23 January 2013

Public Speaking 0.50

My wife and I were blessed with the opportunity to share the gospel with someone very near to our hearts last night.  But as thankful as I was for the opportunity, and despite how well the conversation went, I found myself shamed by my lack of clearer communication.  The English student in me wishes that I'd been more pointed with my argument, but I already know that I struggle with spoken word, and besides, Paul warns me in 1 Corinthians that Christ did not send me with "words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power."  What Tara and I did was share the gospel from our hearts and answer, as best we could, the questions which the topic of our faith aroused.

Just by way of brief encouragement to whoever may read this, I wanted to share 1 Corinthians 14.8-9, a passage which comes out of a discussion of love and its comparatively greater worth than spiritual gifts - specifically, the gift of tongues: "If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?  So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?  For you will be speaking into the air."  Paul may have been speaking specifically about the Corinthians' tendency to babble in fake languages, because disjointed sounds do not communicate the love and mercy of our God, but I submit that his point is true of our attempts to share the gospel in modern English as well.  If we cannot communicate the gospel clearly, then who will be summoned to battle?   If we stammer and struggle to fill in the blanks, how will anyone understand the message that we bear?  Peter tells us to be prepared at all times to offer a "defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you," not because we need to maintain the moral high ground, but because Christ stands there with us with His arms wide open  (1 Peter 3.15).  In fact, he goes on to qualify that we do it in a spirit of gentleness and respect.  But how will those still in the valley, who "run helter skelter to distruction with their fingers in their ears" (Don Francisco), know to turn to Him if they have not heard and fully understood the message of love we bring?

The point is this: speaking clearly is less dependent upon how many credits you earned in that Gen-Ed public speaking class than upon knowing for yourself what the gospel is.  If you know Jesus intimately, then you shouldn't have any trouble talking about Him - no more than you do your favorite sports teams and music.  But this also requires practice.  If you share the gospel, on average, once every two years, then you are bound to be unprepared and uncomfortable during the conversation.

So I encourage you: start practicing.  (That's also directed at myself, by the way.)  Share the gospel, and share it from your heart.  The goal is not conviction.  It is not to convert people.  We are not concerned with numbers - we are concerned with individuals.  The goal is to share the faith that defines our very existence; a faith which is offered gently, respectfully, and lovingly; a faith that would be weak and pointless if we kept it to ourselves.  The goal is not results: it is to plant the seed and be content to water it.  The goal is to be patient and demonstrate what righteousness looks like, because we have the opportunity to introduce lost and needy people to our wonderful Savior, Jesus Christ.

07 January 2013

The Worship Lifestyle, Pt. 3

When I started writing about worship, I didn't intend for the topic to cover three posts, but as I've continued studying and learning myself, there have been a number of ideas and convictions that I still felt needed to be shared. So in this post, I want to address the issue of personal preference as it pertains to worship (and hopefully do so without any more alliteration).

The statement I'm about to make is going to ruffle a few feathers, but it's the driving motivation behind this post: the exercise of personal preference stands opposed to proper worship.  To those of you still reading, I'm of course speaking in an absolute sense, because preference is not always something that is necessarily wrong or inappropriate, but as it pertains to musical styles and worship songs, I have very rarely found someone who is able to share his or her preferences on worship in a humble and unassuming manner, and where his or her desire to see a particular style of worship every Sunday morning doesn't stem from a (sometimes unintentional) sense of entitlement.  What I'm saying is that when we insist on our preference in a worship service, verbalizing or internalizing, we are effectively determining that our mode of thinking is superior and completely forgoing Paul's exhortation to humility in regard to considering one another (Phil 2.3).  So while it's not wrong to have opinions on a worship service, the exercise of them is.

Again, I'm speaking in absolutes, because this is a problem with which all of us struggle.  By being pointedly narrow, I intend to leave no loopholes for those who may feel justified in their ideas on worship (more aptly called "opinions"), so that it is impossible for any of us to avoid evaluating where we fall concerning this issue.

Christians struggle with preference partially because of familial upbringing or cultural background, partially because of negative experiences, and partially because we're just very strong-headed.  Notice that I use the plural pronoun to include myself as well: I certainly have my ideas of the way things should be, and it can get under my skin if a church or individual fails to meet those expectations.  The truly disgusting thing about this issue, however, is not simply that we cling to our own notions, but that we go so far as to disparage the preferences of other individuals or congregations -- as though their practices are somehow inherently sinful.  We have reasons for why we like things to be a certain way, and if someone doesn't share our perspective, they are invariably thinking in a different manner, or upholding different priorities, than we do.  In our human condition, we can't help but be affronted.

Over the course of leading worship for almost a decade, I've heard from all schools of thought.  I've conversed with those who despise modern hymns, either because of their instrumentation or the quality of their lyrics.  I've heard form those who despise the ancient hymns because of their archaic vocabulary or presumed lack of cultural relevance.  I've heard from those who think that singing is a moot point and should be minimized or even excluded from worship services.  As a musician, I totally understand how difficult it is to engage in worship when you simply don't like the musical style.  However, many of the conversations I've had with people on the matter of worship preference have raised red flags in my heart concerning common conceptions (there I go again) of what worship truly is.

I've discussed worship as a definition much more deeply in two earlier posts (Pt. 1 and Pt. 2), but for the purpose of this discussion, I'll keep our working definition to two major points, specific to church or public worship (as opposed to private or individual worship).

First of all, church worship is a celebration of God.  It is the bringing of our firstfruits, or the best of what we have, to the One who already owns them all and recognizing Him for it.  It's an expression of dependence, love, and awe, coming from the hearts of people who see their need fulfilled only in Christ alone.  The verse I've heard quoted in a semi-joking manner to console those who aren't the best singers is "Give a joyful noise to the Lord" (Psa 100.1).  The idea is that it is the attitude of the noise, not the quality thereof, that truly matters.  It's amusing, but it's also true: God is not honored by our excellent display of musical prowess if our hearts are far from Him.  That becomes a mask which does not reflect our internal condition, something which Joel 2.13 encourages us not to exercise.  What honors God is the joyful noise which springs from the hearts of repentant sinners -- sinners who glorify God for His mercy, love, and other eternal, indefatigable qualities, and whose worship of Him doesn't end with the song.

Second, church worship is a corporate expression.  A worship service can be tailored to the tastes of a subset of its members, but it is not (or should not be) based on pleasing individuals.  In the same way that the early church in Jerusalem was built upon commonality, equality, and was devoid of even a mention of preference, so should our modern assemblies.  Everyone shared everything back then, and everyone was enriched by contributing to the needs of the body on a daily basis (Acts 2.47).  Sadly, we can't even have "everything in common" in our modern generation even one day of the week.  Church worship is about participation and contribution.  You don't come to get -- you come to give, and ultimately, you come to give glory to God.  When that is the primary focus of a body of believers, then their church prospers and arguments over petty differences of opinion are nonexistent.  People who simply "attend" a given church, however, don't understand what church is truly about.  People who go into a worship service but refuse to sing because they are appalled by the style of music likewise don't understand what worship is truly about.  When our focus is on God alone, suddenly everything we don't care for isn't a big deal, because our perspective has been focused on what truly matters.  This is what brings unity to the Body of Christ.  At this point, when we are in one accord, true worship can take place.

So that's what worship is in a nutshell.  Now we can understand why the exercise of personal preference can be incredibly damaging: if left unchecked, it is an exertion of my petty feelings over the very real needs of others.  It assumes the superiority of my thinking over that of brothers and sisters, and subjects the worship of a holy God (for which, by the way, He laid the necessary parameters) to the ideas we have about the way it should look, sound, and feel.  Instead of being a beautiful fragrance (2 Cor 2.15), our singing and feeble attempts at ministry become an expression of our internal selfishness, which will inevitably suck out the sacrificial and joyful nature of worship and render it empty lipservice.

As it pertains to singing, if you really don't care for old time gospel songs, you don't have to attend a gospel service, but you should be able to go and participate anyway.  Even though you don't like or know the songs, you should still have the ability to go into a gospel-led service and appreciate the truth within the lyrics.  Maybe you don't try to sing every song, but you celebrate the glory of God in your heart with everyone around you, and maybe you lift your hands and pray instead.  Participation doesn't mean you go in and mouth lyrics with a stony expression, or approach an extended musical interlude with a begrudging attitude, presuming that gospel music is beneath you because it is old-fashioned or somehow sinful.  The same is true for an individual who has difficulty engaging with contemporary hymns: just because you aren't moved by anything written by Chris Tomlin or Paul Baloche doesn't mean you should refuse to celebrate a holy and risen Savior through their music either.  Songs which tend to lean toward personal experience with Jesus are still worshipful, even if they don't use words like "Thee" and "forsakest," or because words like "heaven" with too many syllables aren't truncated with apostrophes.

All that being said, I will submit that we do have to be careful about the songs we choose for worship.    There are far too many which speak of Jesus as though He were a lover.  In fact, any song that could be played on the radio and sound like a love song is the kind I want to steer well away from.  Those kinds of songs reduce the divine love which God has for us to the truncated, misnomer "love" which society encourages today.  Speaking from the perspective of a worship leader, it is extremely important and also very challenging to find songs that are theologically accurate, because there are so many songs out there that just aren't.  Carefully putting together music which not only introduce the sermon material for the day but also accurately point the congregation to the person of Christ is a deep concern of mine -- and hopefully of the worship leaders of your church body as well.  If you find yourself struggling with the lyrics to a particular song -- not because you just don't like them, but because you are genuinely concerned that they aren't biblically based -- then I would encourage you to spend some serious time in prayer and then humbly approach your worship leader with your concerns.  But be careful that your motivation is truly out of a concern for your congregation to worship in spirit and truth, and not simply out of a deep-seated desire to get your own way.

So where are we with this discussion?

To those of you who dislike a particular style of music (and that means all of us), get off your high-horse and join in anyway.  The joy of the Lord should be infectious, not conditional.  To those of you who love all kinds of music but wrestle with lyrical content, take some time to read through those songs you aren't fond of singing and unpack exactly what unsettles you about them, and then do something about it -- out of a humble and loving spirit.  Don't just stew and allow frustration to suck the joy of worshiping out of your heart.  To those of you who simply struggle with wanting your own way, even in areas that have nothing to do with music, take some time to evaluate who sits on the throne of your heart -- your desires, or a Savior whose only desire is that you worship Him with all your heart, soul, and mind, and who commanded that we love others before we even think about loving ourselves.  For everyone, let us sing heartily to the Lord no matter what style of music is being played, because our Holy Father cares little for instrumentation, chords, or beats per minute.  He cares very much, however, about the conditions of our hearts - whenever, wherever, and with whomever we lift songs to give Him praise.