Playing and Singing Hymns

I’ve heard hymns sound staunch, anachronistic, pharisaical, sappy, and above all comically glorious. In pop culture the singing of hymns represents a special brand of puritanical escapism and a retreat to “the good old days” of hard-headed faith.

I’ve also heard hymns sound sleazy, shallow, frivolously syncopated and sloppily paired with an alternative rock band (only churchgoers know this horrific reincarnation of the classics). Between these two evils, I choose the hard-headed version, as it is at least slightly dignified.

Mostly, I conclude that the hymn played and sung with subtlety and meekness of style is best of all. That way, no brazen human calculations drown out the sweet poetry and theology that I love, that feeds me.

Brian James, from the JG Hymns project

Critiquing The “Worship Experience”

I’d like to come alongside another author here. Jared Wilson wrote a post today entitled “What’s Wrong With Producing a Worship Experience?” This is an important question, since the American “Evangelical” church is plagued with an incorrect mindset about gathered, visible worship of a church. We hear the lingo all the time, about producing, staging, or aiding a worship “experience” in our church gatherings; but much (though not all) of what churches and worship leaders have said on the subject is unbiblical and unhelpful.

Wilson’s post quotes a conversation reproduced in another book, about the consumerism pervasive in Western churches. At one point the conversation says this, which sums up the critique here, of staging an experience for someone to “meet God” in worship: “When the church gets into the business of staging experiences, that quickly becomes idolatry.”

The other party in the conversation replies, “I’m stunned. So you don’t encourage churches to use your elements of marketable experiences to create attractive experiences for their attenders?” to which the original speaker rejoins, “No. The organized church should never try to stage a God experience.”

I absolutely agree, though agreeing with this critique is very unpopular much of the time.

So here’s my “coming alongside” of Wilson’s post, with a couple of extra thoughts about why churches should care about more than providing personal worship experiences.

We Have Perfect Access To God Already

Much of the “worship experience” mentality is based on the idea that something happens with God in a church gathering that can’t happen elsewhere. Now I do think something is very unique to the gathering of a local church. But it’s not the “God experience” many have turned it into. We need to understand that, positionally, we’re there now as worshipers, and nothing extra happens between us and God when the awesome light show starts and we start singing (if your church rolls the way of the awesome light show).

Here’s the thing: we have the fullest possible access to God now, because Christ stands in the presence of God as our perfect Priest. Jesus is offering worship, standing in that place for us now. Right now. When we gather together, we do it to remind ourselves again of the God we have full access to, through Jesus. In his excellent book Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper says, “God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian,” and, “When a Christian shows up, God shows up. We are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). When the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. God is with us, and the gathered Church becomes ‘an outpost of hope in a dying world’”

But often I think we’re looking for a little something in addition to the perfect access to God that Jesus provides. And then we often become discontent or upset with a church that can’t provide a powerful enough “experience,” and get us to God in an experiential way on Sunday morning. If we’re chasing a sensory overload of God-experience in our church gatherings, very few churches will ever be able to satisfy that craving. And ponder this: do you think the church gatherings we read about in the book of Acts produced anything like the experiences churches try to facilitate today? I think not. There was something else to it.

So what do we meet for then? We meet, not to have some crazy experience with God, but to remind ourselves and one another of the great, strong, gracious, saving God who has made us alive together with Christ. We remind ourselves and one another of the Gospel, and, as Hebrews 12 tells us, to run the race of faith with endurance, laying aside every weight and sin, always looking to Jesus. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith, in every way.

This is where we find endurance for the race, and this is how we get to God. Not through a carefully orchestrated theatrical God-experience, but through Jesus. The question for our church gatherings then, is, are we providing ways for people to muster lots of willpower and personal worship from within themselves (through vague, self-centered song lyrics, super dark concert-type environments, etc.)? Or are we presenting a rock-solid picture of Jesus and of the Gospel every Sunday in our singing, prayers, readings of Scripture, and preaching? We should want to stop trying to muster up emotional attitudes of worship from within, and run to our Savior again this Sunday. Let’s help one another do that, and know that right now we are God’s. As the conversation on Wilson’s blog reminds us, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” Let’s be content and overjoyed in this reality, and be content and overjoyed with our local churches if they faithfully bring us to our Savior each week and not to a mere fleeting experience.

Peter Kreeft, and the Real Hero of “The Lord of the Rings”

This is really a great lecture. Kreeft’s insights into The Lord of the Rings are right-on, and I especially enjoyed this because I wrote a senior thesis paper on this subject matter in college. If you’ve never heard some of this, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for what Tolkien was up to in his writing.

Peter Kreeft is the author of The Philosophy of Tolkien, where you’ll get more of these insights, in greater detail and depth.

Book Review: “Eternity Changes Everything”

Eternity Changes Everything by Stephen Witmer. The Good Book Company, 2014. $10.49.

I really do agree with Stephen Witmer in this book, that “[there's a] reason we’re not restless for the new creation: we’re not really certain it is our future” (71). As Christians, we have an incredibly joyous and hopeful future that has been secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. And many Christians either don’t know enough about what Scripture tells us about our future, or if we do, we’re so surrounded by distractions in our culture and our ever-busier schedules that we don’t look forward to our future. Witmer’s book is very helpful as a simple, joy-filled exhortation to think often and deeply about the new creation, and the surety of our life there with Christ. It must be hard to try to write a short book about such a weighty topic, but Witmer pulls it off, I think. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s concise and powerful, and effective in its friendly tone. Jared Wilson is right-on in his endorsement, that “Reading this is like enjoying a coffee with a new friend as he shares the secret of the universe with you.”

The driving point of the book is that contemplating eternity rightly will give us “restless patience,” which is a term Witmer coins and then uses throughout. This is a very helpful concept. We should be restless for Christ’s return and for the new heavens and new earth, and patient as we wait because we know that is all secured by Christ already. Witmer points us to Paul’s life for an illustration of this tension, saying, “Paul didn’t settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn’t live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future;” and, “his circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment” (66-67). Witmer’s point is that a Christ-centered restless patience fuels our hard work in every area of our lives, specifically for Christ’s Kingdom; and that we can be patient through the worst of trials in this life, because we are confident of how little it all compares with the glory of the new creation. In one of my favorite sections of the book, Witmer says,

“If you’ve settled for now, you have placed yourself on a path to inevitable despair. Why? Because we live in a broken, sinful world. God still hasn’t fully asserted his kingly rule over the earth. Because it’s broken, this world cannot satisfy. The absolute best job won’t perfectly satisfy. Nor will the best house, marriage, food, or vacation. Settling for now is the path to despair.

“Here’s an irony: the best way to enjoy this world is to not settle for it. When you see this world as a preparation for the next, not as the be-all-end-all to your happiness, you can suffer its disappointments without being crushed, and savor its delights without forgetting there’s better to come” (69).

And this is the reality that Witmer encourages us to live in: that everything is changed by knowing about, and being confident in our eternal life, in the new heavens and new earth, with Christ as our King. We can work hard in every area of our lives, whether it’s painting our house or preaching the Gospel to our neighbors, because it’s all valuable to our King who is moving all of history toward a great, joyous culmination and completion. And we can suffer any wrong, and any trial that God ordains on the way, because of that secured future. No matter what happens, our bright future with Christ is totally fixed and secured, and we will enter into it. You’ll see Witmer, in this short book, fall in with authors like C.S. Lewis and John Piper, who work to exhort us to see every good thing in this life as both an echo of Eden, and a signpost pointing to the new creation; and see every trial as God-ordained, refining and preparing us for our eternal life with Christ. I heartily recommend this book. Its message is extremely valuable, especially in a materialistic culture that preaches faith in shallow, material, passing pleasures, and that doesn’t know how to deal with the actual brokenness of life. I pray it will encourage you to live in light of our glorious future as Christ’s redeemed church, and be restlessly patient for our true home, through every trial and joy.

Here’s one more great quote, which I hope illustrates how valuable of a read this is:

“Joy in an imperfect present flows to us from a perfect future. If our joy is in the things we have now, losing them is the worst thing that can happen; all our joy goes with them. [But if] our joy is in the things we will enjoy in our eternal future, nothing we might lose now can touch our joy. We’re free to enjoy the things we have now without worrying about their impermanence; we’re free to lose them without feeling that our life has gone, too” 69-70).

Reading The Beauty Of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

Totally unrelated to this post, two ironic things have happened in the last couple of weeks. First, Ligonier announced their release of a new series by Derek Thomas, published on DVD, which looks great. Second, Justin Taylor wrote a post about this series on his blog, quoting Dr. Thomas, who asks whether this generation will be the one in which The Pilgrim’s Progress disappears.

I’m right in the middle of reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress with my British Lit. class, and I’ve been getting kind of a fresh look at the book this time through. I’ve been meditating a lot on what goes on in this story, and the truths Bunyan is portraying in the allegory. So I appreciated Justin Taylor’s post, and the quotes and clips there from Derek Thomas and J.I. Packer, about the book’s value, especially for the church. Maybe this all means that we’re all thinking about this book, and should be writing and talking about it, in-part so the next generation doesn’t lose an appreciation for it. Maybe. In any case, here I go – not necessarily because I’m fearful of the book’s disappearance, but mostly because I’ve grown to really love it.

For fun I thought I’d do a short series of posts about a few of the characters who are really standing out to me this time through the book. If nothing else, it’ll be helpful and devotional for me to think a little deeper about the people inhabiting this story.

But first of all, though, I wanted to write just a couple thoughts about what kind of story The Pilgrim’s Progress is, and how we should read it. These are things I’ve learned as I’ve taught through the book, while also reading through it each time, for five years now.

An allegory is a story written with an intentional symbolism in the characters, places, and plot. There is a relationship, sometimes a one-to-one relationship, between things in the story and things outside of the story. The best allegory takes invisible, intangible, or inward truths and circumstances, and makes them visible. The Pilgrim’s Progress does this in maybe the purest sense.

There are degrees of allegory. One degree would be when it’s written something like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis buried his allegory a little bit below the surface of this story, more deeply in certain places, so that you might have to think hard to get the symbolism. The Father Christmas scene in this book, if you’re familiar with it, is one of those “thinkers” (for me anyway). Then there’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the allegory is right there on the surface of the whole thing. You don’t find yourself reading Bunyan’s story and getting lost in the story quite for its own sake, at least not as much as in something like Lewis’s Narnia books. But these two “kinds” of allegory each have their beauty and purpose.

Here’s the beauty of Bunyan’s allegory: it’s as if he took the whole inward journey and battle of faith for a Christian, and flipped it with the real outward, physical world. All of a sudden, initial awareness and guilt over sin, conversion and new life at the cross, and the ups and downs of a persevering faith in Jesus are here what you would see, if those things were all visible. And so the result is real, tangible pictures of things and people breaking in and giving perspective and light and, hopefully, clarity and encouragement as we process the ups and downs of our faith. We go with Christian as he flees the City of Destruction, and loses his burden in faith and repentance at the cross. We meet characters like Evangelist, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Interpreter, Hypocrisy, Atheist, Ignorance, and Hopeful. We climb the Hill of Difficulty with Christian, experience the horrors of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, nearly meet our demise in Doubting Castle, and even so we persevere with Christian on the road to the Celestial City. And if we are Christians, born again to new life in Christ, we have, or will, do all these things.

To borrow from J.I. Packer’s quote that Justin Taylor shares in his post,

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet?

“Unexplored Adventure”

“All of summer stretched out before me: a vast, unexplored adventure. In my arms, I held a package my uncle had given me several weeks before. On the brown wrapping, Uncle Frank had written his instructions: ‘Do not open until summer vacation.” My uncle had sent me the greatest of all gifts: three brand-new Hardy Boys books.

I love the writings of C.S. Lewis, Mark Helprin, Norman Maclean, Frederick Buechner, and Howard Frank Mosher. But nothing will ever compare to the supreme luxury of lying in a cool barn on that first day of vacation and reading The Shore Road Mystery, by Franklin W. Dixon.”

Matthew Sleeth

A Response To Tim Challies’ Post, About Churches Who Sing “Badly”

This past Monday, Tim Challies wrote a post that hit a little bit of a nerve (if one can judge this by blog comment threads). His post was entitled “I Love a Church That Sings Badly,” and basically made the case that of all the churches he gets to visit, it’s often the ones who sing somewhat “badly” together in corporate worship that stand out in a unique way. He says,

“I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well.”

Challies’ argument in summary is basically this: that often (not always), churches who sound great singing together do so because they don’t have a steady influx of new or spiritually young believers, who don’t know the ins and outs of the songs, the vocal parts, etc. And Challies argues the converse as well, that a church that does have a steady influx of new and untaught, and unpolished, believers tends to sound a little unpolished in their singing too, and that this is potentially a good thing.

I won’t quote any of the comments on Challies’ post. You can go read them for yourself if you want to get a sense of the controversy a post like this stirs up. I’ve brought these kinds of arguments on myself more frequently than you might think. As a church worship leader, or if you serve at all with the music of a local church, you’ll potentially hear comments like this anytime you say the outward product or polish of the worship service isn’t the most important thing. Like Challies argues here, a degree of roughness in a church’s singing is often (but not always) a sign of healthy discipleship in that church family. And what do you read in the resulting comments on his post? Arguments for good singing being more pleasing to God – that we want to sing well and have our church’s music sound good because anything less isn’t giving God our best.

This is tricky stuff, because this argument is, ultimately, true. We do want to always strive to give God our best at anything we do, agreed? Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to this exact thing. It’s biblical. But where this goes wrong when applied to singing is when we do the simple thing and equate the outward appearance (or sound) with what’s most pleasing to God and say things like, “How dare you imply we shouldn’t sound as good as possible?” or, “So you’re advocating laziness and poor quality?”

Which, again, isn’t what Tim Challies does. His point is effectively NOT that singing off-key, or not knowing the words to our worship songs is the way to go. His point is that there are important, glorious things happening in healthy churches that often connect to the quality of our singing, and make a roughness and tension in our singing OK. Here are a few reasons why I think Challies’ post should resonate in a good way with church folks:

1. Discipleship and evangelism will always cause us to hold “quality” in tension.

I’ll just basically restate Challies here, because he really said this so well. He uses the example of an unnamed church he visited “in the not-so-distant past,” saying,

“[T]he reason they sing so poorly is that there are so few among them who are mature in the faith; there are so few among them who have been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. This is a church where the gospel is being preached in the worship services and where the people are taking that gospel to those who live nearby. The gospel is doing its work, many are being saved, and they are coming to those Sunday services to pour out their praises to God. This church sings so poorly because they evangelize so well.”

We should always try for our best in whatever we do in our worship services, but I think I can argue biblically that producing external quality and doing our best don’t always look the same. And that’s often OK.

2. Avoiding “Heaven On Earth” syndrome.

I think what we often expect from our churches in gathered worship is an ideal, heavenly kind of worship, especially through singing, that might be unrealistic in our particular eschatological moment. We’re pilgrim people, looking forward to worship in the heavenly city, in a “better country” than this one. So we should resist the temptation to want a perfection in our church families that we just won’t have yet. Our churches should be made up of imperfect people, who are all being sanctified at different stages by the Holy Spirit, and who together make up a glorious, imperfect, already-but-not-yet redeemed family. Which, again, doesn’t absolve us from always doing our best with what we have. Which brings us to the next point…

3. Considering The Widow’s Two Mites.

In Luke 21:1-4 we see Jesus point out a widow, placing her only two coins in the temple’s offering box. We know that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3), and that if we’ve seen Christ, we’ve seen the Father too. Here, we see God value the heart that gives everything it has in worship, which isn’t much for this woman, but is everything she has at that time. And it’s valued over and above what the rich can give, because even though their giving looks better, the widow’s worship runs deeper.

Again, this isn’t to be an extremist on this side of the whole argument about visible or audible quality. A rich person can give with just as much of a worshipful heart as the poor widow. But the point of Luke 21, and an underlying point of Tim Challies’ post, is that God looks at the heart. He always looks at the heart. And it’s often much easier to get the externals all polished up in a worship service, and miss the heart of the whole thing – the loving discipleship that marks a healthy church family. If having external quality in our church’s singing means a compromise of true discipleship, or a compromise of love for one another or love for unbelievers, or means that we look down on anyone who can’t sing as well as others, then we’ve missed the point of church. Jesus might as well have told the widow, “Don’t bother unless you can give a little more next time.”

Challies ends his post with this comment:

“There are exceptions, of course. It is not a hard and fast rule. And yet I think there is something to it. We who have been Christians for many years are tempted to judge a church by the quality of its singing…I wonder if we have it all backwards.”

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