Who Is “Church”? Pt. 1

What is “Church“? Who is Church for? The lost? The disciple? What are Sundays for?

Many pastors jump right to the Great Commission and define “Church” through the lens of a “heaven and hell” crisis. The church invariable gets defined by what it does or what it ought to be doing. But with God, identity precedes activity. Adam and Eve were made in God’s image before they were given a vocation. So, we need to ask what Church is…or more precisely, who Church is.

Before we can begin to properly wrestle with this question, we need to zoom out all the way out and ask who Jesus is. How we think about Jesus and the salvation He brings affects the way you think of Church and our mission.

To say it in theological language:

Our Christology shapes our Soteriology;

Our Soteriology shapes our Ecclesiology;

Our Ecclesiology shapes our Missiology.

Or in a series of questions:

  • Who is JESUS? (Christology)
  • What is SALVATION? (Soteriology)
  • Who is CHURCH? (Ecclesiology)
  • What is MISSION? (Missiology) 

——————–

THIS IS HOW WE TEND TO THINK THROUGH THE LIST:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior
  • Salvation = forgiveness of sins and a ticket to heaven
  • Church = a collection of saved individuals who pass time in the meantime
  • Mission = optional extra credit

OR:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior 
  • Salvation = an escape from Hell
  • Church = a lifeboat (functionally: God’s sales and marketing team)
  • Mission = a mandate to rescue lost souls 

What results is an often frenetic pace of ministry, where the whole focus is on getting people to come to church or get saved. Songs and sermons are aimed at going “wide” on Sundays, while other “environments” are created for going “deep.”

But imagine if you ran your home this way: What if you were constantly telling your kids to keep the house clean because guests were coming over? What if you told them to eat on their own time or in the back room? Eventully, the house would cease to be a home; it would be a showroom. The children would stop being family and would become housemaids. This is, in fact, how so many staff members at many churches feel. Everything  is geared for the “outsider.”

[The rebuttal is often, “But we do a mid-week service for believers…Sundays are for the unsaved or unchurched.” I hope to address this in the next post…but my short answer is, our practices are formative. What you do when you gather becomes what you are. This is perhaps most true of our most prominent gatherings: the weekend service. One might say, “What you do with the most people becomes who you most are.”]

——————–

THIS IS WHAT WE SEE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS:

  • Jesus = “Lord” (YHWH & Caesar– King of Creation & of the nations) and “Christ” (Promised Savior)
    Acts 2:36 (ESV)
    “ ‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ ”

It is not untrue to call Jesus our personal Lord and Savior– the Triune God is deeply personal. But the Lordship of Christ is not, as Leslie Newbigin reminded us, a private opinion but a public truth. The rulers of Rome wouldn’t have trembled if the Apostles preached Jesus as their personal Lord who was living in their heart. No– Herod and Caesar and all the other “powers” trembled because these Christians were announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the Cosmos. For them, the resurrection and ascension were not “Jesus going home” (as though He were ET!)…but Jesus being enthroned!

  • Salvation = God working within His world to redeem and restore all things
    Acts 3:21 (ESV)
    “…until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

By the same token, salvation is much more than the forgiveness of sins. It is the setting right of all  that is broken in the world. At the heart of what is broken is the human; and he must be set right with God. So, it is not wrong to emphasize the forgiveness of sins. It’s just not the whole Story.

  • Church = the Kingdom community, formed by the Spirit, living now as it will be then.
    Acts 2:42 (ESV)
    “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Church becomes not a collection of saved individuals but a new community. The first priority of the eleven apostles in Acts 1 is to replace Judas. Why? Because 12 was a significant number– it signified the Church as the new Covenant People. The Church is a sign of the Kingdom– a people who live as if Jesus is King now, and whose very love for one another point to the Future that Christ is bringing.

  • Mission =to announce Christ as King here and now and to anticipate the Kingdom
    Acts 8:6-8 (ESV) “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.”

We are not told to build the Kingdom. We are not called to expand it. Rather, Paul tells us to build for the Kingdom (1 Cor. 15), to do things here in Christ. So, we announce Christ as King– we preach the Gospel– and we live in anticipation of His Kingdom arriving in fullness. This idea of anticipation is how N. T. Wright frames works of justice and restoration done in Jesus’s name. We are beginning to live now as it will be then. In living this way, the Gospel is both seen and heard.

——————–

There are many more questions to be wrestled with regarding church, not least of which is how we ought to think about our gatherings. I hope to address that in the next post.

But for now, how does this broader framework change your understanding of Who Church is?

Overview of Ephesians in 15 Minutes by N. T. Wright

For those already familiar with theologian N. T. Wright, this talk will seem a bit elementary– and much shorter!– than his normal lectures. For those unfamiliar with Wright, you may not see what all the fuss about this theologian is about. "Ephesians cannot be summed up in 15 years of study let alone 15 minutes," you may rightly say. But keep in mind that Wright is one of the rare breed of theologians who can write multiple 700+ page volumes on Christian Origins, a full-length 500+ page commentary on Romans, and yet write dozens of other books aimed at the general public, and succeed at both! That sort of excellent scholarship combined with accessible articulation are what make him special.

What is remarkable about this short talk, given not to seminary students but to the whole student body at a Wheaton College chapel, is how, in 15 minutes, he is able to show Paul's cosmic soteriology and how we fit into it. If brevity, as Shakespeare said, is the soul of wit (which for Shakespeare meant intelligence not humor), then N. T. Wright's wit and wisdom are both dazzlingly brilliant. The whole talk, only about 22 minutes long, can be viewed on iTunesU HERE.

NT Wright Gives Quick Tour Through Ephesians from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

 

 

What Makes A Worship Song Uniquely Christian?

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few posts ago, I started the conversation about what our worship songs communicate about God and why that matters. Then, earlier this week, I was asked to write down some thoughts on songwriting for a booklet that will be distributed at a certain conference coming up in Australia. While I can’t be certain what bits of what I sent will make it and what won’t (it was rather lengthy!), here is an excerpt that I thought might be a nice follow-up to my earlier post of what is at stake in our worship lyrics.]

What do our songs and prayers say about God? If we were to construct our church’s theology solely based on the lyrics we sang, what kind of “God” would that be? And more to the point, could our lyrics be applied to a generic deity or is there anything uniquely Christian about the God they depict?

It is not enough to simply say “God” in our songs. Which “God”? The one Oprah describes, the one Deepak Chopra worships? People in America are filling in the blanks in their own minds of the “God” we’re talking about and the picture of God is often disfigured as a result. I can’t speak for what the view of “God” is in other countries and cultures, but one would think that in countries where many distinct religions abound—like in Malaysia, the country I grew up in—it only becomes more important that we are saying and singing things that are uniquely Christian.

So, what makes a song uniquely Christian?

1.    Christo-centric
This is a fancy way of saying our songs should focus on Jesus the Messiah. We need to sing about His pre-eminence, how He co-created the world with the Father, how He left His throne in heaven and became a man, how He suffered death and was buried, how he rose again conquering sin and defeating the evil that has infected the cosmos, how He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, how He will return in glory to judge the world and set it right and make all things new. (There. I have summarized what the creeds have said about Jesus!)

And in saying all these things we should name Him. We can do better than a generic “You.” His name is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the rightful King of the World.

2.    Trinitarian
The Trinity is not a concept to be understood; they are Persons to be worshipped. But we are not helping that cause by not naming Them in our worship. And we make things worse when we get muddle “Who is doing what.” The early apostles went to great lengths to help us assign the right roles and functions to the right Persons of the Trinity (The Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, the Spirit as Life-Giver, etc). We would do well to pay attention to that in our writing.

This mysterious belief in God as three Persons is uniquely Christian. We are not praying to, singing to, or following an amorphous, monolithic Hero-God. We are drawn up into the Divine dance, the communion of the Tri-Personal God. If we’re looking for help in understanding the distinct roles, we can, once again, turn to the Nicene Creed—the only statement of Christian faith accepted by every stream of the Body of Christ, both Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant (and rejected by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults and religions that would like to be called “Christian”).

As I wrestle with this, I am not yet convinced that every song needs to be overtly Trinitarian by acknowledging all three Persons. A song could be aimed at one Person of the Trinity. (Think of a song about Yahweh as Creator-God, the Almighty Father, or about Jesus the Redeemer and King, or about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or God’s “empowering presence” with us.) But even in doing this we are acknowledging the God we worship as three-in-one.

If you were to comb through the catalog of my songs (you might first need a powerful search engine to find them!), you would discover that many of my songs simply address “God” or “You”.  Many of them are not Christo-centric or Trinitarian, and some, worse yet, are not even uniquely Christian. Much of that I regret. This journey for me is only a year or so old. But I want to write songs that are uniquely Christian and that help people live our truly Christian lives as a result. Would you join me on the journey and embrace the challenge?

N. T. Wright: “God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil”

What does our culture think of evil? Why do we pretend it doesn't exist until it hits us in the face? And what has God done about it? Is He distant and watching, waiting? Or is He working from within His creation? Does the cross address more than our personal sin? In this brilliant guest lecture from N. T. Wright, given on a visit to Seattle Pacific University, he addresses what he calls the "new problem of evil" and what Jesus has done– and what He will do– about it.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10785299&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1

NT Wright: "God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

Click HERE for the link of the near-exact transcript of the talk.


Are Worship Pastors Becoming Extinct?

MCP5151792  Over the past seven years, I have served as the Director of the New Life School of Worship, a 9-month program designed to train worship leaders for local churches. We believe that to effectively prepare our students for local church worship ministry they need to be trained in more than music. They need to be grounded in theology, familiar with church history, and responsible with their handling of the Scriptures. Moreover, they need to learn what it means to be a pastor: to shepherd the people under their care. 

But it seems that some churches aren't looking for that. They would prefer a musician who can lead the "singing", oversee the tech team, and produce recordings of their original songs. None of these are bad expectations, of course. But are we looking for these trade skills at the expense of other, more essential pastoral qualities? Are worship leaders simply highly skilled technicians who have a "steady gig" at a church? 

Today's worship leader may spend more time with his Macbook than with a real book. She may be more familiar with GarageBand than the people in her band. He may be better versed with directing the choir than providing spiritual direction. 

Of course, the trade side of being a worship leader and the pastoral side are not mutually exclusive. A person can be good at Pro Tools and at pastoring the people on his team. The trouble is we've lost the sacredness of the pastoral vocation. Any person who says their core role is to pray, study, and provide spiritual direction is not as "useful" to the corporation we call church. What else can you do? we ask. Then we proceed to fill so much of their time time with scheduling bands, arranging music, and working with the latest recording software that they are no longer doing any pastoral work. Musicians and singers become cogs in a wheel, things we use to fill slots. True, the administration needs to be done. And yes, musical excellence is valuable. But at what price?

Ross Parsley, the long-time worship pastor here at New Life, is fond of saying that music ministry is not about music; it's about people. Worship ministry is first a sort of a "helps" ministry that serves the Body of Christ. But more to the point, it is an excuse for us to connect with one another. Music is the table we gather around, the place where we see each other face to face, and then learn how to walk alongside one another in this life of faith.

Perhaps the question every church who hires a worship pastor– and every aspiring worship pastor– should answer is this: What will Jesus ask us about: the music we produced, the services we programmed? Or the people we pastored, the sheep we fed?

Take time today and think about the people on your team. Pray for them. Pick up the phone and call them. Break bread with them. Talk to them about more than the setlist. Remember your calling as a worship pastor, not a music program manager. Clear some of the clutter from your week. Maybe it's time to appoint others to do the tasks that are keeping you from your role as a shepherd. You have never met a mere mortal. Our music will not last forever; these people will.

How Mercy Triumphed Over Judgment

[EDITOR'S NOTE: As a follow-up to my last post, here is a slightly adapted excerpt from Chapter 8 of "Secondhand Jesus". If you like, you might enjoy the rest of the book! :)]

If God’s justice requires Him to judge evil and punish sinners, aren’t we all in trouble? Can’t God simply forgive? After all, isn’t He a God of love?

There is no such thing as simply forgiving, even at the human level. There is always a cost. When someone wrongs you, something is taken from you, a piece of you is gone. Sometimes it’s something physical; more often it’s something intangible, like your innocence, your childhood, your respect, your marriage. Fill in the blank. If you’ve been wronged, you are missing something you once had or should have had. That is why we instinctively feel like saying to the one who has wronged us, “You owe me!” Even our own justice system is based on the old Hebrew law of paying “an eye for an eye”—i.e., making the punishment fit the crime, requiring restitution and replacement where possible. 

We have wronged God and He—because He is just—cannot just forgive us. Someone must bear the cost. 

1 Sam. 6 tells the story of the ark of the covenant finally being returned to Israel on an oxcart from the Philistines. The people were overjoyed at the sight. There were sacrifices and songs of joy. But then the tragic happened unexpectedly.

The men of Beth-Shemesh opened the cover of the ark and looked in at the Law without the cover of blood, and they were struck dead. It's a picture of a rumor about God: that God is pleased with our own goodness; that we can handle the law without the blood. The people of Beth-Shemesh, seeing seventy of their men suddenly slain because of the wrath of God, cried out, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam 6:20a).

This same question can lead us on the road to salvation. In this question is a truth we have missed: God is holy. 

You see, God’s sense of justice is rooted in His holiness. To properly understand His justice, we have to recognize His holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that God is far removed from us not just by degree but in also in kind. He is not the top of the spectrum on which we lie near the bottom; He is on a spectrum wholly different than ours. He is, literally, in a league of His own. That is enough to require a mediator. But to make matters worse, we are fallen, sinful creatures. Adam was the first to attempt a life apart from God, to try to live as God instead of with Him. That sin has been passed on to the rest of us, embedded in our very nature. But we are not passive in this. By our own actions we confirm our sinfulness and our desire to rebel and live apart from God. By our own choice, we have become enemies of God.

This presents a problem on a cosmic scale. Throughout the Old Testament, there are hints and references to a “cup of wrath” waiting to be poured out in judgment on the nations. 

Psalms 75:8 says, “In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.” 

In a prophecy against Judah, Ezekiel warns, "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘You will drink your sister's cup, a cup large and deep; it will bring scorn and derision, for it holds so much. You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, the cup of ruin and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria. You will drink it and drain it dry; you will dash it to pieces and tear your breasts. I have spoken,’ declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ez. 23:32–34).

The book of Revelation gives a glimpse into the final judgment that awaits: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name’” (Rev. 14:9–11).

A cup in Scripture is symbolic of a person’s lot or portion in life. To be an enemy of God is to deserve the cup of wrath, the cup of ruin, sorrow, and destruction. It is our lot, and our coming portion forever. 

But God did the unthinkable. He sent His own Son—who is God forever—to come to earth and drink the cup that was meant for us. It is interesting that when James and John asked—or more accurately, when their mother asked!—if they could sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, He said to them, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matt. 20:22).

Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). And a second time in the Garden, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42).

Let this cup pass. What was Jesus’ portion? The cup of wrath. The cup of ruin, sorrow, and destruction. It was a heavy lot to have, yet it was one only Jesus could bear. Only God could satisfy the honor of God. Only God could be holy enough to take on the sin of all the world and with it all the destruction due to us. Jesus took for us the full blow, the full force of God’s wrath so that we no longer have to taste God’s judgment. 

Instead, our cup, our lot, is now the cup of blessing, symbolized in the cup of communion. The apostle Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16 ESV).

We switched cups! Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath instead of us so that we can drink the cup of blessing. The cup of blessing is ours because of the new covenant. John Stott words the miraculous reversal of roles this way:

"The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be."

Again, I say, "Thanks be to God!"

What I Wish I Knew About Worship Leading…10 Years Ago

MCP5152164 Last month marked 10 years since I graduated from college. It also marked 10 years of leading worship in a full-time, vocational capacity. I was 21 when I started and I thought I had it figured out. I was a theology major in college and had led worship in chapel services and traveled all around the world with teams from our university, leading worship and teaching churches how to do it just like we did. I knew how to run auditions, put a set-list together, and make worship flow like a river. 

But I was clueless. I had no idea the way I would be drawn aside by own ego, fooled by opportunities and so-called fame. I was not prepared me for the hidden dangers that threaten the modern worship leader. If I could time-travel and talk to Glenn circa 1999, this is what I would say to him:

1. Don't be fooled by popular worship CDs/DVDs.
Almost every worship CD– including ours– begins with the roar of a crowd. I have yet to see a worship DVD filmed in front of a handful of people. The more time you spend with worship CDs and DVDs, the more you subconsciously believe that a worship service is about the euphoria of a crowd, the adrenaline rush of taking the stage. More people aspire to be worship leaders now because of what a cool profession it has become. It's sickening to sit with young worship leaders and watch a U2 or Coldplay DVD and see their eyes light up as mine once did as they think of ways to incorporate those elements at their church. Why wouldn't they? There is little difference between today's worship services and rock band show.

And yet, lights and smoke are not the fall guys. Crowds and electric guitars and not evil. The problem is much more subtle– and more sinister. It is what is happening in our hearts: the subtle confusion between showmanship and leadership that comes from paying too much attention to recordings of people on a stage. Speaking of the stage…

2. Beware of the stage.
The stage is a dangerous place. The sooner we admit it and stop hiding behind cliches about a "platform God has given us" or an "opportunity to make God famous", the better we will be. Then we can be honest about how tempted we are to work for the praises of men. The stage makes us talk in funny voices, prone to melodrama, careful with how we report the facts. It makes us less honest versions of ourselves, and, in the worst cases, reduces us to a persona and no longer a person.

Confession is the path to healing. Psalm 90 is a confession of how temporal life is, how fleeting our best efforts are, and what limited, time-bound creatures we are. The Psalm is attributed to Moses, the leader and heroic deliverer of, quite likely, millions of people. Moses knew that standing in front of people who could one day be an adoring crowd and the next day be a riotous mob would tempt the best leaders to attempt more than they can really achieve, to inflate themselves to be larger than life. So, confess your limitations. Ration your time on stage. Remind yourself and others how replaceable you are by involving other leaders. In Moses' words, "teach us to number our days."

3. Learn to love a congregation not work a crowd.
The more I traveled with the Desperation Band, the more I longed for my church. At first, it was fun to be at festivals and conferences, to share green rooms with other celebrity artists enjoying their vapor of influence. We had always made the commitment to be at our church far more than we were gone. In fact, on average we were leading worship here three times more than we were leading worship anywhere else. 

But still, time in front of large crowds can make you do funny things. I've sprayed water from a bottle onto "worshippers" on the front row, I've crowd surfed in a packed room, and kicked beach balls from the stage. All in the name of having fun in church. None of these things are hideously evil, but they are deceptively destructive. They destroy the sacredness of the priestly vocation– and the worship leader is priest before he is anything else. The worship leader is not a priest who mediates on behalf of the people; he is a priest who stands among a congregation of priests, calling attention to God. He is, as a priest is, one of the people. He shares their bloodline, their heritage, their history. He knows their stories. Today's worship leader is trained to be a performer working the crowd, instead of a priest lovingly standing among the people of God. 

4. Worship is more than our response.
Much has been made about how worship is our response to a revelation of who God is. That is true. But what is often left unsaid is that even our response is the result of God at work in us. Grace is not God doing something for us and then leaving us to respond. Grace is God working is us to become and do what He has called us to be and do. Grace is God doing FOR us what we COULD NOT and it is God doing IN us what we CANNOT. 

So worship, then, is more than a grateful, whole-hearted response to God; it is God Himself at work in us causing us to see Him, leading us to surrender, making our offering pleasing and perfect. Here, the whole Trinity is at work. God the Spirit, at work in our hearts, revealing Christ and drawing us to the Father; God the Son, through Whom our sacrifice is made perfect because His was, the One in Whom the Father is well-pleased and so when we are in Him, the Father is well-pleased with us; and God the Father who is glorified forever. 

That takes all the pressure off the worship leader. You are not responsible for how the people respond. That is God's work. You are there to be attentive to God at work in you and in the congregation, and to call attention to God among the people.

There. This is what I wish I knew 10 years ago. Perhaps it can save some of you from shipwreck.