Seven Books I Read and Loved in 2017

I feel like I read a lot of books this year. But it would be more accurate to say that I read parts of a lot of books this year. Graduate and post-graduate education have ruined me as a reader. I have learned, among other things, how to read the first few chapters and the last few chapters, study the table of contents, and track the argument of the book without reading all of it. This works best with academic books, but it hardly passes for deep, immersive reading. But research reading is raven-like, scavenging whole books for the tastiest morsels, the bits most relevant to one’s current appetites and needs.

So. There weren’t too many books I read cover to cover in 2017. There were several sections of several books– and a fair quantity of journal articles too– which I really enjoyed and found immensely helpful as a pastor and as a scholar. But I’m not sure I could say, ‘You should read this!’ about all of them…not to mention the lack of integrity in doing so since I didn’t finished reading them myself! But, as I scanned my stack on my night stand and bedroom bookshelf, there were seven books that I not only read completely, but also enjoyed thoroughly, in 2017. Here they are, in the order I read them.

1. “Destroyer of the Gods”

I love books on the early Christian centuries, the period before Constantine, because of the insight it gives us into how Christians learned to flourish and bear witness to Christ from the margins of society and culture. Though this isn’t full of new insights (there are some notable sections) or written in riveting prose (it’s written by a historian!), it covers some of the key features of early Christian communities, with plenty of wisdom to offer our age.

2. “The Day the Revolution Began”

Though not quite as revolutionary as some might have liked— Wright defends a view of the atonement that would fit broadly within the ‘substitutionary’ views— it is still Wright’s longest and fullest engagement (in popular form) with the meaning of the cross. He blends his work from Jesus and the Victory of God with his work on Paul (his New Interpreter’s Romans commentary among other works), to sketch a multifaceted view of the atonement— one which works somewhat like a stained glass window, holding otherwise disparate pieces together in the right light.

Readers who are new to Wright will appreciate his strong connections to Passover theology and practice as a hermeneutical key in understanding the crucifixion. It provides a much more compelling picture, too, of sin, refusing to allow the Christian to say that humans broke rules so God had to do something about it. The result of this wider-angled lens on the cross is that the very core of God’s original vocation for humans becomes clear.

3. “A Walk in the Woods”

This was pure fun. Bryson is at his comedic best, especially in the early chapters. As the book goes on, the story starts to lose steam, but he held my attention with fascinating historical vignettes and a few beautiful reflections on the treasures of nature in a rapidly urbanizing world. You’ll learn a lot, and the best part is it won’t feel like it.

4. “The Challenge of Jesus”

This is vintage Tom Wright. It was fun to see his early attempts to take his work on the historical Jesus and translate it for non-academics. I think it is crucial, however, to remember that though Wright is constructing an approach to the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of his resurrection that may seem circuitous and cumbersome to evangelicals, he is doing so in response to the skeptic/atheist/agnostic historian. It forms a bridge to their world (and especially the academic quarters of that world), and it is a bridge not easily torn down.

5. “A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?”

I had never read Robert Jenson before. But as the tributes and eulogies flowed in this the year of his passing, I felt compelled to start. This was a fabulous recommendation from good friends. It’s more or less the transcript of his lectures to a group of undergrads on “basic Christian theology”. But in Jenson’s artful hands, it is so much more than basic; it is narrative, it is comprehensive, and it is captivating. Like Wright, Jenson knows his (initial) audience may be mostly liberal (read: not Creedal per se), yet presents confessional articles of Christianity in clear and elegant prose. I see what all the fuss is about now.

6. “Our Secular Age”

If you’re like me, you’ve never read Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age, but you’ve read other works on its importance. I read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular a few years ago, and this is a worthy companion. It’s less of a summary or re-articulation of Taylor (as Smith’s book is), and more of a “so what?” pastoral follow-up. Each chapter contains contributions from various pastors/thinkers/writers on the implications for ministry practitioners in this new secular age. It’s very readable and contains specific points of reflection for our American context. I wish every pastor would read it and take it seriously. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, if you only picked one from my list to read in 2018, let this be it.

7. “Practical Theology”

This one is mostly for seminarians, methinks. But it is what evangelical seminaries need in order to overhaul the current approach to “practical theology”. I know: that’s a bold and perhaps brash statement. In my very limited experience, so much of what passes off as practical theology is nothing more than applied theology— preaching, pastoral care, and the like. Meanwhile, the tools and trade secrets of anthropology and sociology are quarantined to “cultural studies” and maybe a few “missiology” programs. But the (dominant) British model of practical theology places theory and practice in a dialogical relationship, counting both as theological. The goal is to parse the embodied and embedded theology of practice (along with its communities, culture, and contexts) and to allow it to critique and shape historical, biblical, and systemictheology— instead of only allowing the influence to flow in the other direction. To be sure, for some this is a path to abandoning orthodoxy. But in Ward’s work, the evangelical reader will find a guide she can trust amidst the myriad of models and methods. For pastors who have completed seminary education, there is so much in here that will help you utilize old tools you learned (along with some new ones) in fresh contexts. After all, we often find ourselves doing practical theology on the fly; we may as well learn how to do it better on purpose.

BONUS: “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”

 This is a ‘bonus’ because I didn’t read this one cover to cover. But, I think if one were to read the early chapters in which Hays lays out his foundation and hermeneutical methodology and then to skip to the topics which interest the reader (as I did), it works quite well. It was immensely helpful to me to watch Hays carefully work through a consistent rationale and arrive at conclusions to ethical questions in ways which honor the authority of Scripture and take seriously the particulars of our context.

What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

“Still”: A 5- Day Devotional

Earlier this year, Integrity Music release a 5-day devotional that I had written to accompany a wonderful new instrumental album called ‘Still‘ by a fabulous UK band called ‘Rivers & Robots’. (One of their other albums– ‘Eternal Son‘–  is always on in our home, thanks to a friend who gave it to me on vinyl, and to my son who can’t get enough of it!)

Anyway, when the devotionals first released, there was a problem with my voice– it was pitch-shifted lower by some sort of technological fluke. Instead of being soothing, it sounded like Kylo-Ren trying to feed you some propaganda. Well, all that is sorted now, and these sound much better. I hope they will bless you and provide you a little respite in this noisy and chaotic world.

DAY 1

 

DAY 2

 

DAY 3

 

DAY 4

 

DAY 5

Building the Currency of Trust, Pt. 2

This is a follow-up post to the previous one on the ‘Currency of Christian Leadership’. In that post, I made the case that the Old Testament model of leadership was based on a kind of ‘divine right’ to rule. The ‘man of God’ ascended the ‘mountain of the Lord’, received the ‘word of the Lord’, and came and told the people what to do. But in the New Testament, because every believer has the Spirit of the Lord not just ‘upon’ them but ‘in’ them, the ground is level in terms of access to God and to His word. The authority to lead within the New Testament church seems to come from trust– when a person’s gifts and callings are evident to all, and their character has been tested, they are set into a particular office of leadership.

So the question is…

How do leaders earn the currency of trust?

There are many ways of answering this, and different words may refer to the same concepts or core ideas. But in my mind…

Trust is the result of transparency, consistency, and kindness.

Transparency.
By transparency, I don’t mean that we tell everyone everything. I simply mean that we don’t try to hide things from people, and, where appropriate, we give them access. Take the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15– the most pivotal staff meeting in all of church history. The key leaders from both Antioch and Jerusalem were there. Each spoke freely– and sometimes strongly. Then James, the trust leader of the group, made a decision that was, in his words, a judgment call. Then, the decision was clearly communicated– it was written down!– and personally delivered— Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with members from the Jerusalem church who stayed for a few days, long enough to pray, prophesy, and encourage the church in Antioch. It’s also worth noting that the very contents of the council were disclosed to all– which is why we can read about in Luke’s volume 2, the Book of Acts!

As often as we can let people into the process, we should. Even if they aren’t weighing in on the decisions, it can be helpful to let them know what what into the decision. Provide context. Admit the limitations of your logic or even of the decision-making process. Acknowledge the inherent risks. Give them space to wrestle with it and to process it on their own. The worst thing to do is to keep people out or in the dark, and then try to serve up some spin or to try to manipulate them into feeling how you want them to feel.

Thus, transparency = humility + vulnerability.

Consistency.
Nobody likes to be boring, but a certain measure of predictability is associated with being trustworthy. For example, the faithfulness of God is likened to the surety of the rising sun. The sun does the same ole predictable thing every day (more or less!), and that is a sign in creation of the dependability and faithfulness of God.

For leaders to gain trust, their responses need to be consistent. We can’t say ‘Yes’ one day to a certain kind of thing, and then ‘No’ the next day to that same sort of request. They can’t change course every year, chasing a new trend or fad in church life. This doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to the Spirit or discern new vision or direct a new course. We can and must do those things. But it must fit within an overall framework of consistency. Paul’s frustration with Peter (as evidenced in Galatians) was that Peter would act differently around Gentiles depending on if members of the Jerusalem church were around! Paul thought it would cause confusion and instability to Gentile converts– and that it demonstrated a lack of integrity on Peter’s part.

Thus, consistency = reliability + integrity. 

Kindness.
I chose this word because, for one, a leader may be transparent and consistent, and still not good. Psyco-pathic serial killers can be the first two things! Kindness is not ‘niceness’; it’s a Christ-shaped kind of love that manifests in forgiveness that flows from a tender heart toward others.

Paul, writing to the Ephesian church, urges them to work toward unity with one another by being ‘kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ Jesus’ forgave them. If we want people to trust us, we have to show them that we are safe places for their questions, fears, doubts, and disagreements. If every time a person raises a question or expresses a concern, we shut them down and tell them to just ‘submit’, we may gain power, but we won’t win trust.

Thus, kindness = tenderness + safety.

One final question that might come up: How does a leader who is new to a community gain trust when they are given a position first?

First of all, there is nothing wrong with placing a person in a position of trust before they’ve had time to earn it themselves. This happens all the time, and to some degree it happened with Paul after his conversion. It took Barnabas vouching for Paul before the church began to trust him.Which leads to the second thing…

When a new leader is placed in a position of leadership before they have earned the trust of the people, they are borrowing the trust of established leaders. When I first arrived at New Life, I was allowed to lead worship before people really knew who I was. But the worship pastor at the time, Ross Parsley, was implicitly vouching for me by placing me up there. I was conscious that I was borrowing his trust– the trust that the church had in him. That meant I was a steward of the currency that he had earned. Let me say that again: A new leader is a steward of the currency of trust that the established leaders have earned. So, steward it well. [See ‘Figure A’ below (like my fancy sharpie drawing?)]

Figure A

And, work hard to earn trust for yourself. After all, the best case scenario is when you have earned the trust of new people that the established leaders never had, and in doing so expand the sphere of trust for the established leaders. [See ‘Figure B’ below]

Figure B

 

Anyway…these are just some musings paired with a really bad sharpie sketch. And again, there probably a half dozen other ways to say the same thing. I welcome your input as you wrestle with these ideas.

The Currency of Christian Leadership

 

Where do leaders in churches and Christian ministries gain their authority to lead?

It is tempting to simply say, ‘From God!’ There is, of course, some truth to this. All authority ultimately comes from God, and Scripture tells us that all who occupy positions of official authority do so because God allows it.

And yet, there is more to the situation. Romans 13 refers specifically to government authority. What about the authority to lead the people of God? Is the model of spiritual leadership different from general organizational leadership? And even if we would say that it is, the question is where do we look for our model of spiritual leadership?

Over the years, I’ve heard church and ministry leaders protect their power by admonishing others not to “touch the Lord’s anointed”– which they took to mean never challenging their authority. They squashed dissent and took control by using the Lord’s name…quite nearly in vain. Strangely, all the Biblical justification they used for their right to power was based on an Old Testament model of leadership.

Not everything from the Old Testament is different in the New, but leadership underwent a severe overhaul. A leadership mentor insightfully pointed out to me almost ten years ago that in the Old Testament the man of God went up to the mountain of God to get the word of God and then came down and told the people of God what to do. Think, Moses.

But in the New Testament, we are together a Kingdom of Priests; each of us has access to God, and the Spirit of God living within. A Kingdom of Priests was God’s original intent; it was the people of Israel who were afraid and refused, begging Moses to go for them. This inclination to have someone else in charge surfaced generations later when they pleaded with God, “Give us a king!” God wanted to be their King, to have each of them follow Him. But they refused. Strong human leadership is easier; it’s more convenient, and far more efficient. Just put someone in charge and let him delegate authority down.

Consider how the New Testament church appointed leaders. 1 Timothy 3 contains the New Testament guidelines for elders and deacons. Here is just one line from the long list of qualifications, and this is one for deacons:

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and household well.” (1 Tim. 3:12, NIV)

Follow me for a minute: Who was the best and greatest king of Israel? No brainer– David. Every other king is measured against David. Because of God’s love for David, He wouldn’t punish Solomon for his sins during his own lifetime. Even the best of the kings of Judah that followed couldn’t hold a candle to David. He was the greatest.

Yet David would not meet this New Testament qualification to deaconship. What did deacons in the New Testament church do? Remember Acts 6? Deacons were appointed to wait on tables to help with the care of the widows. Wait a minute. You mean David would not have been allowed to wait on tables in the New Testament church? Yup.

The greatest leader in the Old Testament would not have qualified for the lowest position of leadership in the New Testament.

Why?

In the Old Testament, leaders got their authority to rule from “divine right”; in the New Testament, people get their authority to lead from earned trust. Every one of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and even in Acts 6 when they chose the first 7 deacons has to do with trust. What kind of reputation do they have? Are they known for servanthood? Are they known for being people of wisdom, full of Spirit of God? Have they been tested? Do they have the abilities necessary? (Paul says specifically, “able to teach”.) He doesn’t ask if they’ve been prophesied over as children or if they have a calling on their lives or if they believe they are called to be a prophet to the nations or even if they’re anointed. He asks what sort of reputation they have. In essence, can they be trusted?

Trust is the currency of leadership in the New Testament era.

There are authority structures even in the New Testament church. It’s not spiritual anarchy. The church in Jerusalem was led by a council of elders, the head of which appears to be James. Authority is not a bad word. The question is how God wants to establish that authority publicly in the Church. From the examples in Acts and from Paul’s writings, the process seems to be as follows:

  1. God works in an individual’s life, giving gifts and the desire for leadership.     
  2. The individual gains the people’s trust by a servant’s heart, solid character, and by faithful and skilled service.
  3. The established leaders lay hands on him/her in front of the people, confirming his/her calling and setting him/her in office.

It is tragic irony that the Church so often resorts to an Old Testament leadership model, and not the one pioneered back in Jerusalem in the 1st century.

All authority comes from God; but leadership over others comes from the trust of the people.


How do leaders gain the trust of their people? More on that in Part 2 HERE.

Preparing for a New Year

For the past 6 or 7 years, Holly and I have done a prayer and planning retreat, usually at the end of the calendar year, or sometimes right at the beginning. We were inspired by some wise, older, mentors who talked about their rhythm of intentionally praying and planning for the new year. (Special thanks to my parents for watching our kids this year, as in recent years.) 

Each year, we’ve done it slightly differently, but there has generally been a progression from prayer to planning. Often, we start by listening, waiting upon the Lord, asking Him if He has a word for us for the new year. This year, to aid our listening, we began by sitting in the beautiful church at the Franciscan monastery near our house. Holly and I found separate corners in the quiet, empty sanctuary for about an hour or so. Holly used the ‘Prayer of Examen’ as a way of taking stock of the year [here’s a short article from Peter Scazzero on how Evangelicals can practice the Prayer of Examen]. I sat and quieted my heart, kneeling in silence. We both read passages of Scripture and journaled.


Over lunch, we talked about some of the things we heard from the Lord. Then we made our way to the retreat center in town where we would spend two nights, and took the afternoon to formulate a ‘Rule of Life’ for each of us [here’s a very thorough website from Steve Macchia on how Evangelicals can create a ‘Rule of Life’]. Many people do this as an exercise in solitude, but we found it helpful to discuss it with one another because it helps us to not be too ambitious or unrealistic. Plus, my wife is an external processor so everything is better when you have someone to talk it out with.

Here’s a sample of my Rule of Life (slightly redacted for the public):

rule-of-life-001

A new practice we did this year was to try to set morning and evening habits (or ‘liturgies’ in the very loose James K. A. Smith sense of the word– or in the sense Eugene Peterson called his ‘liturgical nap’ decades before Smith!). We are both rather poor at consistency, but we aren’t willing to give up because we believe in the formative power of spiritual habits (1 Tim. 4:6-16).* So we talked through the physical, habitual rituals for our mornings and evenings– from a consistent wake time, to work-out time, to prayer, Bible reading, and breakfast (and, dinner clean-up, bedtime prep, reading with the kids, and nighttime prayers). We tried to be realistic and not too ambitious. We also discussed a very simple ‘Sabbath’ practice to try– beginning with a walk, our evening meal, a candle and prayer for others as we gather at the table. We have four kids, so life is far from monastic– but rhythms even with the chaos and mess of real life– can make it feel like there’s music to our movements (and not just madness!).

Our first evening was mostly recreational: we went out to eat, came back and read, and relaxed. The next morning, it was time to go over the calendar for the new year. We tried to put in the things we know: from kids activities (basketball, soccer, dance, etc) to meal groups. Then we blocked out my travel and in-town special ministry events. With a year-at-a-glance, we talked about possible vacations, camping trips, and weekend getaways, circling dates on the calendar that would serve as placeholders until plans are actually made. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t ‘schedule first what matters most’, then whatever comes will fill the spots. Our goal was not to fill the calendar, but to allow ourselves to see what kind of margin we could create. All the wildness and goodness of life happens in the white spaces we leave, right?

The afternoon was mostly reading and doing a bit of personal work– Holly did some homeschool planning, and I did some dissertation editing. Then, we had dinner, watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, and ran out to grab some hot chocolate. I’m telling you all these boring details not because I think you’ll find them compelling, but precisely because they are uninteresting: a prayer and planning retreat is not epic or other-worldly. It is the kind of space in the ordinary for you to breath, and for God to breathe in it.

img_1309

One final piece of our annual retreat is writing letters to our children. Years ago, we bought each of them a journal that we write in. Though we may write in it at different points in the year, we make it a point to write in it at this retreat. With some worship music going in the background, we pray for the Lord to give us a ‘word’ or a theme for each child. Then, we write them a letter in the journal, recapping some of what we have seen in them this year, and in what we sense for them in the year ahead. The plan is to give them each their journal when they graduate high school, or something like that. So, they won’t read their ‘word’ now. But, the mere act of journalling a word for them each year allows us to follow up with a personal conversation when we get home, shepherding them into the next season.

Anyway…our retreat is an amalgam of things we’ve learned from others along the way– from the Examen to the Rule of Life to the journalling idea. I’m quite sure none of this is original to us. And it certainly shouldn’t be unique to us. If this is inspiring or helpful to you in anyway, please, use it. If not, forget about it! 🙂


Even if you didn’t get days away to prepare for a new calendar year, here’s a little recap with some helpful questions to guide some reflection on your end:

Spiritual review:

  • Where did you feel God’s joy in your life last year?
  • Where did God’s grace show up in helping you give and receive love?
  • Where did you feel joy drain out of you last year?
  • Where did you fail to allow grace to flow through you by failing to give or receive love?

Spiritual preview:

  • Is there a word or a phrase or a theme from the Lord for this year?
  • What are some relationships the Lord is calling you to be attentive to this year?
  • Are there some projects that the Lord is leading you to step out and attempt this year?

Spiritual habits:

  • What are your repeated actions each morning and evening?
  • Is there a built-in rhythm for rest and weekly sabbath?
  • Are there times during the week where you can be free of your phone (Can you give it ‘office hours’?)?
  • What will guide your Bible-reading this year?

Planning for margin:

  • What activities have you already committed to?
  • What trips have you already planned for work or ministry?
  • Where can you mark out space for retreats and vacations– time for reflection and renewal, and for recreation?
  • Where can you leave margin– unscheduled space– in your calendar?

Paying attention:

  • If you have children, what is the Lord doing in their lives?
  • How can you co-operate with the Holy Spirit’s work in your children or in the lives of those around you?
  • What can you cultivate in your children or in the lives of those around you?

For any of you who have your own rhythm of prayer and planning for your lives and homes…do share so that this can be but the spark for the gathering of collective wisdom in the community of faith.

Cheers to you in 2017!


* For an illustration of how the Holy Spirit works in us to helps us ‘make every effort’ in the formation of character through the training of habits, here’s a 4-min clip from a sermon I gave in 2010! Excuse the scruffy look!

The Problem With Our Critique of Modern Worship, Pt. 1

What are the repeated critiques you hear about modern worship?

It is so noisy.

And why is every bridge a monosyllabic chant? (eg. ‘whoa…oh oh…)

It looks too much like a concert.

The songs are so repetitive.

It’s too much about ‘me’.

I am sure there are more, but let’s just take these five. I will focus on the first three in this post, and on the last two in the next installment.

First, the critique of noise and the use of non-sensical, monosyllabic words.
I have combined the first two because both find very interesting parallels in ancient Israelite worship. Fuller Seminary’s Old Testament professor John Goldingay writes:

‘The onomatopoeic verb most commonly translated “praise”, halal…which lies behind that noun tehilla, suggests that praising means saying lalalala. The derived expression “hallelujah” is thus an [eruption] combining this verb with the short form of the name of Yhwh…’

Wait…so ancient Israelite praise was often an eruption of repetitive monosyllabic sounds? It gets better. Goldingay continues:

‘Alongside the formlessness of shouting and ululating that expresses the untamed and undomesticated fervor of praise is the form and order or music that also enhances praise as it channels and thus enhances that fervor…’

And what sort of musical accompaniment ‘enhances that fervor’? Why, a rhythmic noisiness, of course.

‘The key musical aspect to Israel’s praise is rhythm. We have little evidence of melody or harmony in Israelite music; the musical aspect to worship would likely not strike a Western person as very musical at all…

The function and nature of sound would thus resemble those of the crowd at a football game or the work of a rapper more than those of regular Christian worship.’

The parallels with ancient Israelite worship are not insignificant or incidental. I grew up in non-denominational, Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, and almost every teaching on worship I heard was rooted in the Old Testament: patterns of the Tabernacle of David and the Temple of Solomon, the stories about the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew words for praise, the Psalms, and on and on. This is not to say that there was no reflection given to what makes worship Christian. We understood how the three symbols/figures central to Israelite worship– temple, priest, and sacrifice– are fulfilled in Christ. And what’s more, we understood (if only dimly) that what is true of Christ is true of us: because He is the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice, we have become the temple, priests, and living sacrifices. The influence of Old Testament worship texts was not set in isolation from or in opposition to the New Testament or a Christological understanding of worship.

But it was set in opposition to personal preferences or cultural norms of ‘expressiveness’ (or lack thereof) and loudness. For instance, in many non-denominational worship settings– especially those of a Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasion– the congregation is exhorted to not stay silent but to ‘make a joyful noise’ or to ‘lift up a shout of praise’. Psalm 150 is read to encourage the use of any and all instruments–and by extension, the full range of musical creativity– to ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’

While Goldingay notes that in some Calvinist traditions, music that overpowers the voice is problematic (as it was for Barth), for those steeped in ancient Israelite worship, the louder the better!

Goldingay states it strongly:

‘Its systematic insistence on noisesome worship issues the Psalter’s closing exhortation to intellectual and socially activist readers of the Psalms, reminding us that sharp thinking, heartfelt sincerity, moral integrity, joyful feelings, loving commitment, willing obedience and social involvement are not the only important things in the world…’

Where does this leave us? Perhaps it should chasten us from being too hasty in condemning a certain worship style or musical approach as being ‘unbiblical’…when what we really mean is that it doesn’t fit our culturally-conditioned mode of expression. (Would it be painting with too broad a brush to suggest that Western European approaches to music in worship favor a quieter, ‘accompaniment’ approach, while Eastern– and perhaps African– approaches to music accentuate rhythm and volume?)

Next, the critique about the resemblance to a rock concert.
For those loosely familiar with my work over the past few years, you know that I have challenged the church— at times quite sharply— to work more attentively to align the visual elements of a service (lights, stage, layout…even architecture, where possible) with the verbal elements. Too often we say it’s all about Jesus while the image magnification continues to put our worship teams in focus.

So, this critique has considerable merit.

And yet, we are too careless in applying it. See a church with lights? Ah, it must be a rock show. See a band front and center? They must be ego-maniacs. Yet it is not simply the presence of a cultural form in Christian worship that matters; it is how Christians inhabit that form.

There is a parallel here in Biblical studies. When a young bible student discovers that there were Babylonian stories of a ‘Job’-like character, he may be initially dismayed. Oh no. The Bible is not true after all. It is simply borrowing well known ancient myths and reworking them. But such a conclusion would be a mistake. For it is not simply the presence of the myth that matters; it is how the Israelite storytellers ‘inhabited’ that myth— how they made it their own and re-worked it. And the differences make all the difference. With Job, it matters greatly that YHWH speaks to Job, whereas the Babylonian god, Marduk, does not. YHWH is not simply transactional, giving back what was lost; YHWH is fiercely personal.

And so in worship services, we must not be lazy and look only for similarities between a church service and a rock concert. We must also pay attention to the differences.

Here’s an example. At a recent conference our church hosted, our worship team came out to lead after a well-produced, creative and inspiring video opener. Now, the genre of conference opening sessions says, “Open big! Capitalize on the excitement! Build the momentum!” To be sure, there is nothing evil about doing that. Yet, Jon Egan—my friend and the worship pastor at New Life Church— chose to subvert the script. They came on stage unspectacularly. Jon was hidden behind the other leaders playing a floor tom drum for the first song, a mid-tempo number with no added hype.

Think more deeply: What are the other elements of the ‘rock concert’ cultural form? A front man or woman, lights (focused on the lead singer), perhaps music that capitalizes on the emotion. But you know what our team did? There were six people across the front, and the darn thing about even numbers is no one becomes the center. When Jon— surely the one in everyone’s mind who should be the leader— finally did speak, we were four songs in and in a worshipful frame of mind. And during the song that he did lead, the lights all of sudden went dim, silhouetting the band, drawing our focus further upward on God.

Now, this is simply one example. You can think of others. And it does not solve all our problems with borrowing the rock concert form. But that’s the point: there is no easy way through this— no easy critiques and no easy defenses.

We must constantly wrestle when we borrow cultural forms; we must work intentionally and attentively to let all the elements— sight and sound and action— center on Christ and proclaim the Gospel.

But such carefully work won’t be the result of cheap critiques of modern worship.

[Goldingay’s quotes are from his ‘Old Testament Theology, Volume Three: Israel’s Life’, pp. 173-175.]

READ PART TWO HERE.