Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Epistemology, Utilitarianism, and Music - Part 2

To read Part 1, click here.

Thus far, it would appear as though the bulk of my conclusions have been that conservatives are wrong when it comes to the music debate. But this is not quite true. In fact, I find myself agreeing with conservatives theoretically and philosophically when it comes to music, for the most part, but perhaps disagreeing with their application of that philosophy when it comes to the details. Or at least I think I disagree with them on the details (or most of the details).

The truth is, there are a number of things that I am a bit troubled by when it comes to the “contemporary” Christian music movement. Let me share those with you.

1. I am troubled by the presuppositions of those on the “liberal” side when it comes to the reason for doing the music we do. One of those presuppositions that I often hear is essentially a Utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarianism, simply put, is the “ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.”

And how does this manifest itself when it comes to music? I have often heard this type of logic used when talking about Christian music: “You know, we have these young people who are leaving the church in droves and we need to keep them coming.” In other words: in order to keep young people coming to church, we need to let them play and listen to the type of music they like.

How many times have you heard this type of logic? Granted, this is not to say that this necessarily makes their music wrong, but anytime this is the motivation for doing a certain type of music, or doing anything, we are walking on thin ice. Certainly such a use of logic does not have biblical support. God desires us to worship Him in “spirit and truth,” (John 4:24) not in whatever way is going to promote the greatest “happiness” or fill the most pews.

This applies to anything, of course, and is certainly not limited to music. If our goal is simply to get as many young people coming as we can, then we could use some pretty questionable methods to accomplish that. And many have. This does not mean, however, that we should make our church services un-enjoyable, boring, or uninteresting. But we need to make sure that our primary goal is to uplift the crucified and risen Savior, and that any methods we use are in accordance with biblical truth.

Of course, this is not only true for contemporary music, but the old-time hymns as well. I’ve heard old-timers say, “They’re playing that music because the young people like it.” And I’ve responded by saying, “Yes, and don’t you like your music that is played?” It is silly to say that we should not play contemporary music because it is just what the young people like, while maintaining that the old time music is somehow sanctified, when, in reality, it’s just what we like.

2. Along similar lines, there is a belief out there which maintains that we need to use contemporary music so that we can appeal to non-Christians. This just doesn’t seem to hold any water, though.

Truth be told, non-Christians scoff at our Christian contemporary music and, really, the only people that like it are those within our walls who want to mix their worship of God with a little bit of U2, Beyonce, or Coldplay. Let’s tell it like it is: Christian contemporary music is really for us who have been Christians our whole lives. And I find, over and over again, that those who have been on the “outside” generally want to leave that type of music behind when they come “inside.”

It also seems to me that there was very little debate on this issue before Christians, and Adventists specifically, started listening to secular “rock music.” For some reason, before Adventists ever started listening to rock music, we didn’t independently produce music that sounded like it. Why didn’t we independently arrive at it without the influence of the secular arena?

Furthermore, if our contemporary Christian music is so objectively wonderful, why is it simply always keeping pace with secular music? I appreciate Risieri Frondizi when he writes, “The essence of the moral reformer and of the creator in the field of the arts lies in not adjusting to the predominant norms, or tastes, but unfurling the flag of what ‘ought to be’ over and above people’s preferences” (Quoted in Stefani, p. 414).

Shouldn’t Christian music be the head, and not the tail, of the arts? For centuries it was. Handel gave us Messiah. Now it just seems like we’re simply trying to keep up with everyone else by copying their music.

3. It also troubles me that we typically approach music with an egocentric attitude. Far too often I hear people say, “I feel like I’m worshipping God when I am singing this type of music?” or, “I am so blessed by this particular song?” I’ve responded by saying, “Why don’t we ask what God would want in our music? Why don’t we ask Him what He would be blessed by?” Someone responded to me recently by saying, “But don’t you think God would want us to play music that we are going to enjoy and be blessed by?” That sounds good in theory, but I don’t necessarily find this to be biblical.

One example of this would be Cain, who felt pretty happy about the worship he was offering God. No doubt he felt blessed by bringing the fruits of his labor to the altar. But this simply wasn't acceptable to God because it was not what He wanted or was blessed by. To say that it doesn't matter how we worship God, so long as we have a seemingly sincere heart and we are blessed by it, doesn't seem to jive with what God requires of us.

Furthermore, what would happen if we approached music with an other-centered attitude? What would happen if we asked ourselves, “What type of music would Sister Jones be blessed by?” or “What song would little Jacob really enjoy?” Music is not necessarily about us. It’s about God and it’s about others. As Barry Leisch writes, “It’s often overlooked today that we have a responsibility to one another in worship” (The New Worship, p. 39).

4. I am going to call a spade a spade: I am greatly bothered by the lack of lyrical and theological depth and clarity in many contemporary songs. And, quite simply, we have got to go deeper in our songs. (And this is coming from a guy who has written many a shallow song, and continues to do so. So I am part of the problem.) What may come as a surprise to many of us is that, according to Paul, we are supposed to use songs for the purpose of “teaching and admonishing” (see Colossians 3:16). Singing songs is not for the sole purpose of getting a warm tingly feeling about God. They are also to teach us doctrinal truths about Him.

As Leisch points out, most contemporary songs “excel at expressing celebration and intimacy, but, in general, lack intellectual rigor and fail to offer a mature exposition of the broad range of biblical doctrines” (Ibid., p. 21). There has been a movement of late to go deeper in contemporary songs, but even these have their problems. As scholar Jerry Stackhouse has written on his blog (to the ire of many), “We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears.”

What do our contemporary songs reveal about our theological depth, understanding, or experience? Sadly, I’m afraid that many of us who are supposed to be “12th graders,” spiritually, are stuck singing Kindergarten songs, lyrically.

This is why I love hymns. They actually have spiritual/theological depth to them. You don’t exhaust their meaning in one singing of them—unlike most contemporary songs. (As Leisch writes: “Must all texts be immediately accessible? . . . . Isn’t it healthy to have some lyrics that are dense in meaning—that keep yielding new insights to us each time we sing them?”)

When I shared this with someone recently, she responded, “Well, that may be true for you, but when I sing hymns I don’t even think about the words.” To me, that’s like saying, “When I read the Bible, I don’t even think about the words. Therefore, I am not going to read the Bible anymore.”

What is even more troubling is the fact that many of us sacrifice theological clarity and truth for a nice tune. Very few people actually exegete a song’s lyrics (this is true of hymns or contemporary songs, of course), or realize that they are unwittingly singing about their dead grandparents who are now looking down from heaven at them, or how God controls our destiny and we could, therefore, never be lost.

I think it is also worth noting that, in the Old Testament, only those from the tribe of Levi were given the job of leading out in music. These individuals were not only trained musically, but also theologically. This tells me that, though others were, no doubt, free to express themselves musically to God personally, when it came to corporate worship, only those who were trained in music and theology could lead a congregation.

What are the implications of this? We should be a lot more careful and intentional when inviting individuals to lead out in worship because, how they lead in worship affects not only them personally, but the corporate group as well. Thus, although I am sympathetic to doing all that we can to get people involved in ministry and worship, I am not sure it is worth jeopardizing the welfare of the corporate group for the involvement of one. Simply placing a guitar in someone’s hand and inviting them to lead out in music so they will keep coming to church doesn’t seem to reconcile with what I understand “worship” to be all about.

Each person, be it the pastor who is preaching or the Sabbath School teacher who is teaching, has a moral responsibility toward those they are leading. And just as none of us think it would be appropriate for someone to play the role of a doctor—though they have no knowledge in medicine—simply so they will keep coming to the hospital, neither should we invite others who have very little or no knowledge in theology or the things of God to lead out in worship, simply to keep them coming to church.

Where to?

So where does this leave us when it comes to music? I think it leaves us with the realization that we need to be ever more prayerful when it comes to this important topic. I wish that all of us, myself included, would take music—and the leading of music—more seriously. We cannot afford to be nonchalant or casual about it.

As one who appreciates the writing of Ellen White, I think she offers us some helpful guidelines as well. I think it would be beneficial to consult with her on this subject. And, in reading some of what she says, as well as reflecting upon biblical principles and continued scientific understanding of music’s effect, here are some broad principles that I think are helpful when pursuing the music of heaven. Perhaps all of us should reflect upon these principles when we are leading out in music.

1. No worship should be entered into without a great deal of prayer, preparation, and biblical reflection. I need to remember this as much as the next guy.

2. We are to worship God in “spirit and truth” (John 4:23). This means I will avoid songs where the lyrics do not reflect an accurate understanding of biblical truth. We need to be especially careful with this because, far too often, the lyrics that are being sung enter into our psyche subconsciously and often with little intelligent reflection.

3. If I am confronted with the possibility that the way my music is played may inherently prevent a person from using their reasoning abilities, I will want to avoid performing in such a way.

4. We should never perform music that may be injurious to people’s health. This is not simply subjective. It can be empirically judged. For example, I need to make sure that the music is not so loud that it damages a person’s eardrums.

I also will want to avoid screaming. Such affects the vocal chords in a negative way. So if this means I need to turn down the volume on other instruments, then I need to be prepared to do this.

I will also avoid performing in such a way that encourages people to smash into each other. This is just one other example.

5. Similarly, if we are singing for the purpose of coherent biblical and spiritual reflection—which should be our goal—I will never want to lead out in music in such a way that any accompanying instrument monopolizes the music and leaves the singing undistinguishable. Thus, I will definitely want to make sure that any other instrument is turned down and serves as a supplemental “dish,” rather than the main course.

6. I must recognize that certain types of music have worldly “associations” for some people, and I need to respect their views. If such is the case, I will want to avoid those types of music so as not to place those individuals in a situation where they unwillingly have to recall their former experiences that they are trying to put behind them.

7. If my music offends someone, I need to be willing to lay it aside for the sake of my brother or sister. It is not worth alienating relationships over, or destroying the work of God for the sake of “food.”

At the same time, if I disagree with someone’s music, even if I am convicted that it is “evil,” I need to approach the subject lovingly and treat others how I wish they would treat me. I must follow the example of Christ, who, instead of running away from evil, not only ate with sinners, but took up residence in sinful human flesh.

Music is an “arguable” topic, and is not a moral issue to the extent that any of the Ten Commandments are. It is not worth alienating relationships to make my point about music, one way or the other.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Epistemology, Utilitarianism, and Music - Part 1

Worship and Music. Music and Worship. Such hot potatoes. And something that I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. Until now I have put it off (though pausing for limited remarks here). But I think this is the perfect time to write on this subject - especially in light of some things that happened this past weekend at a conference that I attended.

Without going into a great deal of detail, or passing judgment on those involved, let me just share a brief sketch of what went on. I attended an evangelism conference this past weekend in Maine along with 175 other persons from my particular denomination. All Seventh-day Adventist pastors in Northern New England were in attendance, as well as "laypersons" from each church, and the church administrators in this region. We were all there to learn about evangelism and outreach.

Music inadvertently became one of the focuses, however, when the group that was leading out in the music chose to sing "contemprary" songs and utilized an electric drum set. To my thinking, this is probably the first time that such an ensemble has been used for a conference-wide initiative for a bunch of adults. It did not go over very well, to say the least. Each time the group got up to sing, a mass of people (numbering probably anywhere from 30-40) promptly stood to their feet and exited the gymnasium. When the music ended, they filed back into the gym, visibly showing their disappointment/disdain/frustration over the music.

It all came to a head on Sunday morning when one of the exiting individuals was granted a chance to address the whole audience for a few seconds. He did not get prior approval from administrators to do so, though he was allowed a chance to speak by an unsuspecting guest who was one of the weekend presenters. Before he could complete his talk, which revealed the fact that many attendees were upset about the music, a conference administrator took the microphone from him and politely, but firmly, thanked him for sharing, but said it would not be necessary to continue.

Unfortunately, a weekend that was supposed to be focused on reaching the lost turned into a discussion on music and worship. And, sadly, such things happen far too often.

Over the weekend, I thought and prayed quite a bit about the whole topic. The minute I sat down on Friday night and saw the electric drum set sitting on the stage, I knew that we were headed for trouble. And since I have returned home, I have spent much of the day studying the biblical witness on the subject, as well as consulting some other materials that people have written on it. And, of course, this topic has, for quite a while, been an ongoing self-debate in my mind.

And, really, the more I study and grapple with the topic, the more agnostic I become. Yes, I will admit that I am agnostic in this instance. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with arguments from people on both "sides" of the issues. In a conversation with someone who is all about the modern "praise" music, I take the more "conservative" side. Similarly, with someone who is more traditional and conservative, I take a little more "open-minded" or "liberal" attitude. And then I find myself agreeing with good arguments that are presented by scholars on both sides of the divide. And all this lends itself to agnosticism.

With that being said, I have drawn some conclusions when it comes to this topic. And hopefully those conclusions will come out as I share my thoughts with you in the rest of this post.

But, first, I think one of the more unfortunate realities surrounding this whole discussion is that there is very little – or no – intelligent and dispassionate discussion on this topic. Usually these issues are discussed in a very emotional manner, spurned by a conflict that arises when one “side” tries to enforce its will at the expense, and without permission from, the other side.

But I think it would be very productive if we could get both sides to sit down with each other and prayerfully and unemotionally study this issue together. It seems to me that one of the frustrations that “conservatives” have is that they see this new music creeping in with very little questioning—except by their own. Liberals do not come to conservatives and say, “Hey, can we talk about the music issue?” Instead, conservatives show up to a weekend conference and there is a drum set, bass guitar, and new songs that no one knows. I think they feel that such music is being forced upon them to some degree.

Not to get “emergent,” but it would be healthy if we could come together to talk about these things in a coherent manner. That would go a long way in helping each side understand the other.

And now on to some of my musings.

A Few Conclusions Thus Far

As I’ve spent a little time thinking about this issue, I have come to conclude, first of all, that any discussion about music and worship needs to start with epistemology. Each side seems to make claims about music that could be cleared up if epistemological presuppositions were clarified. (Epistemology is, in simple terms, the study of how we know what we know.) As an example, at one of the mass exoduses during the worship time over the weekend, I slipped out and joined some of the demonstrating saints to try to get a feeling for what they were thinking. One of the ladies, when she saw me, said, "You don't like the music either?" Not wanting to take sides, I said, "Well, it's a tough issue." Without missing a beat, she responded: "What is going on in there is not worship."

What I wanted to say in response to her was, "Says who?" This is an epistemological issue. On what basis was the lady making the claim that the music was not “worship”? The Bible? Ellen White? Subjective feeling?

Similarly, when someone on the other side says that music simply comes down to personal taste, this sounds good in theory, but on what basis is he or she making such a claim? Is this what the Bible teaches?

And, while we’re on it, what does the Bible say about this subject? Surprisingly, very little that is conclusive.

I spent a little bit of time this morning studying the subject in the Bible. As one example, I looked at the 17 or so times that the Bible talks about the “timbrel” (one of the only percussion instruments that the Bible talks about) and it seems obvious to me that a person cannot make an argument one way or the other as to a timbrel’s moral position. Let’s be clear about this: nowhere does the Bible categorically and explicitly condemn drums or syncopation or rhythm. It's just not there.

Now, one could, perhaps, rightfully make the argument that a drumbeat is evil, but such a claim would not be based on the Bible. I wish people would recognize this. (Again: I want to make it clear that this doesn't necessarily mean a drumbeat is acceptable. All I am saying is that when a person makes the claim that drums are unholy, the source for their claim is not the Bible. It’s important we recognize this.)

Again, this comes back to epistemology. Are we going to simply use the Bible as the way we know what we know about music, or are we going to allow testimony from other sources (ie., science, music psychology, Ellen White, etc.).

Now, it is fine if we want to rely upon other sources. But we just need to recognize that we are doing this and not be caught making the claim that the “Bible condemns drums” or that your type of worship is “not worship according to the Bible.” I do believe that the Bible lays down principles for appropriate worship, but I am not sure that the Bible, alone, is enough for us to make black-and-white statements about whether other people’s worship is holy or not.

With that being said, I am of the conviction that there is an objective criteria by which music can be judged. I am not saying that I have discovered that criteria. It’s just that I do not buy the argument that music is a subjective art and one that is governed purely by “personal taste.” It seems to me that music is not necessarily “morally neutral.” Though I am not necessarily talking about syncopation or rhythm or the drumbeat, I think it is fairly obvious that music has the power to elicit certain emotional responses from individuals, whether they realize it or not. And when such a truth is realized, musicians must not be careless in how their music is composed, performed, or presented.

To this end, Wolfgang Stefani writes,

From a Christian viewpoint, emotions like anger, hate, fear, love, or joy are not intrinsically good or bad. However, to present the lyric, “Jesus loves me this I know” with an accompanying musical/emotional message of fear and suspense would not simply be a harmless mismatch of cognitive and affective communication. According to Christian belief it would surely be crass misrepresentation of the Gospel (especially in light of 1 John 4:18) and hence, morally wrong, not merely aesthetically poor. The same would be true if lyrics about Jesus’ love for humanity were presented accompanied by music portraying anger, violence, and aggression. Such mixed messages provide a confused communication of truth that is morally reprehensible, not just a matter of taste (“Is Music Morally Neutral,” in Here We Stand, p. 407).

But what this also tells me is that “worship wars” need not be wars at all. If the Bible does not categorically condemn certain “types” of music, this leads me to believe that music is not a moral issue, per se. And it certainly isn’t an issue worth alienating relationships over. Let me explain what I mean.

If I was at a “Christian concert,” and the musician brought his son or daughter on to the stage, took out a knife, and started slashing that child in front of the whole audience, I would be under moral obligation to speak out against this atrocity in a very vocal way. But someone playing a drum on stage is not of the same moral magnitude. And my personal obligation to speak out against it publically—even if music psychology reveals that syncopation has a mesmerizing effect—is not to the same extant.

This reality applies to all areas of ethics and informs my interpersonal relationships. (This is something that I have been grappling with in general as I think about interacting with people who may not be living the same ethical life I am.) One of my battle cries is that I try to “meet people” where they are. This seems to have been Paul’s approach. To the Jew he became a Jew. To those who were “under the law,” he became as one under the law (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Of course, on the other hand, I recognize that you can only go so far in “meeting people where they are.” And this is the whole point: where does one draw the line?

For me, I think it revolves around the moral law—the Ten Commandments. Thus, if I am trying to minister to someone, I might be willing to put up with his/her music—which the Ten Commandments do not address (some might claim that a person’s music may reflect that he/she is worshiping other gods, but a person’s heart and motives cannot be read or judged. Thus, another person’s music—assuming the lyrics do not contradict the moral law—cannot be overtly condemned based on the Ten Commandments)—but I would not be willing to sit quietly by as he/she committed sexually immoral acts on stage.

Paul seems to address this in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 when he talks about food. He starts the former chapter by saying, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.” Quite simply, as the Bible does not make any clear statements on music—to the extent that it does about murder or adultery or stealing—it is, to a large degree, a “doubtful thing.” In other words, as much as “conservatives” would like to believe that music is a “black and white” issue, it is a debatable and “doubtful” topic. If it were so clear, there wouldn’t be a continual debate over it.

Interestingly, what Paul is speaking about in these chapter is “food offered to idols.” He seems to indicate that this subject is disputable. But the irony of it is that, in the Jerusalem counsel, the church leaders already said that Gentiles should not eat food offered to idols. And yet Paul seems to downplay that—much to the chagrin of the “conservatives,” no doubt, who felt they already had a “thus saith the Lord” on the subject.

This tells me that a person has no right to stage a public demonstration when “disputable” music is being performed for worship. He might disagree with that music, and he may even have good reason to disagree with that music, but he has no right to put up a childish fuss over it and march out of an auditorium, with hands over his ears (as some have done in the past), in hopes that the rest of the audience will get the message. Such actions simply alienate and divide. And they are immature. And they are not following the biblical mandate to pursue reconciliation with your brothers or sisters if you have something against them. (UPDATE: I would not fault children for acting in such a way if this is what their parents would have them do. I know of a teenager that left each time these musicians started performing because - I believe - he/she knew this is what his/her parents would have wanted him/her to do had they been there. I think this is very appropriate, since honoring one's parents is a moral command.)

Of course, on the other hand, I think that those on the other side have the responsibility to not “offend” their brothers and sisters when it comes to this issue as well. Paul advised the Romans to “not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (Romans 14:20). I think the word “music” could be replaced for “food.” He also told the Corinthians that they should “beware les somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (1 Cor 8:9).

As an example, I had a dear brother come to me a little while back, after I sang a song for special music in church that had a little drumbeat, requesting that I set a better example and not sing such music. I could have verily easily said, “It was just a little drumbeat. What’s the big deal? The Bible doesn’t condemn this!” That would not have been the loving or Christian thing to do, though. Why would I want to offend and cause division over something that is not a “moral” issue? Why would I want to alienate someone who I am trying to teach the Gospel to because of a stupid drum? I could have pulled out all the arguments as to why drums are not evil, but, though I may have won the “battle,” I probably would have lost the “war.”

Unfortunately, I think too many “liberals” choose to go to war over music, when it is not a hill worth dying on. Simply put, there are bigger fish to fry.

Click here for Part 2.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

So what?

One of these days I am going to pick up a publication and see an advertisement for some ministry conference that features a presenter from East Podunk, Montana. And underneath a nice picture of the presenter, it will say, "Jed Smith pastors a 14-member church." And I'll smile and think, that's neat.

Let me explain.

The last few times I have picked up an unnamed publication that goes to many leaders in North America, I've noticed an advertisement for a seminar that features some well-known presenters. But one of the presenters, in particular, caught my eye. Underneath the presenter's picture was the obligatory bio-sketch, and the first line of the sketch said these words (or a variation of them - the name and location have been changed to protect the innocent): "Mike Jones pastors a 1300-member church in Florida." The first thing I thought when I saw that he pastors a 1300-member church was, so what? This fact is relevant to me in what way? And yet there it was, in the first line of this guys bio.

Is the fact that this presenter pastors a 1300-member church supposed to impress the reader? Does it add legitimacy to his or her presentations, and encourage attendees to pay special attention to the person? Or could it simply be a reflection of the pride that creeps into all of our hearts as we subtly boast of our accomplishments? After all, typically, when such advertisements are put together, the person is responsible for writing up a sketch about themselves and submitting it to the ones creating the advertisement. I have been there before. (In fairness, maybe I'm assuming too much about the situation. But then again, if the presenter didn't write his or her own bio, I wonder again what the relevance would be of including this information in the advertisement.)

Perhaps you're wondering why I am making such a big deal about this. Why so much fuss over a little thing?

Well, do you want to know the truth? The truth is, I find that my biggest struggle is battling with pride - and I think this is probably a common challenge for those of us who are pastors. It seems as though the ministry naturally lends itself to the worship of self. And so, because of this, I try to go out of my way to deflect any hint of recognition that might come my way. Sometimes it probably manifests itself in a bit of "false humility." But I hope - and pray - that I can turn people's attention to the One that I am working for, rather than anything that One has perhaps done through me.

Thus, I am particularly sensitive to the perception of pride in the hearts of others in ministry as well. I don't like it, for example, when ministers make sure the letters PhD are attached to their names whenever it is printed. In a recent article in Ministry magazine, one of the editors also amusingly observed that many multi-church district pastors will now identify themselves as "senior pastors," thus hoping to bolster their importance. (If it at all impresses anyone who's reading this, I'm not only the senior pastor in my district, but I am also the visiting pastor, the youth pastor, and the administrative pastor. Talk about an impressive resume!)

Of course, the irony of it all is that pastoring a 1400-member church may not be all that impressive to a pastor who has a 5,000 or 10,000 member church. And understanding that reality goes a long way in helping a person guard against pride. It's called perspective.

I may thump my chest because I have written a book, but it would be incredibly embarassing to thump my chest in the presence of someone who has written 20 books. I could boast that I have a Masters degree, but making such a proclamation in the company of a person who has a doctorate or two is kind of humbling. And the reality is, no matter how many accomplishments we have under our belts (or self-perceived accomplishments), there will always be someone else who has accomplished more. Of course, even if that weren't the case and we were the most accomplished person in our field, none of these accomplishments were achieved because any innherant abilities we may have. It's all God's grace - grace emanating from an entirely humble God.

As Carsten Johnsen - who, though the owner of multiple PhDs, use to refuse to wear his regalia for graduation and consecration processions because he thought it only fostered pride - writes,
It may sound bold in the midst of a Greek-inspired culture to speak about the humble God. Throughout our lives we have imbibed the arch-pagan throught-forms of platonic idealism with all its vain-glorious insistence on climbing, climbing - in one's own power - to the stars. What glory could there be to us - children of a Hellenist world - in meekness? But it is God Himself who uses this description about Himself:

"Learn of Me. I am meek and lowly in heart." Matthew 11:29. . . . True Christian love is revealed, not as a way of taking, but as a way of giving; not as a way of human pride, but as a way of divine humility (Agape and Eros, pp. 79, 80).
I don't know, maybe I'm making too big a deal. Or perhaps I am being hypocritical. But this much I do know: we could all take a page out of Christ's book of humility. His humility should humble us. And thus we will be able to sing alongside Isaac Watts,
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Meeting New People - Part 3

Click here for part 1 and part 2.

I.                   A Quick Review

a.       Taking the first step

                                                  i.      Where to meet new people

1.      Anywhere and everywhere!

a.       Work, neighborhood, clubs/groups, service

                                                ii.      We need to be intentional about our relationships!

                                              iii.      Meeting new people opens up “networks” of others that we can meet as well

II.                Continuing to Develop the Relationships

a.       Relationships must be developed at a naturally slow pace

                                                  i.      This is one “rule” of relationships that can sometimes be easy to forget

1.      We must not “bombard” a person with attention

2.      Give them their space

a.       This is just a simple rule of relational etiquette

b.      Don’t call a person more than once or twice without hearing back from them

                                                                                                                          i.      If they don’t return your phone call, they don’t want to talk with you!

                                                                                                                        ii.      Wait 2 weeks to a month before trying to contact them again

3.      Don’t show up uninvited to their house

a.       This is a good idea in general in this day and age

b.      Continue to enjoy activities with them that you have in common

c.       Keep your conversations positive and affirming

                                                  i.      Discuss areas of commonality

                                                ii.      Don’t bring up religion or politics

1.      If they want to discuss these things, then let them be the one to bring them up

a.       Generally, you cannot win in a conversation about politics anyway. People get too passionate and it hinders the opportunity to share the Gospel

                                              iii.      Don’t make moral judgments on their behavior

1.      “You know it’s not right to smoke.”

2.      “You know the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong.”

                                              iv.      Don’t get into doctrinal disputes

1.      It is not now the time to give them a lecture on the “state of the dead” if one of their loved ones dies

2.      It is not now the time to tell them why the seventh day is the Sabbath

a.       If they ask, fine. Then you can explain your beliefs. But share them in such a way that will not be divisive

d.      Support the person unconditionally, offering love, help, and assistance whenever needed

                                                  i.      When someone in their families dies, send a card of support rather than a lecture on the state of the dead

1.      Let them know that you care

2.      “Be there” for them whenever needed

                                                ii.      When they lose their job, invite them over for dinner

1.      During this down economy, there are many people who are vulnerable and open to the Gospel

This is what it means to follow Christ’s method of friendship: minister to their needs

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Meeting New People - Part 2

Click here for Part 1.

“In order to lead souls to Jesus there must be a knowledge of human nature and a study of the human mind. Much careful thought and fervent prayer are required to know how to approach men and women upon the great subject of truth” (Ellen G. WhiteChristian Service, p. 226). 

I.                   A Quick Review

a.       Become a “People Person”

                                                  i.      Ask a lot of questions

                                                ii.      Listen to the answers

                                              iii.      Initial contact should be “agenda-less”

II.                Taking the first step

a.       Where to meet new people

                                                  i.      It is best to engage individuals in conversation that you have the chance of seeing repeatedly

1.      Quick “drive-by” witnessing may not be the most effective method

2.      Being friendly to everyone is important, but quick conversations with individuals probably shouldn’t be of the “are you saved” variety?

a.       There are exceptions, of course—but this should only happen when you know the Spirit is impressing you to do this

                                                ii.      Involve yourself in the community in which you live/work

1.      Use your hobbies/interests to meet new people

a.       Join clubs/groups that align with your interests

                                                                                                                          i.      Stamp collecting club

                                                                                                                        ii.      Book clubs

                                                                                                                      iii.      Photography clubs

                                                                                                                      iv.      Basketball leagues

b.      When you meet people this way, it is easier to converse with them because you naturally have a mutual interest to talk with them about

2.      Befriend co-workers

a.       Eat lunch with them

b.      Invite them over for supper

3.      “Use” your children (or grandchildren)—if you have any—to become acquainted with other kids and their parents

4.      Introduce yourself to your neighbor!

a.       This can be tricky, especially if you’ve had the same neighbors for 25 years and you have never taken much of an interest in them before

                                                                                                                          i.      Don’t knock on their doors and say, “Hello, friend, I am your Christian neighbor and I want to tell you about Jesus.”

b.      Here is an easy way to get to know your neighbors: ask them to do you a favor!

                                                                                                                          i.      Ask them if you can borrow a rake or shovel or some type of appliance that you don’t have but need for yard work

                                                                                                                        ii.      Ask them to keep an eye on your house while you are away for a few days

1.      You don’t necessarily want to give this information to someone who is “shady,” of course, but more people are trustworthy than we probably think

                                                                                                                      iii.      Ask them to pick up your mail for you while you’re gone

c.       Invite them over for a summer barbecue or pool party

                                              iii.      We need to be intentional about our relationships!

1.      Luke 15:1-3

a.       If we understand the Gospel correctly, we will naturally initiate relationship just as Jesus did and does

                                              iv.      Free time must be utilized to foster friendships

1.      We cannot by “shy”

2.      There is no such thing as a “silent Christian”

a.       The phrase is an oxymoron

                                                v.      When we form friendships with individuals, it opens up a “network” of others that we can meet as well

1.      Friends

2.      Family

3.      Co-workers

Food for Thought

I picked up a book called Peppermint-Filled Pinatas on Saturday night while waiting for my wife and sister-in-law to "primp" themselves up before a wedding reception. With nothing to do, I had committed a cardinal sin: I didn't have a book with me. Fortunately, my sister-in-law had brought this book with her and so I retreated to the car to retrieve it.

Not too enthused by the title (it seems a little gimmicky), I was still intrigued by its contents - and it was certainly better than the alternative (sitting around for 25 minutes, doing absolutely nothing). So I opened it up and started reading. I immediately became interested in the book and I plan on reading it in its entirey at some point in the future. Specifically, here is one quote that caught my attention:

We tend to judge people who do not know Christ by the same standards we have for ourselves. We should not be surprised when people who have not surrendered their lives to God live indifferently. If we struggle to measure up to our high standards with God’s help and intervention in our lives, how can we possibly have the same expectations for others who have not sought or received God’s forgiveness and strength? It’s like getting mad at Stevie Wonder for not waving at us when we walk past him.

Our personal relationships often betray our feelings for the world as well. Rather than befriending and loving those who do not yet follow Christ, it seems that the longer we follow Christ, the fewer people we actually know who believe differently from the way we believe. We have created our own world within a world, a bubble in which we live with everything we need: Christian books, Christian shirts, Christian music, Christian jewelry, Christian movies, Christian sports leagues, Christian stores, Christian video games, and even Christian mints. I’m all for entrepreneurial ventures, but I’m afraid we have (inadvertently or perhaps sometimes purposely) isolated ourselves from the world around us. Perhaps there are some who have been reached by reading a T-shirt with "God’s Gym" on the front, finding a gospel tract on a urinal, or attending events featuring Christian bands, but most of the time we forget the importance of reaching out to others through these experiences. Instead, we choose to enjoy these events as an alternate reality outside of the rest of culture (p. 21).

I think there is a lot of truth to what the author, Eric Michael Bryant, is saying. What are your thoughts? I am planning on sharing it tonight at Prayer Meeting as I continue my series on meeting new people and sharing our faith.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How NOT to do Youth Ministry

The video below is making its rounds. It shows people how not to do Youth Ministry. It is quite humorous, so if you do not feel as though humor and God go together, please feel free not to watch it. Unfortunately, though it is humorous, there is a lot of truth to it. I just pray that when I work with youth I do not fall into the same trap.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More Than a Coincidence

When a word in Greek or Hebrew is used only a handful of times in the Bible, scholars take notice. This is especially true when there seems to be thematic links between the various passages. Such is the case with the subject of my sermon for this Sabbath (spoiler alert: please stop reading if you're one of my church members!).

I have made it my mission to study the Song of Songs for the past two or three years. I am convinced that this wonderful book typologically points to God and His relationship with His people. I want to make this connection on solid exigetical and intertextual grounds, though. I don't simply want to come to the Song of Songs and say, "Well, since Jesus said that all scripture testifies of Him, it must mean that this whole book is about Jesus. Thus, the Shulamites two breasts represent the Old and New Testaments, etc." There needs to be a solid foundation for such an understanding.

So last year, I decided to go through the whole book and trace the use of the Hebrew words throughout the Old Testament. I didn't get very far without realizing that there were incredible intertextual links to the temple/sanctuary. This was the case when the Shulamite would describe Solomon, for example. She would use Hebrew words that were used only to describe the temple. Thus, I was intrigued when I found one commentator make this connection as well, saying that "we resist using this fact to allegorize the text, but again we suggest that it associates her description with something exalted, even holy" (Tremper Longman III, Song of Solomon, NICOT, p. 174).

Well, imagine my surprise - long after I put my serious study of the Song to rest - when I discovered an amazing intertextual link in the Greek version of the book. While going over the story of Jesus' annointing at Bethany, both Mark and John say that the woman - identified as Mary in John - annointed Jesus with an "alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard" (see Mark 14:3; John 12:3). The Greek word for "spikenard" (nardos) is used in the New Testament in these two places alone. But, quite surprisingly, the word is used in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament three times - all in the same book. 

I'm sure you know the book: the Song of Songs. Notice, for example, how the Shulamite is described: "Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits, fragrant henna with spikenard [nardos], spikenard [nardos] and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices" (Song 4:13, 14).

But the one other place the word is used in the Septuagint takes the cake. Notice the Shulamite's words in 1:12, "While the king is at his table, my spikenard [nardos] sends forth its fragrance." Does this scene ring a bell with you at all? Notice Mark's full description of Jesus' experience in Bethany: "And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head" (Mark 14:3).

Jesus, the King, is sitting at the table, when the fragrance of Mary's spikenard envelopes the house. And such is the experience that God desires to have. Solomon enjoyed it with the Shulamite. Jesus enjoyed it with Mary. And God wants to have it with us today.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Meeting New People

I have been very busy lately, so I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and share on my blog what has been keeping me busy in other parts of my ministry. I am doing a series at one of my churches for Prayer Meeting on how to meet new people and "witness" to them. I have never done this before and I certainly am no expert. 

Two weeks ago was the first part, and here is what I shared with them. It is in outline form, so sorry for the disjointedness. As always, your thoughts are solicited.

Meeting New People (Part 1)

“Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me’ ” (Ministry of Healing, p. 143)


I.                   Preliminary questions to ask yourself:

a.       Does this person have value only if he/she is a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, or does he/she have value for the simple fact that he/she is a child of God?

b.      If this person never became a Seventh-day Adventist, would I still be interested in him/her?

                                                  i.      When you enter into someone’s world and listen to them, you get every bit as much a blessing from them as they do from you

II.                Becoming a “People Person”

a.       Ask a lot of questions!

                                                  i.      As a general rule, people like talking about themselves

                                                ii.      Play a game of 20 questions with them!

1.      Where do you live?

2.      Where did you grow up?

3.      Tell me about your family. . . .

4.      What interests do you have?

5.      Note: Religious/spiritual questions should not be at the top of the list in this exercise

a.       Neither are we going through the rest of the preliminary questions simply so we can finally get to the religious stuff

b.      Religious/spiritual conversations should naturally come up in the course of a conversation, but it is best if the other person initiates that subject.

c.       And, usually, this will only come when the person has confidence in you and trusts you

b.      And then listen to the answers

                                                  i.      There is a reason we all have one mouth and two ears

1.      We are supposed to listen twice as much as we talk

                                                ii.      When we take a genuine interest in a person’s life, we are entering into that person’s world

1.      This indicates to the person that he/she has value to us—as well as to God

2.      Nobody is interested in being lectured on anything. Let them carry most of the conversation

                                              iii.      We are not necessarily trying to listen to their answers simply so we can force a religious “follow-up” question on them

1.      This doesn’t preclude a person from prayerfully looking for opportunities to talk about spirituality

c.       Initial contact with a person should be “agenda-less”

                                                  i.      You are not setting them up to invite them to church

                                                ii.      You are not trying to secure a Bible Study

                                              iii.      You are simply interested in who that person is as a person

1.      Recent experiences

a.       Nancy/Tim

b.      John