Thoughts About Church (7)

Some of these thoughts about church have been prompted because I regularly attend church and care about it. But also because I’ve been working on a brochure about church planting, and in doing so I interviewed nine different church planters from across the country. Here’s a few of the things they said:

“I’m only 28, the youngest pastor in my district. The closest person to us is 50. … I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in 30 years when all the head pastors in our area turn over. We have a lot of giants in the faith, but who’s going to be those that step into those positions? … Which one of our generation will step into that with no pay? We’ve focused a lot on money and prosperity, who’s going to answer the call?” – B.J. Hart from Atlantic, Iowa

“I don’t dress up for church whatsoever. I stopped wearing a shirt and tie and became myself and the church started growing. … It’s not about me being the big kahuna. I’m just the small cheese. … You’ll lose a whole generation unless ministers are willing to stop hiding behind a false sense of holiness, a false sense of religious pride. I blow it every day, I mess up all the time. I’m so far from being perfect. But I love the Lord so much.” – B.J. Hart from Atlantic, Iowa

“Normally when people go to food drives it’s junk stuff. We buy turkey and stuffing, women make the pies, we get green beans, christmas candy, goodies — name brand. When you’re poor you always buy the cheap chips. Why would you want to be blessed with cheap chips? Buy the name brand. You can eat Oreos or you can eat Hydrox. We don’t want to do the least amount we can do, we want to do a litttle overboard so people feel completely overwhelmed.” – B.J. Hart from Atlantic, Iowa

OK, B.J. said all the great stuff. He was really excited and kept going for about 40 minutes. I asked maybe four questions in that time. The other pastors said good stuff, too, but B.J.’s thoughts seem to fit best here.

From talking to all the pastors, I felt an incredible sense of excitement. God is working. He’s planting new churches and doing amazing things. I don’t know how these pastors do it, they work extra jobs to make ends meet and pour their lives into their church. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if all Christians were as focused on serving God. Instead we’re distracted by things like career or family, and serving God often takes a backseat.

Certainly we can serve God in those things, and those things aren’t bad, it just seems like we settle down to our own family and our job and we lack a broader vision of what God can do.

Thoughts About Church (6)

Today I’ve been reading Red Moon Rising, a phenomenal book about the 24-7 prayer movement. One of the things that struck me is how God likes to do things his way. For all the planning, organizing, and scheming we like to put into things, God often has other ideas.

Rather than putting together a brilliant military strategy, the Israelites shouted at the wall of Jericho and were victorious. What the heck is that? You see it time and time again in Jesus’ ministry where he makes absolutely lousy p.r. moves.

Now I sound completely contradictory. As excited as I am about doing the best that I can and complaining so much about how churches screw things up, now I talk about how God doesn’t care so much about our best. I know, I don’t get it either.

I think the important part is obeying God. He wants us to do our best, to put everything we have into whatever we’re doing, and bring the best of the best to everything we do. But at the same time we need to realize our best is crap. God’s going to work through us inspite of ourselves. God will work through the 40 minute sermon, even if it puts me to sleep. He’ll work through the half-hour session of thoroughly modern worship, just like he’ll use the hymns that seemed to stand as filler in my church between the announcements and the offering. He’ll use the liturgy, and he’ll use the rambling prayer.

I don’t really get it, but I think it’s kind of cool. God doesn’t follow the marketing rules that would seem to guarantee amazing success. He has other ideas. Sometimes I think the church needs to latch on to that. Sometimes I think I need to latch on that, especially when I complain about things.

Thoughts About Church (5)

All of these ramblings about church has brought me to a deeper question about the anatomy of the church service. Why are our church services structured the way they are? I’ve seen radically different services that include all sorts of different things. Most include some sort of sermon, prayer, possibly a Bible reading, music, sometimes a special performance often referred to as special music (or just “special” if you’re at a BGEA chapel), an offering, and communion.

What’s most interesting to me is that the Bible never really talks about all of these things together in one event. The Bible commands us to meet together with other believers, but we’re not told to hold a weekly event every Sunday morning where we follow a set schedule. Maybe I need to read my New Testament again, but I don’t remember ever seeing it in there.

For that matter we don’t see anything about church buildings and property. Yet somehow over the years we’ve added all of this extra baggage and now church in our minds is a building we go to on Sunday mornings where we follow a specific routine. There’s nothing wrong with the elements of that routine or the building, or any of that. But the fact that often we only think of church as being that, especially our particular brand, that’s when we get in trouble.

The church as described in Acts is pretty revolutionary. And it’s nothing like what we have today. What if we tossed our order of service out the window and came up with something new? What would it look like? And would anybody want to come?

Thoughts About Church (4)

The sermon is part of church you really can’t get away from. And frankly, most sermons bore me. The simple style of a sermon and how it’s presented can say a lot about church.

In the Baptist church I grew up in, and many I’ve visited since, the sermon is the centerpiece of the Sunday service, and it’s given a full 40 minutes. Now maybe I’m just a TV-addicted, fast food, microwave, insta-person, but I have a really hard time paying attention to a 40 minute sermon. As hard as I try, I lose interest in the middle and my mind goes somewhere else.

My current church has sermons of 20 minutes or less, and sometimes I think they aim for 10-15 minutes. This is a much better time frame when it comes to actually paying attention and getting something out of the message, for me anyway. It’s probably a lot harder to really go in-depth, but what’s the point of going in-depth if I don’t have the patience to follow?

But no matter the length of the sermon, what really interests me is that we have a sermon. The speech is practically a historical footnote today, relegated to politicians and pastors. Back in the days before TV, movies, and radio, I imagine speeches were all the rave. Not so much today.

Sometimes I wonder why the church clings to such an old-school device. The Bible doesn’t exactly give guidelines that every Sunday service must include a biblically based message. Yet I think people would flip out if we tried to remove the sermon from today’s church services. What about a play? Or a video? Do we even have to have some sort of exhortation or challenge? Hmm.

Thoughts About Church (3)

In my on-going observations of church, music is something you can hardly ignore. I grew up in a conservative church where drums and guitars were not accepted. The occasional acoustic guitar might be OK, but don’t even think of plugging it in (if you must, hide the amp behind the poinsettas). Hymns were the staple of our service, and the youth group would sing some risky praise choruses.

Not surprisingly, I found the music dead. It bored me to tears.

Now that church I grew up in, and a lot of other churches are expanding to a more contemporary music. They’re using plugged in guitars and (gasp) drums, as well as a host of other instruments. They’re replacing the sole song leader with a worship team, and picking music from the new crop of worship songs that’s sprung up.

Often it’s an attempt to be more seeker-sensitive, to offer music people off the street will actually like. In some ways it’s successful, though I’ve often noticed it’s the older generations that are drawn to the contemporary music. Older folks (meaning people older than me) seem happy to leave the organ behind and sing something new. But I don’t think having contemporary music in and of itself really does it. While I’m certainly happy to have guitars and sing something besides “How Great Thou Art,” I find that totally modern worship is just as dull and repetitive as solid old-school hymns.

Not to offer my church as the grand, holy example, but I really like the music at my church. It’s this eclectic blend of all types of music from all ages. We’ll sing a brand new song originally performed by the Newsboys, then we’ll sing a hymn from the 19th Century, and then we’ll sing an ancient chorus that’s doesn’t have a documented history. We have a full band that backs the music, but the arrangements vary as greatly as the song selection.

Personally, I find satisfaction in this broad mix of past and current music. In some ways it offers something for everyone, but more importantly for me it offers variety.

What I think is most interesting about music is that many churches get the idea that all they need to do to reach the younger generation is change their music. If their music is up to the times, they’ll reach younger people. I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, I think it will actually reach older people. But I think the younger generation, from twenty-somethings on down, isn’t interested in modern music alone, but more in a diverse tapestry of music. Having a modern worship band is nothing, because the church can’t compare to the Dave Matthews Band. But tap into the church’s inherent history, and now you’ve got something. I heard the latest Passion CD follows this trend, using solely ancient songs.

What will really validate my poorly backed theory is if in 20 or 30 years a number of churches with contemporary music are stocked with aging boomers but nobody younger. They’ll be dying out just like the hymn and organ churches are today.

Thoughts About Church (2)

When I started attending the Episcopal church I now attend, what struck me the most was the incredibly poetic language. The liturgy brought a level of quality to the language that seemed to impart the holiness of God.

Compared to the extemporaneous speaking at the non-liturgical churches I’ve grown up in, the liturgy was a welcome relief. I can count how many times I’ve heard that awkward “we’re so glad you came to our church” introduction, or how many rambling, bumbling prayers I’ve heard that are trying so hard to sound so pious.

There are certainly ups and downs to both liturgy and the extemporaneous style.

Liturgy can become stale and old from repitition. The extemporaneous style opens the door for theological inaccuracies, aside from the just plain goofy sentiments. On the other hand that open door also allows for God to speak in a free-flowing service. The liturgy offers moments for God to speak — it’s often amazing how God can speak in different ways through the same words — but also offers an historical and theologically correct skeleton for a church service. There’s a certain sense of communion in the fact that I’m repeating words that thousands of fellow believers have repeated before me. (I’ve often complained about the lack of historical context in the church I grew up in)

I don’t think fancy words are necessary in speaking to God. God will hear the bumbling prayers or pre-written prayers. Perhaps what I prefer in the liturgy has more to do with the church-goer than with God. I don’t think God gets wrapped up in what songs we sing, what words we say, or how we do any of those things, but he does care about our heart. And perhaps from my perspective, my heart is best quieted before God with a humble, yet poetic language that imparts history, theology, and in fact the very message of salvation.

Maybe that’s just immature, but that’s where I am. It always amazes me the diversity in the churches. God doesn’t give us much of set plan in the Bible for how to do church, yet we all find our own way. Sadly, we often get pretty set that our way of doing church is the correct way.

Mmm… vegetables

Veggie Tales Collection

While strolling through Target today I noticed Veggie Tales DVDs are now being sold in three packs priced at $30. It’s nice to see that the popular series is finally a little more affordable. Previously a single episode — which is only 30 minutes long — cost between $15 and $20. With the three packs they’re only $10 each, which is still pretty steep compared to 90 minute movies for $15 or something like an entire season of the Simpsons for $35. But what are you going to do? They’re only available on DVD.

While trying to find the three collections online (1, 2, 3), I did stumble across a mammoth collection of nine Veggie Tales episodes for $88 at


1994 West Bloomfield High School year book photo

I don’t even know why I’m posting this, but here’s my freshman year book photo from high school. I scanned it for my “When I was Your Age…” column in my youth group’s newsletter. Now that it’s 2004 it somehow seems fitting to post a picture from 1994.

The psuedo-mullet sticking out from the right is actually my brother. I opted to save him the embarrassment and crop him out. Most of him anyway.

Now that I look at it, I’m finding the similarity between my 1994 self and my illustrated self to be incredibly eerie.