Love Runs Thicker Than Blood

I’ve put off writing this blog for a while largely because I’ve been afraid.  Afraid I wouldn’t capture the nuance of this properly or being judged.

However, I think this enterprise is valuable so I’ll forge ahead in unpacking these ideas as best as I can.  I ask for your grace and patience as this might be a tiny bit rambly.

(And, frankly, I wrote a tune about this so it’s not like I can hide from it either)

On my latest work is a song called “Love Runs Thicker Than Blood.”  Contained in the lyrics are some meditations on my history and my journey out of it.  The song is about family and deconstructing our conceptions about what “family” means.

Growing up in the evangelical church, I, along with many others, was socialized to believe that “family” (defined as the quintessential “nuclear family”, blood relations and all of that) was so deeply important to God and any deviation to this was tantamount to blasphemy.  I would argue that this idea is not limited to the church though.  There are tons of shame-based ideas surrounding family that float around in popular culture as well.

So I put this question to all of you:  What happens when “family” isn’t a safe place?

There’s a ton of shame, especially within church spaces, for people who have to disengage from their blood family due to abuse and toxicity.  If I had a dollar for every misinterpretation of “honour thy father and mother”….well you get the idea.

My journey away from toxicity and abuse and into healing and hope has radically reshaped my definition of family.

To me, family is about love not DNA.

It’s about the people who choose each other and form bonds of love and friendship.

For those of you who share a similar journey to me, I see you and send you lots of love and solidarity.

For those who haven’t walked through this, I just want to invite you to have grace for people and be willing to broaden your definition of what family can be.

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From Principles to Practicalities part 3: Style, Metrics, Trends

Any debate over separation from “culture” in relation to music style is pointless nonsense.  All of our worship styles are contextualized to our culture.  That is not to say that traditions of the past do not have value.  It is just important to be humble enough to realize that those appeals are often the purview of preference rather than some objective standard.  Are there better practices?  Absolutely.  However, we should be slow to ascribe divinity to things we prefer just because we prefer them.  Where this debate gains some real and important traction is in more foundational issues of how the broader culture affects the church.

Firstly, we need to be very cautious in talking about corporate worship in terms of outcome.  It betrays a consumer culture bias that values measurable data over everything else.  How does one begin to quantify the work of the Holy Spirit?  Is it measured in raised hands? Is increased giving our new metric?  Is corporate prayer only valuable if people are miraculously healed in the service?  Does singing together have an real world quantifiable value?  There is a great deal of danger here so caution is warranted.  A standard evangelical response might be to evaluate outcome in terms of moral transformation.  And yet, if that person continues to sin (as we all do) does that mean somehow the worship “didn’t take”?  Perhaps the most instructive texts regarding outcomes would be the famous justice passages of the prophets and the gospels.  I am thinking of Amos 5, Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25 specifically.  It may be difficult to measure things individually but if the church as a whole begins to lift up the marginalized and oppose the oppression of the vulnerable then there might be something real going on in that congregation.

One of the greatest tragedies in modern corporate worship lies not in style but in the North American church’s uncritical acceptance of the influence of business and consumer culture on the church.  The corporatization of church™ has been far more damaging than the inclusion of evolving music styles in our services.  With the church taking its cues from the business world, we are seeing an “attractional” model of worship gathering that is highly problematic.  These gatherings seem to have more in common with multi-level marketing conferences (“let us praise Avon”) than with the depth of the four-fold structure.  The encroachment of advertising culture on the worship gathering bleeds it dry of its authenticity.  The dark humour in all of this is that authenticity is the most “attractive” thing about church worship and yet it is the first thing to be inadvertently shown the door in a rush to be “relevant.”

Another way in which the adoption of the ideals of business culture have adversely affected the church lie in a massive shift in the Contemporary Christian music industry in the early 2000s.  Much like the rest of the music industry, CCM began to feel the drastic effects of digital technology on record sales.  They began to shy away from taking risks and focused on the one safe spot in the market: music for churches.  Up until that point, the majority of worship songwriters were writing for churches and not for Christian pop radio.  With the rest of the industry circling the drain, all of the polished songwriters, radio-ready production and studio musicians focused on “worship” music.  And this new “worship” music began to dominate Christian pop radio in the form of Hillsong, Chris Tomlin and others.

How does this affect the church?  Your average church doesn’t have the kind of talent pool that is accessible to big-budget recording projects.  They and their worship pastors are doing the best they can with limited time and limited resources.  Unfortunately that doesn’t diminish the expectations that they will be able to include new worship music in services.  Also, Songs written for pop radio are most often composed in a range that is difficult for the majority of parishioners to sing.  Male vocals are often in high tenor ranges and female vocals tend to be beyond the reach of your average singer.  This poses additional challenges for worship team members.  The obvious solution to this problem would be to lower the key.  However, the grand majority of volunteer vocalists will not have the knowledge to be able to do that and many lay musicians will not have the ability to play it in a “non-standard” key.  As mentioned in my previous post on leadership, navigating these challenges requires a steady and educated hand.

As far as trends go, I’m definitely not equipped to prognosticate on the future of worship.  What I can offer is my sincere hopes and prayers for worship.  I strongly believe in evolution of style.  Embracing a diversity of styles from a diversity of sources always enriches the life of a congregation.  What I would like see us move away from is the need for spectacle.  Flashing lights, hazers, and other tools of novelty aren’t necessary for a transcendent experience.  The more we rely them, the more they divert us from what we truly need: truth, beauty and authenticity.

 

Unnecessary?

Within the increasingly poisonous and partisan dialogue in my corner of the world was the following encounter on Twitter:

These statements by a political operative beg the question: Are the already meagre services available to my son w/ autism “unnecessary spending?” It seems that people w/ disabilities are often treated as “unnecessary” by ableist politicians. The dignity and worth of human beings should never stop at whether people are “taxpayers,” “voters,” or “able-bodied.” True leadership means being committed to the well-being of all people.

The innate worth of a human being is not a matter of partisanship. To parse this in the language of “conservative” or “liberal” is to turn the real-world quality of life of human beings into a political football. I’ll paraphrase Rev. William Barber here in saying that this is not a “right” and “left” issue, it is a “right” and “wrong” issue.

However there is a deeper level to this discourse. The language of “fiscal responsibility” is a smokescreen that exists to mask the reality that a moral question has been asked: “Do all human beings have worth ?” And what answer does “fiscal conservatism” offer?

When the tidy, sterile language of “fiscal responsibility” is stripped away, the answer to the aforementioned question becomes clear. “Able-bodied,” “working people,” and “job-creators” are worthy and those who do not fall into those arbitrary categories (the disabled, the poor, etc.) aren’t “deserving.” A moral judgment has been made and the so-called “non-contributors” have been found wanting.

The fact that many North American Christians espouse “fiscal conservatism” as some kind of God-ordained virtue is distressingly ironic given that the faith they claim is entirely predicated on unmerited grace. All people are created in the image of God and that imago Dei imbues them with innate worth. That is what the Scriptures tell us. Jesus does not become “God with us” because of our super-awesome Protestant work ethic, and amazing “bootstraps pulling” abilities. Setting up a hierarchy of “deserving” people is profoundly anti-gospel and anti-Christ.

Jesus loudly proclaims that no-one is “unnecessary” and that everyone has value.

From Principles to Practicalities part 2: Leadership

It is so crucial that the church employ a worship director with a combination of formal music training and intensive spiritual education, mentoring and some life experience.  The process of contextualizing worship-oriented material so that it is relevant while not alienating people is a difficult one.  It requires a deep knowledge of both the musical and spiritual needs of a congregation.  Too often there is little crossover between music and theology in Christian post-secondary education.  Worship pastors/directors either end up being theology graduates who can play a little guitar or music students with little spiritual and theological training.  Each side of this equation presents unique problems:

Theology education + minimal musical training:

  • Minimal musical training may lead to a strong inclination towards the kinds of music that sits within the musical comfort zone of the leader.
  • That can lead to a “tyranny of ability” that leaves the worship leader unable to steward the inevitable changes that come with increasing diversity in a church because they can’t play music outside of a single genre.
  • It also makes it easy to fall into the trap of merely playing the latest CCLI offering because it’s just easier to do that.

 

Musical education + minimal theological training:

  • While this may enable a versatility when it comes to genre, this can also result in a lack of spiritual depth in handling the complex theological needs of a congregation
  • Like it or not, the theologians that most congregants encounter consistently are the songwriters who write our worship music.  Interrogating the theological nuance of various contemporary offerings requires a certain level of spiritual critical thinking that a music-only education does not equip one for.
  • It can also lead to a “tyranny of preference” in which this leader looks down on more simple expressions as too “simplistic” to be of any value.

The solution lies in offering truly convergent programs that focus on equipping worship leaders with both musical and theological skill set.  Also, churches can offer professional develop opportunities that seek to address the pitfalls of either deficiency.

I strongly believe that a worship director position should never be treated as an “entry-level” position in the corporation of church.  Many graduates of baccalaureate degrees are in their early 20s and often lack the kind of convergent training mentioned above.  It is crucial that the church surround young worship pastors with mentors who can speak into situations with the kind of wisdom that only lived experience can give them.  The fault lies not with the youth of some worship pastors but rather the lack of proper training and mentorship.

Some churches will find themselves in a situation where it is not economically viable to hire a staff member to oversee worship in the church.  In such a situation, maintaining an open dialogue between musically educated and theologically educated lay ministers will be important.  Worship ministry shouldn’t be “handed off to someone.” Rather, a church should seek to lovingly foster a collaborative environment in which the different parts of the proverbial “body” (as spoken of by Paul in 1st Corinthians 12) function to form a worship liturgy “by the community” and “for the community.”

next week: part 3 Style, Metrics, Trends

From Principles to Practicalities: part 1 The Four-Fold pattern

In this series I’m going to write about some of the guiding principles of worship in the church as well some of the practicalities of putting those things into practice in the local church context.

The Four-Fold Structure:

It is important to begin with defining this thing called worship.  I will offer a working definition of the term worship with the caveat that it is by no means exhaustive nor complete.  Worship, simply put, can be anything done to the glory of God within the bounds of well-informed biblical precedent.  Private, personal worship does play an important role in the larger context.  However, for our purposes we will be narrowing the scope to include only the corporate worship practice of the small “c” church.  In other words, our focus will be on the gathering and practice of the local church.  In that context, worship takes on a markedly different and more specific meaning.

In the corporate context, worship becomes the gathering of a community of people to partake of the shared practice of God-centred adoration, lament, confession and remembrance.  It is in this practice that the Father is glorified and the Son works amongst His people through the Holy Spirit.  I hesitate to use the word “good” due to it’s inherently murky meaning (“what is “good” art? etc.) but good worship is rooted in a deep and foundational structure.  This four-fold structure chiefly revolves around the principle of identity.

  1. This worship gathering begins with God’s identity.  The congregation, through song, scripture, corporate readings and poetry, focuses on who God is.  His attributes are described, His deeds are remembered and the congregation explores the many facets of His character.

  2. The next step is the congregation reflects on their identity through corporate confession.  Whether it is exploring and confessing personal sin or corporate sin, they remember and walk through this darker part of their identity as human beings.  This is also an appropriate time to practice lament for institutional sin and injustice in the world.

  3. Following confession, the congregants are reminded of their new identity in Christ through the assurance of grace.

  4. Lastly, the worship gathering moves to focus on their identity in the community and in the larger world.  They hear the word and respond in sermon, song, poetry and silence to the call of God upon their lives.  Then they are sent out to live this identity in that aforementioned community.

This “deep structure” reflects a firm belief that worship is, and should be, formational.  The Eastern Orthodox fathers often speak of worship as “impression” above “expression.”  Our theology, our ideas about God, and our deeper understanding of our relationship with God and each other are informed by our shared corporate experiences in worship.

Within this deep structure and form there is a great amount of room for the many and varied worship styles.  There is a great breadth of spiritual riches in different traditions and we do ourselves a great disservice if we are unwilling to explore these resources from inside and outside our faith community.  While it is important to contextualize worship resources to fit our immediate context, it is equally important to seek to incrementally stretch ourselves as leaders and congregants.  As one of my worship arts professors at Columbia Bible College said, “we take people lovingly from the familiar to the unfamiliar.”  Liturgical catechesis plays an essential role in this process.  Good teaching facilitates a number of things that might otherwise be misinterpreted.

A good example might be the role of performance in the worship gathering.  If we accept the premise that corporate worship is as much impression as expression then well-chosen performance pieces can serve a congregation well.  A well-known evangelical trope is to have a one to four chord light keyboard sound to accompany prayer times.  How much better would it be to have a beautiful classical piece to lift our minds to heavenly things!  If we are exploring lament, a old black spiritual may serve us better than a sermon.  Good catechesis informs our experience and tells us that performance in worship does not make congregants spectators.  They are participants.  I was approached by a gentleman after performing a song at a church in Edmonton and he said this to me: “When you were singing, I was feasting at the table.”  This is the attitude that good teaching fosters in us.

Next week: part 2: Leadership