Monday, March 16, 2015

Prais....Dirge and Worship

"They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your greatness." (Psalm 145:7 NIV)

I realize it can be a dangerous thing to base an entire blog off one Scripture. Focusing on one segment of Scripture out of context can lead to misinterpretation. In this case I feel confident because this entire Psalm is about praise. Apparently, we have caught David on a good day. Let's face it: David is very much on again off again with his joy. Perhaps it is the artistic melancholy side of his personality but it’s more likely that it can just be chalked up to the human side of him. David’s story is our story because we too go through all kinds of mood swings and emotional upheavals. None of this changes the fact that we love the Lord. 

I focused on this Scripture because I love the two words, “joyfully sing.” The music in the church during the 80’s and 90’s was dominated by the songs that got the drums going, feet tapping, and hands clapping (something similar to what you often find in black gospel churches). Much of this kind of music was ushered in via the Hosanna/Integrity Music label and what came out of the Brownsville Revival with Lindell Cooley at the musical helm. Morris Chapman was another man that was a breath of fresh air during this time. Think what you may of this kind of praise and worship but there was something very cool going on in this movement. While there was something very refreshing and even energizing about it, I will be the first to admit it could get a little corny at times. Songs like “Celebrate Jesus Celebrate” were a little over the top and I’m not sure the extra double claps from people like Sister Papoofnik helped it a whole lot. Like almost all popular music, it ran its course and got old after a while. It’s just like hearing your favorite song on the radio - you may love the song but when it is played every hour you just get tired of it.

Lindell Cooley brought together a mix of classic blues, modern praise and worship, and old hymns, which led to some true praise. People clapped their hands and  were genuinely excited, which made even those who lack rhythm to stay on beat with the music. People truly enjoyed the songs and happily sang along. Sadly, things have changed. I have noticed a trend in modern worship that I find to be disturbing or even worse…boring. The European comedian Eddie Izzard was so right when he said that white people can make anything amazing sound boring and lifeless, including the hallelujahs we sing. Meanwhile, the black gospel church can let it rip and even though they have a past of hurt and despair they shout with joy and celebration. I do not necessarily endorse Eddie Izzard in general, but it may be worth your time to watch this clip (please know there are some vulgarities). 

What I see going on in church today is more of a dirge than praise. I realize this is awfully opinionated but the word praise defined according to Merriam Webster is, “To say or write good things (someone or something): To express approval of (someone or something)."  To me, true praise is embodied by David in the book of Psalms when he was having a good day. I would specifically equate it with the time he danced out of his clothes while praising God as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. This might be frowned upon in most churches but you get my drift. To praise something means you get excited, clap, and cheer! You just can’t help yourself because you are so filled with joy. Sadly the trend in praise and worship music today is nothing more than a “Woe is me, I am awful in God's eyes” dirge. Don't get me started on how theologically unsound some of these songs are. We have artists who sing “open up the heavens, we want to see you” meanwhile they forget the unchanging words of Scripture that says “No man can see my (God's) face and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Remember the song "In The Secret"? These kind of lyrics are harmful to Christians because people often beat themselves up when they make this their duty in devotions and it never happens. I often wonder why musicians get a pass when critics are all too eager to pick apart any Christian author who puts out something that they feel is theologically unsound. Why should it get a pass just because there’s a beat behind it? I worked in the Christian music industry long enough to know that unless there is a vulgarity, it will probably be deemed to be okay. Often, it’s more about the sound than the message. The lyrics go from majestic and thought provoking to words like “I wanna get my worship on.” That is a far departure from the poetry and majesty of words that leave us in awe.

It is important that the church gets back to the true meaning and celebration of Praise. Get excited and praise the Lord! Look at what the Lord has done in your life and realize that you are blessed. My kids got excited when I told them that we’ll be going to the Mall of America in Minneapolis, MN in April. They got EVEN MORE EXCITED when they found out they will have all-day passes to go on the rides. I will never be that pastor who compares praise and worship time to cheering for the Green Bay Packers. Quite honestly you would get thrown out of the church for causing a disturbance and the elders might frown on you yelling, "HEY SATAN! YOU SUCK!" And let’s not even imagine someone coming to church without their shirt and the church’s logo painted on their big belly! However, it is true that we should at least be equally as excited about praising God as we are about a game or vacation. Celebrate! Take time to think about God’s faithfulness and goodness and let that fill you with joy! Show him your love and gratitude by offering your genuine praise and worship. Look beyond the troubles in your life and the areas you wish you were better and just focus on God and his perfection. That’s when you will be able to truly take part in praise and worship rather than just a self-centered dirge.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Attack of the Meme

Let me just get this out there: I love memes. You just cant go wrong with a funny and witty meme. I am not sure how or when this fad began but at this point, Facebook should just change its name to meme book. While many of them are entertaining, Ill admit that there are times when they annoy me. It seems like people would rather post a picture of Rob Burgandy with a catchy phrase rather than actually express their own original thoughts. Regardless of that issue, I think some memes can be downright hilariousIm bringing this up because I am seeing a disturbing trend emerge and it quite frankly makes me fear for society.

I have long believed that people are far too bold when they are behind theirkeyboard. They say things online, in emails, and in text message that they would most likely never say to someones face. The funny thing is that this boldness is truly a sign of being cowardly. My basic business principle is that when people send me a nasty email or message I respond with a phone call or a face to facemeetingThis catches a lot of people off-guardand thats the point. In our technology driven world, people are now hiding behind their keyboards and meme generator appsSomehow people have accepted the idea that if they say something nasty via a witty meme that its not as damaging as just posting their actual opinions. Or worse, they actually put in the effort of creating the meme but express themselves that way to create a sort of division between them and the opinion. Let's talk about this for a moment. 

believe many people have forgotten the basic rule their parents or even grandparents taught them: If you do not have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Usually memes have a sharp truth to them. The person posting it is often too socially inept to say something like that for themselves and think they can diffuse the situation by posting a funny little picture. And dont think this doesnt affect people in the church. It is so easy to do hit and run posts with memes that even Christians forget a basic nugget of wisdom found in Proverbs 15:1 NIV that states, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” 

If you look back at my blog posts since 2010 its no mystery that I was a bitter person who was hurt by things that have happened since Ive entered the ministry. I think it shook me up because its something I never would have imagined would happen. I won't go into all of the details. If you are interested just begin going back through my archives. I have not taken them down because they are part of my past and who I am. Those situations were real and they mattered. However, I can tell that writing those blogs did not do me a whole lot of good. The true healing came when I began to send out emails of apologies to those I have hurt and those whohave hurt me. Thats right - I apologized to the people who hurt me. They may have mistreated me, but in the end I was no better than them. I realized that I may have hurt them from behind the keyboard as I wrote about the incidents. Receiving forgiving responses back from them was very therapeutic and I literally felt like aweight had been lifted off my shoulders. 

I have only been on staff at two churches over the past 20 years (not including the time I ran children's church at the church I grew up at). My first youth/associate pastor role in Milwaukee lasted 8 years. My time here at Radiant Fellowship began in 2003 and this August marks my 10 year anniversary as lead pastor. Ill admit Im kind of proud of that. I truly believe this is all because of my Dad who taught me to be loyal, hardworking, and to value stability. This kind of longevity blows the ministerial statistics out of the water and I thank God for giving me the strength to endure itWhether theyre a church staffer or attender, the people who bounce around from church to church every few years should look at themselves and realize there is a problemCould it be that if the church has been there for years and they have a solid group of attendees that have been coming for years that the church isnt the problem? Could it be that you, the person bouncing around from church to church, are the one who needs some correction? 

I compare this to the person who cant seem to keep a friend for long. Things go well for a while but isnt too long before they begin to burn bridges and drift off to the next group of friends. I am going to go out on a solid limb here and say it is not the friends who have the issue but rather the one who keeps going through friends like crazy. Lately, it seems to be the American way to pass the blame and take the easy way out. This kind of self-protection makes sense because it is difficult to step backtake a look at yourself, and ask yourself, What is wrong with me? It took a few years for me to get the point where I could ask myself that question but am glad I did itTaking a sober look at myself and being honest about my condition put me in the position where I could have the stability in my family and ministry that I enjoy today. I am so thankful for the healing process that began when I looked at my own behavior and realized I had to change. It has even allowed me to look at other people differently. When I have a disagreement with someone or feel like someone is picking on me, I now realize they are simply hurt and I pray one day they will find healing as well. There are too many other ways to live life than to make broad generalizations about things that have happened to us. Life is too beautiful to live in bondage to the people who have hurt us or have let us down.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Minimalist Approach to Church (Breath of Fresh Air)

In a time in America where churches tend to equate a sovereign move of God with how big or small the offering is, it is refreshing to see those churches, big and small, that are taking on a more minimalistic approach towards ministry. The tiny house/minimalist movement is becoming more and more popular throughout society and I am thrilled to see it trickle over into a remnant of churches. It seems in modern church culture people are more encouraged to respond with their wallets than their hearts. This affects church relationships and friendships on many levels. 

It is no mystery that it takes funding to run a church. Funding will be needed as long as there is a building rented or owned and kids are taking home coloring sheets. Likewise, funding is needed if you are going to go out as a full time missionary overseas or at home (I will save my thoughts on that for another time). The people who love to take advantage of the things their church offers them but squirm when it comes to giving support to their church need to get over it. Outside of a few denominations, the church body itself is responsible for funding the church. Plain and simple: if there is no funding coming in, the church is stifled in what it can accomplish and provide. If people are supporting missions through prayer and encouragement but the funding is not there, it certainly hinders what that missionary can do or how long they can stay out in the field. Demanding money to operate begins to feel no different than a pyramid business scheme. If a party is thrown and a few people buy some products, no one really goes home with much and the consultant is left wondering if the business is really providing a livable or reliable income. Without the steady flow of give and take, both ends of the transaction leave feeling unsatisfied. The same is true of the church. When there isn’t a steady flow of income, programs and ministries cannot flourish. And without flourishing programs and ministries, the people of the church suffer.

Allow me to hang out on the church issue because it is near and dear to my heart. In case you didn’t know, I am a pastor and therefore I will speak to what I know best. Whenever a church makes the main thrust of each meeting the amount of money they receive in an offering, something is seriously wrong. To me this focus on money is the personification of what it means when Scripture says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) This might seem like a broad generalization, but I have been in far too many of these money-centric meetings to just let this issue slide. I can tell you that it is when money becomes the central theme, everything else falls apart. With this kind of mindset, church leaders begin to say things like, “Yes it’s great that the music was good, the speaker was on point, and there were only mild soundboard issues, but what really matters is putting on a good show so we can pull in a big offering.” These kind of conversations stem from ministries and churches that are operating on a larger than life budget. Living beyond your means really does put you in a desperate situation. These churches are usually neck deep in debt themselves, but offer their congregants Dave Ramsey classes during the week (again in hopes that it will inspire them to give a good offering that Sunday).

When churches operate this way, the problem is that the main thrust of each meeting and most conversations circle around money. How could it not when a church needs to bring in thousands of dollars a week just to stay afloat? This can become exhausting and really wear a congregation out. Just like your relationship would wain with a friend who becomes a missionary and suddenly centers every conversation on supporting their dream and vision, you just get tired of it. Once you have finally succumbed to supporting that dream and vision, they begin pushing for more money and more support. Their need, like the church that has stretched beyond its means, is a bottomless bit. 

Let me give you another example. Imagine a friend of yours becomes an independent sales consultant for a company and suddenly all of your conversations with that friend circle around how your life would be so much better if you bought their product. No matter what the topic at hand is, it always comes back to the product they're selling and how they think you need it. 

I don’t know about you, but I want to see the proof of something’s effectiveness before I buy it. If a person is selling products that are meant to improve your health, they ought to be the picture of optimal health, right? Similarly, a person should have a difficult time accepting life teachings when a church is massively in debt. It’s just contrary to Scripture.

I admit that Radiant Fellowship is not a perfect church. We are small, there are sound board glitches, and occasionally the pastor looks goofy. We do not have a whole lot of activities going on and that is somewhat purposeful. Peoples lives are so busy outside of the church, and we believe they probably don’t need a whole lot extra activities going on within the church building. Nevertheless, we love people and there are many other churches that do as well. We offer our standard Sunday morning service along with a kids’ program. Our regular midweek activities consist of family night on Wednesday evenings, which provides something for everyone. Once a month, our men's ministry and women's ministry meet as well. The second Sunday of each month we have a Communion potluck meal. On those days we have our regular church service, take Communion, and have lunch together. We feel this is a pretty solid Biblical way of doing Communion. There are some random events here and there along with outreaches, but that is it. Really, when I list it all out, we have a lot going on! There’s no need for more at this time. What’s most refreshing to me is that we have a solid church community and are growing together in our faith and our friendships but our weekly operating budget is only about $900 per week. Could we do more? Sure. I will admit that it would be great to hire a children's pastor but at this point we are doing fine with volunteers. It is freeing to know that if we do not bring in enough one week, we will more than likely be fine. This allows our ministries and what we are actually doing for the people to remain the main thrust of what we talk about. Our attention is given to reaching people and touching their hearts rather than putting on a show that will entice them to give us money. 

Now, I admit there have been times I had to send an email to the church as a whole because giving was down and we were struggling to pay our bills. But to me, there is a difference between reaching out when there are genuine needs that must be met  versus constantly seeking to fill the bottomless pit of debt accrued over time.

Yes, we have had a couple of people leave because the show they had come to see (I mean church service they attended) had a few hiccups with sound or lyrics. Quite honestly if someone is going to leave because of those things, I am okay with it. These are usually people whose only contribution are critiques “because they care.” The main emphasis of any church ought to be to simply serve through their services, kids’ programs, and outreaches. Any time these things begin to cost lots of money, their budget should get looked at. Moreover, a church should never base whether or not they help someone on what they give to the church. As crazy as it sounds, I’ve heard of this happening. We have to remember the central purpose of the church: to teach, build up, and support each other. Again, it comes back to give and take. Give what you can and take when you need to. Then, when you’re able to give again, do so. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

The bottom line is this: A church can function more effectively if they stay well within in their means. Perhaps the only debt a church is carrying is the mortgage, which is something modern society sees as “good debt.” But if the mortgage payments stretch the church too thin, there has to be a better way. But it doesn’t stop with building expenses. Spending $10,000 to upgrade the computer system so the church can provide streaming services via their website is a bit excessive don’t you think? There are ways to provide streaming services at a much lower rate. It may not be as fancy, but it gets the job done. Personally, I would much rather see that $10,000 provide relief for a hurting person or family within the church. When money gets in the way of ministry and money is talked about more than caring for the people, there is a problem. Service must always be our main objective and therefore must be our main focus.