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January 03, 2008


As we move into 2008, it is worth reflecting on the major shifts which took place in 2007. Two which stand out revolve around the shift in perspective which has taken place in relation to the environment, and the paradigmatic shift which has accompanied it. For too long the West has retained a focus on short-term outcomes, locally measured. With the embrace of the reality of substantially increased carbon emissions, even without agreement as to the overall impact, there has been a need to consider both the long-term implications of present actions, and at the same time the global implications. While the slogan "think locally, act globally" has been around for a while, the blind and slavish commitment to economic growth has meant that we have both thought and acted globally. Australian sentiment has been strong in this area - one of the major reasons put forward for opponents of signing the Kyoto protocol was that our contribution to global emissions was minimal. (This may be true on a quantum scale, but if the whole world were to emit carbon at a per capita rate equivalent to Australia, we would be in much deeper trouble - there is the example to be considered).
Nations are being forced to think in the medium-to-long term, projecting out towards 2020 and beyond to 2050. Never before has strategic thinking embraced such planes, except in the imaginings of scientific discovery. In the case of science, however, the narrow focus on a particular outcome has ignored the global implications.
A new wave of thinking is now required, beyond short-term growth projections, either in share market price or economic growth. We can no longer assume that any progress is linear, or without fallout into other sectors, other parts of the planet, or other aspects of creation. The major challenge is that there has been no dollar-cost to business or individuals for many of the actions which have created the predicament we are now beginning to embrace. Will we be prepared to accept such? And how can we keep governments accountable to these beyond their contribution to budget surpluses?
A new era of political and economic thinking is breaking in upon us. Times indeed are interesting.

Posted by gary at 02:11 PM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2007

The Shape of Worship Music

Revhead has moved and redesigned his on-line persona. On this new site I found reference to this thoughtful article on the shape of worship music in the church from Brian McLaren. The letter is adapted from an article which first appeared in Worship Leader Magazine.

Greetings, fellow songwriters, fellow worshippers, fellow leaders in worship, fellow musician/artists, and fellow followers of Jesus:
For the last few years, I have been privileged to be “on the road” a lot, speaking mostly with young emerging leaders. I suppose I was asked to speak to them because of some over-forty quota system, and also because many emerging leaders are grappling with the issue of postmodernity, an issue I lost most of my hair grappling with myself - and about which I have written some books. Back home, I am a pastor serving a church that has committed itself to enter the postmodern transition and deal with its issues boldly and confidently. I say “boldly and confidently” knowing that there are as yet no maps to guide a church in this adventure - so we have no real idea where we’re going except that we’re trying to follow Jesus. I guess we feel very much like the children of Israel having left the Egypt of modernity and crossed the Sea into the unknown wilderness - we’re trusting that a God-sent cloud-pillar and fire-cloud will guide us by day and night.
One of the side benefits of travel - as a musician myself, I have truly enjoyed hearing dozens of worship bands and worship leaders, and spending literally hours at almost every event being led in worship. There are many observations and affirmations I could imagine sharing with you who are worship leaders. There are so many encouraging trends, along with a few persistent problems. But one observation stands out. It is actually a request more than an observation: a request for the songwriters among us to explore and then lead us into some new lyrical/spiritual territory.

One hears a lot of complaints about lame music, trite lyrics, theological shallowness, etc., etc., in the world of contemporary Christian music. Some of these complaints come from people who secretly wish we would go back to singing hymns, like they did back in the -50’s (18- or 19-, your pick). I am not interested in complaining, and I have little interest in the -50’s (except maybe the 2050’s).
No, here’s what I’m after: Many of us believe that we are entering (or well into) a significant theological/cultural/spiritual transition period, very possibly as significant historically as the reformation period, when the medieval world gave way to the modern world. Now, as the modern gives way to the postmodern world, we should expect to see a revolution in theology (in the end, helping us be more Biblical, more spiritual, more effective in our mission - and, please God, more clear about what our mission is). But here’s the rub.
In the modern world, theology was done by scholars, and was expressed in books and lectures. In the postmodern world, many of us believe that the theologians will have to leave the library more often and mix with the rest of us. And the best of them will join hands and hearts with the poets, musicians, filmmakers, actors, architects, interior and landscape designers, dancers, sculptors, painters, novelists, photographers, web designers, and every other artistic brother and sister possible - not only to communicate a postmodern, Christian theology - but also to discern it, discover it. Because one major shift of this transition is the shift from left-brain to whole-brain, from reductionistic, analytic rationalism to a broader theological holism - a theology that works in mind and heart, understanding and imagination, proposition and image, clarity and mystery, explanation and narrative, exposition and artistic expression.
Our songwriters could play a key spiritual role in the rooting of this more holistic theology in our people.
But sadly, as I have sat in scores of venues listening (and usually participating in) extended times of worship around the country, I have sensed that our song lyrics are too seldom leading us into this new territory. They are in some ways holding us back. Please, please, don’t hear this as criticism, but as a suggestion – “a gentle but heartfelt request” – for change.
Let me make this specific: To many of our lyrics are embarrassingly personalistic, about Jesus and me. Personal intimacy with God is such a wonderful step above a cold, abstract, wooden recitation of dogma. But it isn’t the whole story. In fact - this might shock you - it isn’t, in the emerging new postmodern world, necessarily the main point of the story. A popular worship song I’ve heard in many venues in the last few years (and which we sing at Cedar Ridge, where I pastor) says that worship is “all about You, Jesus,” but apart from that line, it really feels like worship, and Christianity in general, has become “all about me, me, me.”
If you doubt what I’m saying, listen next time you’re singing in worship. It’s about how Jesus forgives me, embraces me, makes me feel his presence, strengthens me, forgives me, holds me close, touches me, revives me, etc., etc. Now this is all fine. But if an extraterrestrial outsider from Mars were to observe us, I think he would say either a) that these people are all mildly dysfunctional and need a lot of hug therapy (which is ironic, because they are among the most affluent in the world, having been blessed in every way more than any group in history), or b) that they don’t give a rip about the rest of the world, that their religion/spirituality makes them as selfish as any non-Christian, but just in spiritual things rather than material ones. (That last sentence may be worth another read.)
I don’t think either of these indictments are as true as they would sound to a Martian observer; rather, I think that we songwriters keep writing songs like these because we think that’s what people want and need. The scary thing is that even though I don’t think these indictments are completely true - they could become more true unless we take some corrective action and look for a better balance.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but some of us are thinking right now, “If spiritual songwriting is not about deep, personal intimacy with God, what else is there?”
Let me offer a list of Biblical themes I think we would do well to explore in our lyrics:
1. You’ll be surprised to hear me say “eschatology” first - and let me assure you that I don’t mean putting the latest apocalyptic novel to music. (Please! No! Not that!) By eschatology (which means study of the end or goal towards which the universe moves), I mean the Biblical vision of God’s future which is pulling us toward itself. For many of you, raised like me in late-modern eschatologies, you’ll be surprised to hear that there is a whole new approach to eschatology emerging (led by some theologians like Walter Brueggeman, Jurgen Moltmann, and the “theologians of hope”). This approach doesn’t indulge in “modern” charts or shaky predictions. Rather, it bathes itself in the Biblical poetry of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Revelation - poetry which, when it enters us, plants in us a vision of a world very much different from and better than ours. And when this hope grows and takes root in us, we become agents of it. What joy I can imagine being expressed in songs that capture the spirit of Isaiah 9:2-7, 25:6-9, 35:1-10, 58:5-14! Who will write those songs?
They need to be written, because people need hope. They need a vision of a good future. They need to have in their imaginations images of the celebration, peace justice, and wholeness towards which our dismal, conflicted, polluted, and fragmented world must move. This is much, much bigger than songs about me being in heaven. It’s not about clouds and ethereal, other-worldly imagery. Dig into those passages, songwriters - and let your heart be inspired to write songs of hope, songs of vision, songs that lodge in our hearts a dream of the future that has been too long forgotten - the dream of God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
2. You may be equally surprised to hear me suggest that we need songs of mission. Many of us believe that a new, larger sense of mission (not just missions, and not just evangelism, but mission - participating in the mission of God, the kingdom of God, which is so much bigger and grander than our little schemes of organizational self-aggrandizement) is the key element needed as we move into the postmodern world.
This strikes at the heart of our consumeristic culture, which is “all about me, all about me, me, me.” Jesus came not to be served, but to serve - and as he was sent, so he sent us into the world. The very heart of our identity as the church in the new emerging theology is not that w are the people who have been chosen to be blessed, saved, rescued, and blessed some more. This is a half-truth heresy that our songs are in danger of spreading and rooting more and more in our people - inadvertently, of course. No, the heart of our identity as the church in the new emerging theology is that we are the people who have been blessed (as was Abraham) to be a blessing, blessed so that we may convey blessing to the world.
For many of us, the worship exists for the church. It is like a strip mine, and people are mined out of it to build the church, which is what really matters. In the new emerging postmodern theology and spirituality, that image is terrible. It mirrors the raping and plundering of the environment by our modern industrial enterprises. In it, the church is another industry, taking and taking for its own profit. How different is the image of the church as the apostolic community, sent into the world as Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, smile, heart. We need songs that celebrate this missional dimension - good songs, and many!
For inspiration, we have to again go back to Scripture, and read the prophets, and the gospels, and engage their heart for the poor, the needy, the broken. Shouldn’t these themes be expressed in song? Don’t they deserve that dignity? As I write, I am struck by this thought: perhaps we have so over-emphasized the role of songs in worship - to the exclusion of many other liturgical options (poetry, historic prayers, silence, meditative reading, etc.) -- that we have forgotten the role of song in teaching. Remember Colossians 3, where Paul talks about singing the teachings of Christ to one another in songs of the spirit?
3. You may be equally surprised to hear me recommend that we re-discover historic Christian spirituality and express it in our lyrics. As Robert Webber, Thomas Odin, Sally Morgenthaler, and others are teaching us, there is a wealth of historic spiritual writings, including many beautiful prayers that are crying for translation into contemporary song. Every era in history has rich resources to offer, from the Patristic period to the Celtic period to the Puritan period. On every page of Thomas á Kempis, in every prayer of the great medieval saints, there is inspiration waiting for us - and when we look at the repetitive and formulaic lyrics that millions of Christians are singing (because that’s what we’re writing, folks), the missed opportunity is heartbreaking. These “alien voices” will stretch our hearts and enrich them immeasurably - and eventually, these voices will become the voices of friends, of brothers and sisters, because that is what they are - if we invite the into our worship through songs
4. You will likely be less surprised to hear me say that we need songs that are simply about God - songs giving God the spotlight, so to speak, for God as God, God’s character, God’s glory, not just for the great job God is doing at making me feel good. And similarly, we need songs that celebrate what God does for the world - the whole world - not just for me, or us. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read the Psalms, because they love to celebrate what the Lord does for the whole earth, not just the people of Israel. Many of the songs we need will also celebrate God as Creator - an important theme in Scripture, but not for most of our churches. We have lacked a good creation theology in the modern era, and we need songwriters/artists and theologians to join together in the emerging culture to celebrate God as God of creation, not only 15 billion years ago (or whenever) but today, now - the God who knows the sparrows that fall, whose glory still flashes in the lightning bolt, whose kindness still falls like the morning dew, whose mysteries are still imaged in the depths of the ocean and the vast expanse of the night sky.
5. I should also mention songs of lament. The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. Sometimes I think we’re too happy: the only way to become happier is to become sadder, by feeling the pain of the chronically ill, the desperately poor, the mentally ill, the lonely, the aged and forgotten, the oppressed minority, the widow and orphan. This pain should find its way into song, and these songs should find their way into our churches. The bitter will make the sweet all the sweeter; without the bitter, the sweet can become cloying and too many of our churches feel, I think, like Candyland. Is it too much to ask that we be more honest? Since doubt is part of our lives, since pain and waiting and as-yet unresolved disappointment are part of our lives, can’t these things be reflected in the songs of our communities? Doesn’t endless singing about celebration lose its vitality (and even its credibility) if we don’t also sing about the struggle?
While I’m at it, may I offer a few stylistic observations and requests - again, not trying to be critical, but trying to be helpful, and to offer ways which you, with your gifts, can better serve the church and our mission in these transitional times? I’ll offer them in the form of some questions.
First, may I suggest that we fully and finally get over King James English in our new lyrics, even if we choose to retain it in our old? Enough said.
Second, may I suggest that we be careful about using gratuitous Biblical language - Zion, Israel, go forth, on high, etc., etc.? If there is a good reason to use such language - in other words, if we are using it intentionally, not just for a “spiritual feel,” then fine. Otherwise, if we can find contemporary language and imagery that would communicate more crisply, poignantly, immediately, and deeply to people who don’t already have a lot of pew time - then let’s use it, in the spirit of I Corinthians 14, where intelligibility to the spiritual seeker is a gospel virtue.
Third, may I suggest that in an era of Columbines and Islamic fundamentalism, we be careful about the language of jihad and holy war I suppose there is a time and place for that, but I don’t think this is it. We all need a strong dose of Anabaptist peace right about now, in my opinion.
Fourth, musically, am I the only one wishing for more rhythmic variety? Why is it that I a being blessed so much by creative drummers and percussionists wherever I go?
Fifth, can our worship leaders enrich the musical experience by reading Scripture, great prayers of the historic church, creeds, confessions, and poems over musical backgrounds? You may not like rap music, but it’s trying to tell us something about the abiding power of the spoken word, the well-chosen spoken word that is. (We have far too many less-than-well-chosen spoken words already, I think you’ll agree.)
And finally, can our lyricists start reading more good poetry, good prose, so they can be sensitized to the powers of language, the grace of a well-turned phrase, the delight of a freshly discovered image, the prick or punch or caress or jolt that is possible if we wrestle a little harder and stretch a little farther for the word that really wants to be said from deep within us? Sadly, while many of our songs have better and better music, but the lyrics still feel like “cliché train” - one linked to another, with a sickening recycling of plastic language and paper triteness.
Isn’t our God, our mission, our community worthy of more lyrical quality than we are offering so far?
Thanks for considering these things. I hope this will be the beginning of an important and ongoing conversation.
Your fellow servant,
Brian McLaren

Posted by gary at 12:29 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2006

Youth program focus

When we think about setting up youth programs in churches we immediately think social activities with lots of fun and high energy. But in Wollongong, a survey of youth in the region came up with a different focus: spirituality.

In their surveys, 'spiritual focus' scored 87 votes, compared with social activities (20 votes) and social action (justice and peace - 21 votes).

Makes you wonder whether we are reading our young people well enough in our churches, or whether our expectations are often too low. Which is not to say that good social activities aren't important, but to question whether they need to be the number one priority.

Posted by gary at 10:02 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2005

Turning 40

In his book, What Have We Learned? The Best Thinking on Congregational Life (Abingdon, 2001), Lyle Schaller writes, "While exceptions do exist, the general pattern is that congregations that have been meeting at the same address for more than forty years tend to give a higher priority to (a) perpetuating the past rather than creating the new, (b) taking care of today's members rather than seeking to reach the unchurched, (c) maintaining the real estate rather than launching new ministries to reach new generations." He concludes: "Never before in American church history have there been so many congregations that are vulnerable to this 'forty year syndrome.'"

What is your response?

Read the rest of the article here.

Posted by gary at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2005

Brian McLaren at Princeton Seminary

Brian McLaren addressed the graduating class at Princeton this year, looking at challenges facing theological education in particular, and the church in general. He speaks of the key theologians shaping emerging church leadership, interdenominational relationships, and the things which stifle and redirect newly ordained ministers. The speech runs for nearly fifty minutes, but raises a number of interesting issues. You can listen here. Be warned, the file is about 51 mb, so go make a cup of coffee, particularly if you're on a dialup connection. It's well worth the time, though.

I'd be interested to hear your responses.

Posted by gary at 08:31 PM | Comments (1)

November 28, 2005

Spiritual Formation

Gordon MacDonald makes some interesting observations about leadership in a recent edition of the Leadership weekly e-newsletter.

The forming of the soul that it might be a dwelling place for God is the primary work of the Christian leader. This is not an add-on, an option, or a third-level priority. Without this core activity, one almost guarantees that he/she will not last in leadership for a life-time or that what work is accomplished will become less and less reflective of God's honor and God's purposes.

A frank opinion? I don't think a lot of men and women in leadership know this. I mean really know it. What drives my opinion are these impressions.

First, the primary subject matter of most training and motivational conferences on leadership seems to be all about vision, about clever, well-researched programs, about growing large, successful institutions. Admittedly good stuff. But missing is the recognition that soul cultivation goes before institution building. How do you grow large, healthy, and authentic churches (the current rage) without growing the soul of a leader, which sustains the effort over the long haul?

A second impression: the dreadful casualty list of men and women who do not make it to a tenth anniversary in Christian ministry. Burnout, failure, disillusionment are exacting a terrible toll. I'm amazed how many ministers just disappear, drop off the edge.

A third: the constant conversations I have with younger men and women who confide that they are spiritually dry, unmotivated, despairing, and wondering what to do about it.

And maybe there's a fourth: I never forget how close—how really close—I myself came to missing the cut. Though my own defining moment of personal crisis came twenty years ago, the memory is always fresh.

Gordon offers a very challenging insight into ministry and spirituality. Read the whole article here.

What difference would it make to your ministry and witness if the words we used were cut by more than half? Do you think McDonald is being realistic, or idealistic?

Posted by gary at 10:14 AM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2005

Why Pastors Leave

An addendum to the post on young pastors...

Why pastors leave

59% of pastors believe the average pastor in their denomination does not stay at any one church long enough.

One out of every ten ministers has been fired or asked to leave a church at some point in his career.

Why Pastors change churches:

27% - Desire to serve in a different region or type of community
20% - Promotion to a higher position
16% - Wanting to move to a larger church
15% - Being transferred by the denomination
15% - Leaving to plant a new church
12% - Feeling God’s call to a different church
11% - Getting better pay and/or benefits

*From Facts and Trends September/October 2005 issue.

Posted by gary at 10:11 AM | Comments (1)

Why Young Pastors Leave the Ministry

Discovered this interesting post over at nakedreligion. Not sure how much is tongue-in-cheek. Some interesting observations are made...

There is an epidemic occurring right under the nose of church middle judicatories and no one seems to notice. Young pastors (less than five years in the ministry) are leaving in droves. The Lilly Foundation has poured millions of dollars into “Sustaining Pastoral Ministry” initiatives and it’s too soon to tell whether or not their approach is working. Aside from the obvious reasons pastors leave the ministry (sexual impropriety, financial mismanagement, and marital dissolution) here are the top ten reasons why young pastors call it quits:

1. The discontinuity between what they imagined ministry to be and what it actually is is too great.
2. A life without weekends sucks.
3. The pay is too low (most pastors in my denomination make less money than a school teacher with five years experience).
4. They are tired of driving ten year old cars while their congregations trade in their cars every two years.
5. Many young pastors are called into difficult congregations that chew pastors up and spit them out because experienced pastors know better.
6. Even though the search committee told them they wanted to reach young people, they didn’t really mean it.
7. When the pastor asked the search committee if they were an “emergent church”, the members of the search committee thought he said “divergent church” and agreed.
8. Nobody told the young pastor that cleaning the toilets was part of the job description.
9. The young pastor’s student loans came due and the amount of money he/she owes on a monthly basis exceeds his/her income.
10. Working at McDonalds has a lot less stress.

Why do you think young pastors are leaving in the ministry in droves?

Posted by gary at 07:41 AM | Comments (1)

February 26, 2005

Futures Thinking

Spent a few hours this afternoon in some engaging 'futures thinking'. This always energises me and underlines how much we are both people of the future, and people of the past, as a dual level of interaction takes place.

For centuries society has operated on the assumption that the future can be taken for granted. But with the increasing pace of change, we need to be much more aware of what is happening within the society around us.

At some levels the term 'futures thinking' is a misnomer, as it is not merely a matter of reading the tea-leaves, but reflecting on existing trends and discerning where they might take us. Perhaps if we had done this more as a society - and even more so as a church - we wouldn't find ourselves in so many of the prevailing predicaments.

Jesus told his disciples that "the kingdom is breaking in upon them". It is this kingdom which is our future, and if we are to be part of it, we need to be much more reflective about its future shape, and how that compares with where we are heading now.

There aren't definitive answers, but we can clarify what is important to hold on to in the midst of it all.

I like the image employed by Leonard Sweet in "Soul Tsunami", where he reflects on the tidal wave of change engulfing the church. He invites his readers to consider ways that we might surf the waves of change rather than be swamped by them. In some senses, this is an apt analogy of futures thinking.

Posted by gary at 05:05 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2005

Computers and Church Growth

The editorial in the December 2004 edition of Christian Computing magazine reports statistics that show 97% of churches that read CCM record a growth in membership by conversion, over against the national average of less than 50% of churches. The editor goes on to deduce that "these churches must be seeking to use technology tools to expand their ministry". Interesting conclusion.

I wonder whether it is more an indication of the type of thinking which takes place in such churches rather than the use of technology per se. People who use computers as a regular part of their life are much more likely to be up-to-date with contemporary trends and more likely to utilise the sort of matrix thinking (as opposed to linear thinking) which computers and technology command.

Pikka Himanen, in his book "The Hacker Ethic" explores the culture which is associated with concentrated computer use, noting different ways of perceiving truth, different ways of determining what is right, and different approaches to challenges. The computer generation tends to see obstacles as challenges rather than barriers, are more likely to be adaptable and flexible in approach, and therefore more likely to engage in shared thinking rather than hierarchical notions of authority and truth. Perhaps this approach to engagement might explain the link above, rather than merely employing a powerpoint in a church service, or an Excel spreadsheet in the offic accounting.

Posted by gary at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2005

Leading Backwards

Today we unpacked and inflated... (and inflated... and inflated...) a boat which one of our children received for Christmas, then tried to introduced them to the fine art of rowing. Talk about counter-intuitive! They all wanted to face the way they wanted to go and consequently had difficulty learning how to row. All of them gave up in frustration after a short time.

It reminds me of a neglected aspect of leadership: working out where you are going by looking at where you have been. History is one of the great determinants of any organisation’s immediate future, and needs to be addressed in order to move forward. These are the times we need to “row” an organisation – leading by looking backwards. If we do not understand what happened to bring the organisation to its present place, we are in danger of making choices which simply reinforce the things we want to change. Some unusual reactions to suggestions and ideas can be explained on the basis of historical events.

A good leader knows the history of the organisation before they arrived. People who know the history control the future.

Posted by gary at 08:49 PM | Comments (0)

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