unceasingly comforting so that through it God will address our suffering.  It must be perpetually paradoxical so that we know we must worship forever.  Strangers will have no need to return to our worship services if they can understand all that our worship offers of God in one Sunday gulp.”  (p. 289)

DEVELOPING A LASTING ATTRACTION

She goes on to argue that worship that is a “lasting attraction” will do several things:

(1)    Build character.  Central to this is the idea of teaching sound theology to help the audience better understand themselves in relationship to God and neighbor.

(2)    Build community.  The challenge and task here is to move beyond mere spectatorship into genuine participation.

(3)    Showing responsibility to the world.  Applying the teaching of theology and scripture to a hurting world demonstrates a faith commitment that is not merely inwardly focused.  I would add that genuine theology always leads to an outward focus, as it directs our narcissistic gaze away from self to God and neighbor.

(4)    A passion for the gospel.  It’s worth noting that Dawn writes before the recent explosion of “gospel-centered” everything.  But surely, keeping the gospel at the center of one’s life is a sure way to assimilate all of the previously mentioned tasks.  And churches can help accomplish this by keeping the gospel at the center of both teaching and worship.

The next post will cover Dawn’s final chapter as well as tie together some of these points.

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“Reaching Our Without Dumbing Down” (Part 10): “Ritual and Liturgy and Art”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Her present chapter is entitled “Discovering Our Place in the Story,” which looks at the practical dimensions of liturgy, worship and art.

Dawn argues that performance is the outcome when God is no longer the subject of worship.  She borrows from C.S. Lewis in saying that the best liturgy is one that we are not aware of.  We are to “dance without having to count steps.”  The concern is that the church’s penchant for novelty (in an effort to appeal to consumers) relegates the worship of the church to mere entertainment.

THE VALUE OF AESTHETICS AND CHARACTER FORMATION

Since the time of the enlightenment, there has been a movement away from the majesty of the cathedral to the simplicity of the chapel.  The revivalism of the centuries that followed provided us with the ascendancy of showmanship even amidst two divergent theological contexts.  The seeker-friendly movement of the last few decades is the natural outcome of this, where the Church has blended the artistic expressions of popular culture with those of historic Christianity.  Even the architecture was meant to reflect that of the culture that surrounded it, resulting in churches that looked more like shopping malls, business centers and warehouses than the cathedrals of old.

Churches were motivated by pragmatism and utility.  The need for a “multi-purpose room” outweighed the need for a sanctuary.  And not without reason: the rise of children’s and youth programs with a concomitantly diminishing budget often necessitates such flexibility in building use.

But the end result was the loss of both beauty and sacred space.  Part of the issue we now face is that each successive generation, while deeply shaped by the generation that preceded it, wants to escape the trappings and stale traditions they grew up in.

For the boomer generation, this meant exchanging the stale traditions they had grown up in for the contemporary expressions that have now become normative within the megachurch/church growth world.  We don’t need a sanctuary, they insisted, we need a place that looks just like our jobs and offices.  But the postmodern generations of today are doing the same thing: shirking the traditions of the previous generation in favor of new directions, which, ironically, resemble the traditions their parents had worked to escape from.

And because of this, rising generations place value in such things as beauty and transcendence – often because such things capture or at least contribute to the experiential, emotion-driven faith systems that they possess.

Dawn writes that beauty is inherently valuable, because

“Our increasingly ugly world makes it all the more imperative for worship to remind us of God’s beauty.  Psychologists and sociologists (and even architects) comment on the fact that fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy the beauties of creation.  Poverty leads to city squalor and overcrowding; busyness prevents many from taking time for the beautiful; and modern art often turns to grotesque and violent forms.  Beautiful worship will foster in our character genuine humility and awe at the beauty of forgiveness, and profound thanksgiving that God invites us to share in the heavenly beauty of which we get glimpses while here on earth.” (p. 249)

The problem of course is that “beauty” is often mistaken to rest in the eye of the beholder rather than in the character of God.  The reasons for this are manifold, some of which are cultural, and some of which are religious (pietism, for instance, has taught us to eschew all symbols in favor of strong, personal devotion).  This combined with the penchant for “attractional” worship often leads us to the commodification of beauty.  Beauty is therefore both subjective, in that audiences determine what is beautiful, and beauty is useful, in that it is a tool for attracting people.  While philosophers throughout history have often been guilty of reducing beauty to the point of abstraction, contemporary culture has reduced beauty to the level of fashion.

Dawn therefore cautions that

“Out of concern for character formation, churches must think very carefully in planning the liturgy.  We must not ask, Is this liturgy attractive? but always, What kind of character does this nurture?  Does our liturgy focus on feelings rather than on God’s character, which evokes these feelings?  If so, we will nurture a faith that depends on emotions rather than a faith that can cling to who God is in spite of human experiences of sorrow or estrangement.  Does liturgy focus on the self and lead to pride, or does it focus on God and lead to humility, awe and thanksgiving, and petition?”  (p. 249)

In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards spoke of God as either being a bonum utile or a bonum formosum, Latin phrases meaning “a useful good” or “goodness and beauty in itself.”  Today’s world renders beauty into a bonum utile – beauty only has value if it attracts people to our church.  But God created beauty to be a bonum formosum – to be enjoyed because it demonstrates God’s significance.  The merchant sold all he had to purchase the pearl of great price.  Jesus tells this story not so that readers would pity such a man, but understand that beauty (specifically, found in God’s revealed character in His kingdom) cannot be measured by standards of utility.

What Dawn is seeking to capture is that worship is beautiful inasmuch as it reflects the beauty of its object.  Worship draws deep emotion not by cultivating emotion itself, but by directing our gaze toward the attributes of God which themselves elicit emotion.  This distinction may seem subtle, but makes all the difference in the world with regard to character development and genuine community, because only such an approach makes much of the character of God rather than merely pandering to the contemporary, fashionable preferences of the world.

ISOLATION AND COMMUNITY

Dawn next articulates the way that isolationism has influenced the way we do community.  She suggests that some are more comfortable in liturgical settings, where ritual does not demand that they be exposed before the scrutiny of others, though the rituals are themselves training them toward community and intimacy.

Her chapter continues in describing various aspects of worship such as the use of Psalms, creeds, traditional faith expressions and even silence as vehicles for genuine worship.

Beauty is one key to reaching the rising generations.  As we discussed in an earlier post, one of the key problems facing the Church is that in the rejection of tradition and symbol, we have lost our ability to pass on our faith to both rising generations as well as outsiders.  But recovering beauty and symbol can be a vital way of reaching others as well as uniting the Church.

Here I am not speaking of resurrecting stale traditions simply for tradition’s sake.  Instead, I am speaking of the value of the Lord’s Table.

In theology, beauty is encapsulated in the framework of God’s redemptive story. Story matters to people in significant ways. Consider the following two quotations on the meaning and significance of story:

“As the biblical story unfolds, it does so in stories and poetry. In fact, approximately seventy-five percent of scripture consists of narrative, fifteen percent is expressed in poetic forms and only ten percent is propositional and overtly instructional in nature. In our retelling of the same story, we have reverses this biblical pattern. Today an estimated ten percent of our communication is designed to capture the imagination of the listener, while ninety percent is purely instructive.” (Colin Harbinson, “Restoring the Arts to the Church: The Role of Creativity in the Expression of Truth,” Lausanne World Pulse Magazine (online), July 2006)

“The new conversations, on which our very lives depend, require a poet not a moralist. Because finally church people are like other people; we are not changed by new rules. The deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from fear or hurt.” (David Fitch, “The Myth of Expository Preaching (Part 2): Proclamation That Inspires the Imagination,” Out of Ur (conversations hosted by the editors of Leadership Journal), Christianity Today blog, posted July 25, 2006))

The Lord’s Table is important because it connects us to God’s story using the common language of the bread and cup.  We are simultaneously reminded of God’s past faithfulness to His people in Egypt, reminded of the significance of Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary, and are joined together to celebrate the coming work of Christ that is yet future.  Postmodern generations may find immense value in such symbols, and they themselves can be tools to make the old traditions and stories new again, reviving not only tradition and doctrine, but the very hearts of the believing community.

COMING UP

In Dawn’s next section, she explains how worship can be used as a tool for reaching our culture.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 4): “Worship as a Subversive Act”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

In yesterday’s post, I expressed caution regarding Dawn’s rather acerbic take on the idolatries within the walls of the church.  Chapter 4 is titled “Upside-Down: Worship as a Subversive Act,” in which Dawn offers a very thoughtful and helpful analysis of the struggle between faithfulness to God’s character and appealing to current cultural trends.  It is this attitude that allays any fears we may have had that we might be sliding to pure cynicism, and that Dawn is uninterested in leveling criticism without also offering a solution. 

Worship is “subversive” in the sense that true, authentic worship goes against the culture outside the church (the subject of chapter 2) and the idols within the church (the subject of chapter 3). 

Echoing Bach, she writes:

“If the Church’s worship is faithful, it will eventually be subversive to the culture surrounding it, for God’s truth transforms the lives of those nurtured by it.  Worship will turn our values, habits, and ideas upside-down as it forms our character; only then will we be genuinely right-side up eternally.  Only then will we know a Joy worthy of our destiny.”  (p. 57-8) 

WORSHIP IN THE WORLD OR WORSHIP OF THE WORLD?

The various technological and cultural trends that Dawn analyzed in chapter 2 have lead many churches to try and adapt to the needs of the culture.  The result, she argues, is that tradition has been supplanted by subjectism.

Tradition has always been counter-cultural.  When faced with tradition, Dawn observes that faith communities are usually split between two equal and opposite reactions:

(1)   Holding fast to tradition to the point of alienating the culture the church tries to reach.

(2)   The revitalization of tradition in order to attract those outside it. 

“To accent either [of these two extremes] without the other is to lose them both.”  (p. 60)

The Church holds truth and love as two similar extremes:

“The pole of truth is essential to keep the Church alive with theological content and depth.  The pole of love is necessary to minister to those who need that truth.  To cling tenaciously to truth in a way that excludes the uninitiated is to lose love in a gnostic superiority.  On the other hand, to be driven only by a marketing analysis of what people ‘need’ is to lose the uniqueness of the Church’s truth in a false attempt at love.”  (p. 60)

Nothing has changed in the years since Dawn’s book was first published.  When looking at these two extremes, I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that Christianity stands as if on the edge of a knife – stray only a little to one side or the other, and we risk losing both theological truth and cultural relevance. 

Tim Keller writes:

“to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

MARKET SHARE AND THE WORSHIPPING COMMUNITY

Even recent emphases on church growth has hardly been concerned with “avoiding” such extremes.  Dawn cites Douglas D. Webster, who recognizes the significant challenge of “being church” in a world like ours:

“How do we present Christ to a consumer-oriented, sex-crazed, self-preoccupied, success-focused, technologically sophisticated, light-hearted, entertainment-centered culture?  How do we strategize, as Jesus did with the disciples, to distinguish between popular opinion and Spirit-led confession?  And how does the confessional church…engage the world?

Many respected church consultants are offering straightforward, unambiguous answers.  They are promoting strategies that encourage churches to establish a market niche, focus on a target audience, meet a wide range of felt needs, pursue corporate excellence, select a dynamic and personable leader and create a positive, upbeat, exciting atmosphere.”  (Douglas D. Webster, Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong With Marketing the Church, p. 20-21)

As we’ve already explored, the attractional church has become dominated by marketing strategies and promotional tools.  But Dawn cites Chistopher Lasch in analyzing the deeply rooted problems of consumerism:

“[Consumers are] perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored.”

“[Consumers have] an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.”

“[Consumerism is an effort to answer] the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction” and “feelings of futility and fatigue”

“[Consumerism] creates new forms of discontent peculiar to the modern age.” (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, p. 72)

In light of this, Webster (cited above), expresses four concerns: (1) Churches who rely on marketing often underestimate the radical nature of the consumerist demand, resulting in a perpetual uphill struggle to fulfill the evolving felt needs of the culture, (2) if churches are appealing to consumers, how much can we hope to rely on strung-out, overworked, burnt-out people to form a dynamic Christian community? (3) the gospel message is reduced to (if not equated with) what is attractive, and (4) the Church is held prisoner to the felt needs of consumers. 

Can I add two more?

(5)   Church-shopping.  When we cultivate a climate of consumerism, is there any wonder why people are quick to migrate from church to church to satisfy a sense of spiritual boredom?  Obviously, people leave churches for a variety of reasons – sometimes perfectly good ones – but it is lamentable that so many are quick to abandon lifetimes of relationships for the next big thing.  “The music is more upbeat.”  “They have more young people participating.”  [Regarding the sermon]: “I cry every time I come here.”  And what’s truly, remarkably sad is that such excuses are presumed to not only be valid, but in some way Godly – such is the result of a religious faith that has been built on the shifting sands of consumerist demand and personal choice rather than on the solid rock of scripture and deep relationships. 

(6)  One-generation wonders.  Marketing teaches that you can only target one demographic group.  Stop and think: when was the last time you saw a product marketed towards the entire family?  Churches therefore often fragment and focus on one generation or one life-stage.  The result is that multi-generational churches struggle to meet the competing, consumerist demands of various life stages within the church. 

To be fair, the marketing strategies of current church growth trends are motivated by a profound, undeniable love for unbelievers.  But when church health is reduced to market shares and felt needs, what room is there for the vital truths of the gospel that shape our community?

COUNTER-CULTURAL, NOT JUST “RELEVANT”

Dawn writes that there will always be some truths that will not appeal to cultural tastes, yet are vital to our understanding of ourselves as humans and who we are in God’s grand story:

“Talking of sin and forgiveness certainly runs counter to the present culture, but the recognition of each and both together is the great gift of the Church’s worship to our world’s self-understanding.  Recognizing the potency of sin and evil but also knowing profoundly the greater power of God’s love and mercy frees believers to work for social change without flagging in zeal.”  (p. 69)

It is often assumed that the message of the gospel is to be delivered in a way that is “relevant.”  Such language is especially attractive to young people – often for the commendable desires to take ownership of their faith independently of their parents, as well as to have an impact on the world around them. 

The problem, of course, is that the church has been pursuing “relevance” for quite some time now, and often the results are precisely as Dawn and others describe.  Churches have done well at competing with one another, but done little to actually reach the culture it seeks to be relevant to.  In 2006 Outreach Magazine released a report that church attendance has remained nearly constant between 1990 and 2004, despite a nearly 18% growth in the total U.S. population.

Dallas Willard writes:

“A leading American pastor laments, ‘Why is today’s church so weak?  Why are we able to claim many conversions and enroll many church members but have less and less impact on our culture?  Why are Christians indistinguishable from the world?’ Should we not at least consider the possibility that this poor result is not in spite of what we teach and how we teach, but precisely because of it? Might than not lead to our discerning why the power of Jesus and his gospel has been cut off from ordinary human existence, leaving it adrift from the flow of his eternal kind of life?” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)

 When our church health is measured in terms of market share and consumer trends, is it any wonder than the Church has taught people to become consumers?  When we place high value on technological superiority, is it any wonder that members migrate to the church down the block that’s doing it even bigger and better?

But what if our values flow instead from the character of Jesus and the Great Commission?  Tim Keller writes:

“The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones….That can mean only one thing.  If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message as Jesus.”  (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, p.15-16)

The solution cannot be an attempt at cultural relevance, for the gospel message will never truly be culturally relevant.  For the Church to be the Church, she must embrace a message that is decidedly counter-cultural:

“By offering music that educates instead of entertains, that uplifts and transforms through the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2), the Church exposes the meaninglessness of our present culture….By maintaining a vital, balanced dialectic of thought and feelings, the Church displays the shallowness or emptiness of our culture’s laughter and trains people in habits for thinking.” (Dawn, p. 72)

Blind traditionalism leads to worship that is stale and stagnant.  But consumer marketing has led to worship that while exciting, is anemic and impoverished.  In the next chapter, Dawn examines the character of God in the worship of the Church as she works to offer a new paradigm for the Church’s worship.  

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