Neil Postman, prophet.

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“At different times in our history, different cities have been the focal point of a radiating American spirit. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Boston was the center of a political radicalism that ignited a shot heard round the world – a shot that could not have been fired any other place but the suburbs of Boston. At its report, all Americans, including Virginians, became Bostonians at heart. In the mid-nineteenth century, New York became the symbol of the idea of a melting-pot America – or at least a non-English one – as the wretched refuse from all over the world disembarked at Ellis Island and spread over the land their strange languages and even stranger ways. In the early twentieth century, Chicago, the city of big shoulders and heavy winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dynamism of America. If there is a statue of a hog butcher somewhere in Chicago, then it stands as a reminder of the time when America was railroads, cattle, steel mills and entrepreneurial adventures. If there is no such statue, there ought to be, just as there is a statue of a Minute Man to recall the Age of Boston, as the Statue of Liberty recalls the Age of New York.

Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

From Amusing Ourselves to Deathby Neil Postman (written in 1985)

Social Media And The Worship Team

So I think we all have an understanding that social media poses some unique challenges for us today. We’re socially connected with each other in ways we’ve never been before in history. And for the Church especially, we have some definite things to consider as we think through these connections, and how we engage our culture and one another with our digital, or “post-digital” social media. You might’ve read some things on this topic before, and I don’t want to just say what’s already been said. What I especially have in mind here, is how those in a leadership role in a local church family, and specifically on a worship team, should consider using, or sometimes not using, their pins, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagrams, and whatever other social networks I’ve left out of the mix, or that may be brand new by the time you read this.

1. Our of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (or tweets).

We have to remember that, as Christ tells us in Matthew 12:34, our mouths let loose what’s already taken up residence in our hearts. Do our hearts and mouths produce stuff that worships Christ, seasoned with beauty and kindness; or do they produce the polluted stuff of sin? Since we often let our thumbs type what our mouths would otherwise speak, what do our Facebook status updates and tweets say about the condition of our heart? As members of a worship team specifically, are we modeling what it looks like to have a heart full of living water, or not? And we don’t want to do it for the show – we should want our social networks to be flavored with Christ because our hearts are close to Him, and because we see the world as He sees it. And hopefully others would get a taste of the grace of God and the Gospel through even our social media presence.

2. Dead bodies float with the current. Living people can swim against it.

And we should swim against it if the stream’s current is going to wash us over a precipice. Just because the social currents flow with narcissistic posts and selfies, or with retweets and repins promoting immorality or bitterness, doesn’t mean it’s ok for a Christian to retweet stuff like that. We need to bear in mind that every little retweet or share on Facebook adds to our overall online presence, and how others perceive us. Again, a lot of little posts that seem insignificant might just create a bigger picture, and we should hope that picture is one that glorifies Christ. As believers, we have new life in Christ, and a resulting ability to resist and move differently than the course of the world (Ephesians 2:1-2).

3. Just because it’s not wrong doesn’t mean it’s best.

Ultimately, there’s a lot on social networking that could be posted or shared, watched or read, that isn’t really wrong at all. But again my question comes back to this: does our social media presence have a flavor of Christ and the Gospel? Or does our presence there have more of a flavor of the silly, meaningless, banal, self-centered, materialistic popular culture? For leaders in the church, the call seems pretty clear to me. Philippians 4:8 tells us, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Leaders in the church should, first of all, be doing this; then, because we think and dwell on the best things, we lead others to do it by example. Do our posts and pins, memes and Instagrams, show a pattern of dwelling on truth, and on things that are honorable and excellent?

Now again, this isn’t all to advocate simply good, moral behavior. But Scripture is pretty clear that if we’ve come to know Christ as Lord and have been saved from our sins, the Spirit of Christ actually lives inside of us. And that Spirit produces effects in how we think and act, that will ultimately lead to joyful living in Christ. God saved us to enjoy Him, and we often settle for silly, unsatisfying joys instead. Social media is here to stay, but if too much involvement with it leads us to settle for halfhearted joy, and not joy in God alone, I say let it be hanged. I want real joy, which is only found in God, through Jesus Christ. And as we gather as a church each week and sing about God being our highest treasure, and boasting only in Jesus, may that be true of our lives right down to the minutiae of our social networking.

Reading With The Church Calendar

The last several years, my wife and I have been trying to read books along with the church seasons. Granted, we don’t celebrate many of the traditional Church holidays; but for the couple significant holidays and seasons that our local church does observe, we’ve found it hugely significant to not just let those times go by, but treat them as sacred and really dig into framing our mindset into that particular Church season. One of the ways we’ve done this is to try to read purposefully through a book, as a supplement to studying Scripture, that corresponds to, and sheds light and fresh perspective on that particular Church season.

God created us with an orientation toward holidays and toward marking our calendars with days of celebration and observance of God’s great acts of grace toward His people, etc. We find this all over the Old Testament, beginning with the creation of the seven day week (and the institution of the Sabbath!). The two biggest seasons that most Christians will celebrate if nothing else, will be Christmas (or Advent) and Easter (or Holy Week). What a tragedy if we let every rhythm of culture direct our mindsets, our observances, and our habits, without ever following the rhythms of redemption found in the Gospel and in the Church. Or celebrating the rhythms of the Gospel in a token, half-hearted (or no-hearted) way. Doug Wilson is helpful on this point in his book on Advent: “[W]e now find ourselves marking time with dates like Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, MLK Day, and so forth. But Christians must define the year in an explicitly Christian way, and face the objections, or they must acquiesce in the secularization of time” (80). If Christ’s lordship extends beyond our internal spiritual lives, to how we engage and live in the world, then we should consider wholeheartedly observing those Christian seasons that remember and reorient our lives around the grand events of God’s great story of redemption.

So for instance, during the week of Good Friday and Easter, it’s been super helpful to pick something extra, to read during that time. Even if we don’t finish it, it will help us really observe, and celebrate with deep joy, what took place during Holy Week in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And this kind of extra reading and purposeful celebration fuels our worship when we gather with our church family to sing and celebrate together on these holidays.

Here are some things that have been very helpful the past few years, for my wife and I, and now with our kids, in defining our year “in an explicitly Christian way:”

2009-present: As my wife was searching like crazy for some rich theological stuff for Christmastime, she found out about Nancy Guthrie’s Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, which is a collection of readings for Advent from pillars of the Christian faith. There are readings from Calvin, to Spurgeon, to MacArthur. It’s a super rich collection, very well done. Guthrie has since put out a similar collection for Easter, called Jesus, Keep Me Near The Cross. We don’t have it, but it looks great.

2011: I read King’s Cross by Tim Keller, during Good Friday and Easter. This book is excellent. It’s basically a study through the Gospel of Mark, and it’s full of fresh, poignant perspective on Christ’s life, and his ultimate purpose of redeeming God’s people from their sin. Wonderful book, worth multiple reads.

2011-present: The Jesus Storybook Bible is perfect for our kids (and for us) as a creative re-telling of the whole story that Scripture tells, of God making a people for Himself and redeeming them through the blood of His Son. Our kids love this book – the writing and the artwork are so memorable. Really worth your time, whether you have kids or not.

2013: Currently reading The Man Jesus Christ by Bruce Ware. This is great so far, and the perfect read for me this year as I’m thinking about Good Friday and Easter, and planning out the final details for our church’s worship services for this Friday and Sunday. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I think I can heartily recommend it. It gets a little deep, so be forewarned, yet encouraged to take up and read! This one was also published just this year, so here’s a very recent review you might also find helpful.

Articles That Helped Me This Past Week

I don’t write this kind of post all that often, but this was a crazy week and I’ve been helped immensely by the writing of others – here are a few articles and blog posts that came as messages of grace and truth this past week. Hope you get a chance to check em’ out.

1. “A Day for Hatred”

Jen Wilkin, from The Village Church in Texas, wrote a very timely and hopeful post, shortly after the disaster in Newtown, CT. This was one of the better posts I read in response to the subject, and it genuinely ministered to me processing through the last couple days as a Christian, husband, and dad. There was a lot of blogging on the subject – this and the following link were really the best couple responses to the whole thing.

2. “School Shootings and Spiritual Warfare”

This piece by Russell Moore was the other very, very good piece responding to the Newtown shooting. Moore addresses the “something especially condemnable about the murder of children,” and that what we experienced this past week was absolutely a huge part of the grand story of Redemption God is telling.

3. “A Salute to the Average Worship Leader”

Excuse my vulnerability: Bob Kauflin, as he has also done many times before, encouraged me in this much-needed post a couple days ago. As a church music leader, I go through the obligatory highs and lows of a job that’s so often a subject of criticism, and I navigate it as best I can, with the Holy Spirit’s help. It was great to read an encouragement toward faithfulness over flashiness, humility over hype and production in our church music. In the midst of a crazy, rough week for all of us, this was a great reminder to continue pursuing the Gospel in our personal lives, and in our church families as we gather week-to-week. This post absolutely affected my heart as I prepared to sing with our church this morning. Read this for a reminder of how to think about, and engage with your church gatherings; and if you’re a music leader in a church, read it for an encouragement about what God is really looking for in someone filling that role in His family.

4. “The Writing Pastor: An Essay On Spiritual Formation”

A Themelios essay, by Peter R. Schemm Jr. A longer essay, but super rich. Here’s a quote from the piece: “What the church needs today is deeply spiritual leaders. And a writing pastor is most often a deeper man than he would be otherwise. So whether in notes, letters, journal entries, articles, blogs, or sermon manuscripts, a pastor can practice deepening his own mind and soul through writing. This will, in time, deepen the souls of those to whom he ministers.”

When Folk Music Becomes Pop Music

I really appreciate everyone who interacted about my previous post on the resurgence of folk music in pop culture. It was fun to read some of those discussions, and get some messages from you about the topic. It’s fun to think and talk about the importance of folk with people who share a love for that tradition. So I wanted to continue the discussion a little bit. Again, I’m very aware this post won’t cover all that it could.

When Folk Music Becomes Pop Music

Once music that we’d say is written in the folk tradition becomes popular to more of the masses, and gets some more radio, YouTube, and Spotify play, it becomes more of what we’d call “pop” music. The catchy stuff, well, catches on quite frankly. But just because a song or songwriter from the “folk” realm makes it a little bigger with the popular culture, doesn’t mean that song or songwriter lose their value in creating art that reflects and aids the cultural experience of a people. Folk music will continue to exist quite apart from the mainstream popular culture, and when the current folk fad dwindles in the mainstream, the folk tradition will continue with just as much life as before. Don’t stop appreciating good folk art just because your favorite folk artists start selling more records.

We saw this in Bob Dylan’s rise to popularity in the 1960s. The guy hit it pretty big, and is a pop culture icon today as a result; but he also remains an American folk hero for his music and his poetry that spoke for the people in the midst of their questions and struggles. We’ve seen it happen with Nickel Creek in the early 2000s, The Decemberists more recently, and we’re seeing it again now with Mumford and Sons – all bands born out of underground, largely “folk” music scenes, who’ve gained/are gaining some pretty big popularity for their ability to speak to the human condition in their art.

Dylan’s big pop hits are widely known, but his true fans know and love his more “obscure” stuff as well, and appreciate more of the depth of his canon of work. I don’t think the successes of Dylan’s big hits ruin his art for the true folk art appreciators.

It’s probably still too early to tell with a band like Mumford, but here’s hoping they continue to write the earthy melodies and resonant poetry that’s endearing them to their fan base. Here’s hopin’ they stay the course of the true folk artists who’ve gone before.

A Folk Music Resurgence?

First of all, I apologize in advance if I don’t say all there is to say on any of my points below. Folk music is a broad topic, and I know I’m not going to say all that I could here.

The past couple years, there’s been a renewed interest – an interest explosion, really – in folk music. I really want to get into a definition of “folk music” in another post, so I’ll mostly let that rest for now. But I think you might know what I mean by “folk music” – not country music per se, but music with mainly acoustic instruments played with little or no effects, and songs that come out of a long musical history or reflect traits of songs that do. People are crazy about this type of music right now. It’s become a fad, but the funny thing is that this type of music has always been around, and will continue to exist after the pop culture fad fades. But I think it’s really interesting that this has become a fad, and I think it reflects a few important things happening in our culture.

Really quick, here are the bands and singer/songwriters you’ve probably heard of, that are some of the big drivers of this movement: Mumford And Sons, The Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, The Decemberists, Alexi Murdoch, The Civil Wars, and The Head And The Heart. Throw in the pioneering efforts and success of Allison Krauss, and the “now-on-hiatus” Nickel Creek (whose members all have other strong projects going), and you’ve got a pretty good picture of the major players of the new folk resurgence. And that’s not including the tons of other folk bands that exist and flourish more outside the “mainstream.”  Visit the website for the Newport Folk Festival for just one example of the large interest out there for what folk music brings to the table. These bands and artists all, on a significant level, tap into a long tradition of folk music of Europe and early America, rearranging traditional folk ballads, singing old Christian hymns at times, and writing new music that reflects the songwriting and instrumentation of rich, old folk tunes.

Pop culture has been adapting to, and benefiting from the people’s interest in quirky folk music the past few years.Why? Here are a few reasons I really believe factor into this phenomenon:

1. Weariness Of Over-Produced, Market-Driven Art

On some level, a segment of our culture has grown tired of music that lacks depth, and that’s only written to be quickly and easily marketable. One possible definition of “pop music” is basically this: music meant to be as catchy as possible on the first listen, written to sell and not necessarily to participate in the experience of a group of people. There’s always pushback in a cultural movement; as our culture’s popular music has gotten more and more produced to perfection, there’s a movement pushing back in the other direction. Studio “perfection” can’t be duplicated live in many aspects, and there is a current rejection of such perfection. Folks want to hear music played by, well, folk. With all the imperfections that potentially come along with it. Folks want to hear instruments sound like they sound, and voices sounding real and genuine, straight from the singer to the audience.

2. Emphasis On Story

Since “folk” music is born out of communities and cultures, with unique regional distinctions, the stuff that lasts is the stuff regular people can really relate to and different musicians can borrow from one another. Songs that last are quality ones that are memorable in melody, and that make lyrical sense. Anything less and composers lose cultural staying power in their music. Good folk music tells the stories of people, with honesty and genuineness; and it’s music that gets people singing along because the stories are really their own. Our cultural moment is unique in that a lot of us want art that tells the honest story of the “common” person.

This is very valuable for the church to be aware of, as we engage folks in relationships. People want to know each others’ stories, and to have their own unique stories known by others. May we engage others on this level, not being content to just bring our friends and neighbors to church events but really meet others where they are. And may we seek out relationships with other believers in the church, to be known and encouraged, and held accountable for our faith.

3. Community Valued Over Celebrity

Folk music celebrates the song and the poetry more than the particular performer. But our culture has gone on for a while doing the opposite. We tend to value celebrity, and a lot of the pop music written today is meant to showcase the particular performer singing the song. Think about what American Idol judges constantly tell their contestants – you’ve GOT to make this “you.” But I think our culture is growing weary of this fad too.

Really, music has historically had more of a community focus. Songs have most often been written out of the experiences of a people, in such a style that people other than the composer could get their hands on a song and sing it in other gatherings and other contexts. It’s actually pretty hard to do justice to a Phil Wickham tune in church (unless you’re him), but think about how easy it is to take a song written in more of a “folk” tradition and arrange it to fit your particular church body and church music leader, in range, instrumentation, and musical style (I’m thinking of a song like “In Christ Alone”). One is very tailored to the skills and uniqueness of a certain singer/songwriter, and the other is written with certain qualities that really gear it toward singing as part of a congregational identity, and within a community. And much of our current progressive-folk stuff is written more in this style. Folks want to sing along with a band’s tunes. They want to learn them, play them, and sing them in gatherings. Folk music has a long tradition of doing just that.

That’s it for now, but there’s more to come. Also, as a final note, I really do like Phil Wickham’s music.