Life of the Mind 2: 4 Solutions

In a previous post, I described how education and study can actually be a form of worship, a pursuit of God through the admiration of his work. The modern American Church, however, has let the mental life fall by the wayside in exchange for out-of-context Bible quoting, political ranting, and Instagram platitudes. I suggested four things will change this embarrassing situation.

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First, Christians on the whole need to repudiate the religiously-driven conflict between academic work and faith, between Athens and Jerusalem, especially when it comes to the sciences. With humility and common sense, everyone ought to acknowledge that reading the Bible does not qualify one to comment on the finer points of microbiology. One isn’t, by virtue of being an expert in the holy texts, an expert in everything else to boot. Scientific discoveries of all stripes ought to make Christians ask, “Have we perhaps read the biblical texts wrongly?” rather than moving to close the lens on Galileo’s telescope.

Second, the individual Christian is responsible for cultivating her own mental life. For all of the hours lost in this generation to pot, porn, and video games, we owe the Maker of Life repentance. Teen-agers didn’t invent the vices they consume; we’ve handed those down to them. We live in the information age, and all one need do is pick a topic of interest or a person worth emulating and pursue it with curiosity. If books aren’t your favored vehicle for learning, listen to podcasts, watch debates, or work through online classes, all for free.

Third, let kids ask questions. I had horrible religious influences in my childhood who told me, wrongly, “Sometimes you need to stop doubting and just believe.” Ceasing questions to believe doesn’t lead you to Jesus. Ceasing the pursuit of truth doesn’t lead you to the one who said, “I am the truth.” And churches need to be places that are known for encouraging the intellectual curiosity of children.

Fourth, keep the Sabbath. The loss of this discipline has wrought destruction in Western civilization that is devastating while it is undocumented. A day of peace and reflection was not too much for the creator of the universe, I’m not sure how it’s too much for us. Keeping the Sabbath is the way to acknowledge that God can do more in six days than we can do in seven. So take a day to be at peace, reflect, think, and pray. Whatever the link between neurons and the soul, both of them are nourished by the Sabbath.

“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.” – GK Chesterton

Worship

CHANGES IN WORSHIP

Worship has been changing in America.  It’s been changing radically in the 20th century, and even more so in the second half of the second century.  The so-called “worship wars” of the 1980s led to the rise of contemporary worship styles and services.  “Blended” services were formed in order to allow contemporary worship and a variety of instruments into shrinking churches with the hope that the church would slowly evolve and grow.  By the late 1990s, most churches that had hope of having a future had already changed mostly or entirely to contemporary worship.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the American Church witnessed rapid church closures, the impending death of mainline Protestant churches that had refused to change what needed to be changed, and the rise of a massive church planting movement.  Church plants began from the ground up with contemporary worship styles, following on the successes of churches that first pioneered contemporary worship in the 1980s.

Today, churches that cling to traditional worship styles are among the few.  Most of them have designated a single service to traditional worship for those who still long for it, usually meeting in a separate room on campus while the main worship space is used for contemporary worship.

This is where we are.

For most people, this is not a surprise.  Most people have looked around the church culture and seen that this change is not only underway but is now pervasive.  The media has widely reported on the signs that traditional worship is passing from our culture.  Commentators have observed that traditional churches do not have a strong future.  In my own area, one church has recently cancelled its only traditional worship service, another church has removed its traditional elements from its largest, formerly blended service, and a nearby church plant that started with contemporary worship 3 years ago now has 2000 people attending each weekend.  But behind these facts are a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and that’s where a pastor’s heart goes.

CHALLENGES

The most challenging part of this is that there is still a population, largely septuagenarians, who feel alienated by the change.  For them, the experience of modern worship is a lot like the couple of hours I spend playing with my kids in the afternoon: it’s noisy, it wears me out, it gives me a headache, and it’s not really fun for me, but I do it because I love my kids.  After my kids go to bed, I have “me time,” which is far more peaceful and relaxing, and is really what I want.  For that generation, a worship service that is “for the kids” wears them out, and they are left wondering where to find a space for themselves.  They feel disoriented and ignored.

The issues are obvious:

  • Everyone is valuable to God
  • Healthy churches are intergenerational
  • Jesus called us to take up our crosses and die to ourselves
  • Paul tells us to look to the interests of others rather than ourselves
  • Mature Christians should model self-sacrifice for those who are younger and newer
  • Mature Christians don’t act like customers at church, but non-Christians will
  • The church should do everything it can to reach the next generation, particularly in a culture where church influence and attendance are on the wane
  • There’s no way to create a worship experience that everyone likes
  • Traditional worship styles are waning in our culture

A LITTLE HISTORY

The disagreements are not new.  In the 3rd century, churches fought to keep instruments out entirely, because they were associated with pagan cults.  In the 15th century, John Wycliffe complained that the music was being written in a way that was too complex so that only the choir could sing, and everyone else just had to stare.  In the 17th century, Reformed churches fought to keep the organ out.  In the 18th century, a pastor wrote an article opposing the new music being written by Isaac Watts.  He said, “There are several reasons for opposing it. One, it’s too new. Two, it’s often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style. Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.” That was in response to “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.” In 1903, Pope Pius X banned the piano in worship by papal decree.  Later in the 19th century, the founder of the Salvation Army quipped, “Why should the devil have the best music?” and then began writing far more enthusiastic church music.  In the 20th century, many Christians expressed skepticism at the early gospel radio broadcasts of the evangelist Charles Fuller.  Then in the 1970s, pioneers fused modern rock with Christian themes and started a furor of their own.  Sigh.

PASTORS AND THEIR PEOPLE graham

This puts pastors in a bind.  We have to align our people with our mission, our strategy, and our cultural context.  Usually these four things don’t line up well or easily.  We are left to disregard either the culture, making us irrelevant, or to disregard our mission, making us directionless, to disregard our people, making us insensitive, or to disregard strategy, making us look confused.  The pastor, who is more subject to public opinion (and consequent crucifixion!) than anyone else, has the burden of guiding this alignment and being resented for it, no matter the results.

At a former church, I approached a choir to have them sing less frequently.  I did so with the unanimous consent of our Elder board.  In the midst of the conversation with the choir, I was interrupted, then booed, then told that what I was saying “was a bunch of crap.”  The next weekend, a lone choir member came to me and said, “No one has the right to treat their pastor that way.”

Now personally, I don’t feel any resentment towards those who fondly remember and still prefer traditional worship.  For them, it was a feeling of home and a feeling of family.  Talk of “blended services” today is an anachronism.  Some think the compromise that they made in the 1980s to allow the band to meet in another room for a service for young adults was as much compromise as they needed to make.  And for those who have attended the same church for years, they don’t think that the massive changes that have already happened in our culture need to affect them further.  It’s painful and disorienting for them.

But this is the last chance for churches to live or die.

TODAY

Today churches that can provide a separate space for a traditional service may allow it to go on in that space for a while.  For churches that have a single worship venue, effective ones will no longer maintain traditional or even blended services if they want the church to have a future.  Those that are trying to do so have by and large already seen their young adults leave for other churches.

That’s the state in which churches and pastors find themselves today.  There is not a quick solution for the population who does not welcome the change in styles.  They feel marginalized.  Nor is there a possibility that vital churches will go backwards.  That is a leadership failure of the highest order, and it will cost them their future.  We love each other and we keep moving.

The only viable way forward will come when people who love Jesus put the gospel and the kingdom in front of their own preferences to make way for those who don’t yet know Jesus.  It’s only when our hearts beat for lost people and for Jesus that the mission of the church will overwhelm our preferences.  This is not something that we can bring about by our own effort, because only the Holy Spirit has the power to change hearts.  At the end of the day, the best we can do is to cast vision, to pray, and to keep preaching the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

The Church to Come

Chinese churchToday was the first time I worshipped in a church plant at its opening service.  The service was in Mandarin.  An enthusiastic translator sat next to me hurriedly turning every word into something I could understand.  When we stood to sing, I watched the beautiful Chinese calligraphy play across a video screen in front.  I couldn’t read a word of it, but I could feel the passion of the room.  The translator told me what they were singing.  Every song called out “Send me!” Every song talked about loving a lost world.  It was worship of a God who cared for people who were far away.  This is a church plant which is nesting at my home church and worshipping on Sunday afternoons.  It felt remarkably like the future of the church.

An animated preacher, with whom I have had coffee, stood up to speak.  His texts were from Mathew 28 and Acts 1 – Jesus commission to go to a lost world and the charge to love people in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  At one point he spoke eloquently in Chinese, and then I heard the words, “Jim Miller.” Then he said something else, and everyone burst out laughing.  He went on, and the laughing continued.  I turned to the translator.

“What did he say?”

“He said your wife is Chinese, so you like Chinese people.  He said your mother-in-law is here for worship, so we are going to consider you half-Chinese.”  I laughed, admittedly late.

This is the future of the church.  The language which is spoken should be for the people who are doing the best job reaching a lost world.  The rest of us should stand on the sidelines in support.  The songs they will be singing will be refined by the church’s mission.  That room resonated with one thought – we have a purpose.  And that purpose will give that community a future.

Next they commissioned a kneeling pastor to lead the church.

Then something amazing happened.  They only announced one tangible ministry.  They didn’t say anything about programs.  There were no classes or groups.  In fact, they even said that the church wasn’t really there for that.  The ministry they announced was that they were already planning their next church plant in a city 20 minutes further east down the freeway.  This brand new church named only one clear ministry goal – start another church.  I have no doubt that they will.

Well, I have to admit there is one program that comes with any healthy, God-fearing, missional Chinese church, and that is a big meal, which followed immediately.  Thank you, Jesus.

For the new family of faith sharing our roof, I am most grateful.  May God bless you in abundance, so that you will have everything you need all the time, so that you may abound in good works (2 Cor. 9:8).