Beatitudes

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

But woe to
you who are rich
‘cause you’ll find
life is a
‘bout more than your money and you may find you’re missing out, honey

We’ll be happy
with our mercy
cause we all need mercy, too.
He said happy
are the heart-pure
God will show God’s face to you.
You’ll be happy
when you make peace
reconciling humankind
and the kingdom
will be among you
if you search then you will find.

But don’t think
that you won’t get hit
They’ll drag your
name through the
shameful situation, and they’ll trash your reputation

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

A Trinitarian Creed for Allies

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 1.15.20 PM

We are not saviors.
We believe God was at work
long before we arrived.

We believe in the Creator,
who liberates and cares for the oppressed,
who created us in all our diversity
to taste and see that God is good,
and to see the image of God in each other.

We believe in the Redeemer
who walked in solidarity with us,
who proclaimed release for the captives,
who spoke truth to power,
who refused to let violence and death have the last word.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who comforts when words fail,
who gives us courage when our hearts fail,
who listens for what is unsaid and unheard.

We believe God’s love is manifest
when we stop making apologies for injustice,
when we accept correction gracefully,
when we confess our complicity in violence and oppression,
when we listen with open hearts,
when we don’t hog the microphone or the spotlight,
when we use what power we have to share power with others.

We will not fear
the righteous anger of the wounded,
the manufactured outrage of the powerful,
or the decentering of our own experience
as we witness God’s unfolding story of liberation.

We believe the invitation to join in God’s reconciling work
is Good News worth sharing.
We believe we are all called to be allies for someone else.

We are not saviors.
We believe God was at work
long before we arrived.

Why We Worship in the Afternoon

I had to struggle to close down evening services at the last two churches I served. Both were holdovers from a previous era, a time when people would go to church several times a week. These services had dwindled to a dozen or so older worshipers who faithfully sang the old hymns and turned out to hear a preacher, who was tired from two or three services earlier in the day, deliver a warmed-over homily. In winter, when earlier darkness prevented many of them from driving to church, attendance could be a mere handful. It was hard to end a ministry which had ceased to be productive long ago.

So it’s amusing to me, now that I’m planting a new church, that our primary worship service is in the afternoon! We meet at 4:30. Me, I’m a morning person. If I weren’t a minister of the gospel and could just choose a worship service to suit myself, I’d go to the earliest service I could find so that I’d have a long, uninterrupted stretch of time for the rest of the day—but I’m not the person we’re trying to reach!

The afternoon service works for us for a number of reasons.

1. We can reach a different population. A lot of the people we’re trying to reach sleep in on Sunday mornings. Folks who aren’t in the habit of getting up early to get to church—in other words, most of the population of the United States—often don’t exactly relish answering to their alarm clock on days they don’t have to be at work. Our musicians often have gigs on Saturday nights, so they definitely appreciate a later Sunday start time. Many people work on Sunday mornings, or work night shifts that make mornings tough. Afternoon services allow people to get the rest they need on the weekend.

2. It doesn’t feel “churchy.” Since our goal is to reach people who have been hurt or burned by church, meeting at a time other that Sunday morning helps the service feel less like a traditional (or “traditional-contemporary”) church. Meeting at a different time helps us dissociate our community from the negative experiences people may have had at other churches.

3. We give people time to travel. Young adults travel a lot on the weekends—attending weddings, visiting family, going to festivals or special events, or snatching short vacations because they can’t afford to take off work. I began noticing several years ago when I led a contemporary worship service at a different church that our attendance patterns were often the opposite of our traditional service. On Mother’s Day or near Christmas, our sanctuary would be mostly empty, because many of our young families went to worship with their parents. Meeting in the afternoon gives them the chance to get back in time for worship in our community.

4. We can reach the churched. Yes, you read that right. As a new church, an afternoon service allows people from other churches to attend. While we’re not interested in “sheep-stealing” or cannibalizing members from other churches, we’re always looking for referrals! Several supporters who belong to other churches have brought their unchurched friends to our worship services. They know our community can be a home for people who might never set foot inside a more churchy church, and they are committed enough to making disciples that they are happy to bring their friends to us!

5. We can do mission-oriented evangelism in the community on Sunday mornings. We’re able to do mission projects as well as just go out and meet other people who aren’t already in church. Again, this gives us access to a population most of our churches miss. Our members can invite their unchurched friends to serve lunch at a homeless shelter or do a yard project for a neighbor. For folks who have some antipathy toward church, seeing the church in action on Sunday morning helps shatter the tired old tropes about “sitting in the pews behind stained glass.” Being out in the community on Sunday morning helps turn the church inside-out in their eyes. Many innovative churches don’t even meet on Sundays at all. After Hours Denver meets on Monday nights. Other churches have their primary services on Saturday or even Thursday nights.

The primary downside to having afternoon services is that community events like music festivals and sporting events often happen on Sunday afternoons. Some people might not feel like we’re a “real” church because we don’t meet at the normal time. But as our culture becomes increasingly secular, Sunday mornings are no longer left alone by other organizations for church attendance anyway. For us, Sunday afternoons are a great way to reach a population of people most other churches don’t reach.

[This article originally appeared on Ministry Matters]

Unsolicited Advice to an Atheist Church: Mission

This may sound condescending, and the only thing I can do is insist that I do not mean it that way: I find it very heartening that some atheists have decided to start a church. Along with stories about humanist chaplains, I think this is a sign that popular atheism is “growing up.”

Again, I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Well, I do, in one sense. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others have been known more for what they rail against than what they are for. When someone insists that religion embodies everything that is wrong with the world, and that we would all be better off if only our thinking were more rational and in better order, I can’t help but think them a bit naive. In Christian thought, sin is pervasive, and infects everything we do—including our reasoning. This is why a raving religious fundamentalist and a non-believer who insists he is “spiritual but not religious” can express the same contempt for others in the same religious terms: “everyone who disagrees with me is a damned fool.”

But I believe that most reformations begin by rejecting something and then having to deal with the “what now?” When Protestants rejected papal authority they had to deal with the “what now?” of how they would organize and who would be in charge. It is not enough to be isolated individuals who share proper thinking. We must organize and effect change. That is what I mean by “growing up.”

Christian churches have operated with a theology that they enflesh or “incarnate” the Spirit of Christ, that they continue a ministry which he started himself. In secular language, it’s about how you live out what you believe and connect it to a larger, ongoing project. And it’s not just “walking the walk” on your own, because it doesn’t become real until it’s done in community, with a common purpose, with real human beings who sometimes get on your nerves or challenge you. If atheism is only about getting religion off our backs so we can enjoy life, then it is a juvenile atheism. When it becomes about how we can practice transforming society into something more humane and increasing our collective quality of life, all the while struggling with our own tendency toward evil, then it is growing up.

In terms of the condescending sense of “growing up,” I’ll also point out that it is far too easy to find examples of Christians who are immature, who are known more for what they are against than what they are for, who do not connect the tenets of what they supposedly believe with their way of life. So easy, in fact, that reciting all of the ways Christians fail to be Christian is tiresome, and I find that I tune out and start thinking about more productive ways to spend my time. I’ll also point out that anyone who thinks they are mature and that they have it all together is probably the most “lost” of us all. (Not coincidentally, this was Jesus’ chief complaint against the religious leaders of his day).

One part of growing up is having a sense of mission, and this is what really excites me about the concept of the atheist church in the article: Just because you believe in an accidental, purposeless universe does not mean human life—and your life—are without purpose. This seems to be a hard concept for many Christians to grasp about atheism. The mission (the author calls it a “mantra”) of the church in the linked article above is “live better, help often, wonder more.” Having a good mission statement is key to getting people on board with collective action of any kind. If you want to challenge the naysayers, have a clear yardstick for group decision-making, and motivate your people, you need a mission statement.

It’s also a reason you need a good theology—or “atheology”—of your mission. Why is what you do important to other people? Can’t they achieve that mission by watching a bunch of TED talks? Is there some reason people need to be “in the flesh” with other human beings in a group? For Christian churches, it is good to ask: Why do people in your community need Jesus? Why do they need church? Why do they need your church? If you really want to take it to the next level, ask these questions of your people.

While I am writing about mission with an air of authority, I do so tongue-in-cheek, with some sense of trepidation and humility. Though I do have quite a bit of experience in different churches, I’m in the process of planting a new church, and we’ll see very shortly if I’m able to live out what I write. The atheist church in the article started with 300 people. I hope we do so well!

I enjoy thinking about what it would take to plant an atheist church, because it helps me critically reflect on how I am planting this church, and what difference a theology of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit has on what I do. There are days that I have trouble believing in God, and what sustains me is the belief that I’ve been called to do this thing, regardless of how I feel in the moment, and not by my own power. Somehow, even in the midst of my doubt, God shows up. Again and again I witness the miracle of the mustard seed: a tiny bit of faith, planted and watered, which spreads like an invasive weed. (In atheistic language, it is a benevolent, infectious meme.) I hope to see the birds of the air come nest in its branches.

Jesus, the Shawarma of God

When you hear the phrase “Lamb of God,” is the mental picture you imagine more like this:

Awwww, how cute!

…or like this:

…or this:

20120824-043344.jpg

…or this?

mmmmmmm... worthy is the lamb!

20120824-043353.jpg

I was recently in an auditorium of thousands of people who were singing, “worthy is the Lamb!” and it occurred to me that among those thousands, there was likely not a single person who had actually ever butchered a sheep. I haven’t butchered a sheep, either. I think often when we hear Biblical metaphors, we think we understand what the authors are saying when we really have no earthly idea.

The whole idea of the sacrificial system is alien to most of us Christians. When we get our meat here in the U.S., it usually comes on a foam platter covered with plastic wrap. We do not see the act of slaughtering meat, the taking of one life to nourish another, as a sacred activity. Except for folks who are vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, most of us don’t think too much about how we get our meat.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist points Jesus out to the disciples and says, “Look, there’s the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Paul talks about Jesus as the paschal lamb, which was slaughtered for the festival of Passover in memory of God’s victory over the Egyptians over a thousand years earlier. These guys clearly had in mind the concept of lamb, both as a living creature and as meat on your plate. We shouldn’t be shocked by the cannibalistic overtones: Jesus called himself “the bread of life,” too.

The author of Revelation is the one who spends the most time talking about Jesus as the Lamb of God. In his vision, when he sees Jesus, he describes him (paradoxically) as a lamb standing as one who had been slain.

It’s just another example of rich metaphors in the Bible that get emptied of their power and become clichés in the ham-fisted (lamb-fisted?) word smithing of preachers and worship musicians. If you want to imbue the metaphor with some of its lost rhetorical power, take your Christian and atheist friends to a middle eastern restaurant, order some shawarma or lamb kebab, and after taking bite, say, “MMMMmmmmmm… worthy is the lamb!” Those that laugh will get it. Those that look at you with horror might get it, too.

One of the things I look forward to doing in worship at Saint Junia, our new Birmingham church, is reclaiming the power of metaphors that have become clichés and insider-language for church folk. And if we sing “worthy is the lamb who was slain,” you can bet that I’ll have an image of a rotisserie on the screen.

What I Learned Last Sunday

A week ago Sunday (June 24) I got to visit Innerchange UMC in McCalla, Alabama. Several Trinity members visited Innerchange last year and told me that I should visit. (It is tough to visit other churches when you are a pastor, but I’m beginning to think it is essential. I’ve learned so much from just the last few Sundays of visiting around).

RIght off, I loved the signage. It was so easy to see where to go. Big, brightly-colored signs are right on the buildings pointing the way to different areas. Greeters welcomed us warmly. I was on crutches and someone held the door open for me. We were directed to the coffee bar and to a welcome table. Mike, the pastor, was sitting at the table and he welcomed us, too. He is the founding pastor of Innerchange, and I really appreciated his words to us newbie church planters. I also appreciated during the prayer time that he offered a special prayer for us. One lady sitting beside us put her arm around me as we prayed. It meant a lot to me.

I think the coolest thing was just the genuine sense of community there. I liked the informal, semi-round seating in the warehouse. Mike sat down to preach, and it felt more like shooting the breeze in someone’s living room than a sermon. People felt free to comment and talk back to him.

I also really appreciated the fact that the band clearly wrote a lot of their own music. The last song in particular was good (it had a good meter as well as rockin’ rhythm). Although I can’t quite recall it, if I heard it again I could sing along immediately.

Worshiping in the round in the gym at The *Story

I mentioned to my group on Sunday that for a long, long time I’ve wanted to design worship in the round or semi-round, like an ancient Greek theater or one of the coves along the Sea of Galilee. We found that in our contemporary service at Trinity, when people sit in a circle, they can hear each other sing. They tend to participate more. They can see other faces and it has a much more intimate feel. The main action of worship happens among us instead of in front of us. When we began an alternative worship service called The *Story at Fairview, we worshiped in the round and most people seemed to really dig it.

I didn’t get to visit another church’s worship service this past Sunday, but I hope to go somewhere else that will stretch me a bit.

Church Update: July 1, 2012

On July 1, twenty-seven people gathered at our house for our first afternoon worship and planning meeting, followed by a potluck supper (because you can’t be a real church without potluck suppers!). The vision of this new church is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. “The renewal of all things” is a pretty big idea, so we try to break it down into five aspects of our life together: Worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness. Each of the five Sundays in July we will gather at 4:30 to talk about one of the five areas.

All of these flow from the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. We love God as a community through worship. We love God individually through our devotion. We love our neighbors as a community by doing justice in Birmingham and in the world. We love our neighbors individually through ministries of compassion. Binding all of them together is our witness to what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.
We also went about the business of doing business and delegating roles. Over the next few weeks Angela and I will be talking with folks about how they would like to grow spiritually through this new church, and what they can in turn offer to others.
We are so thankful to Trinity and Canterbury UMC for all their encouragement, financial support, willingness to serve, and prayer. God is already doing great things.

Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.

Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:

from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006

You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.

For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:

Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.

-John Bell

Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.

Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:

The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.

Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:

Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.

U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.

I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.

I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:

Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:

The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?

Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:

Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 55-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 44-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4

Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.

Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.

Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.

People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.

One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.

I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.

As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.

It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.

I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.

Lessons from Last Sunday

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to is the time I’ve scheduled this summer to visit other churches and learn from them. I visited a major Birmingham mega-church this past Sunday, and although I did not get to hear the senior pastor preach, I did get to observe what happens in worship.

I’ll go ahead and confess I’m inclined to be annoyed at this large, dynamic, successful church. Part of my annoyance is healthy competitive spirit, but it is part envy as well. I have been in ministry in other cities and other churches dwarfed by a large neighboring church, stymied by attempts to do ministry because “______ Church is already doing that far better than we can.” Rather than being excited by the other church’s positive impact in a community, I’ve been resentful. Members would get siphoned away from our church to the larger one because of bigger youth and children’s programs, and I would mutter about “sheep-stealing.” (To be fair, I’ve also been in ministry in a large, dynamic church that has probably done the same to smaller neighbor churches as well).

So when the preacher began his sermon with a ten-minute sales job for the church, I was initially put off. Over and over again he said that he loved this church, that he loved the pastor and the pastor’s family, that he loved Birmingham and the impact the church was having on Birmingham. I began checking my clock. Was this guy ever going to get around to preaching? But then I began to reflect that if people are exposed to this kind of cheerleading on a regular basis, they probably begin believing it. They might even begin acting on it.

One of the most powerful tools leaders have to change behavior is called “attribution.” It means that you attribute to someone the qualities you want for them to have, and then they try to live up to your expectations.

In one famous psychology experiment, researchers established a target behavior for three classes of fifth graders. The first class was offered a pizza party if they would keep their classroom free of litter. The second class was offered no reward, but the principle would visit the room and say, “Wow, you kids keep your room so tidy. You must like to keep your room clean.” The last class was the control group. Guess which class did the best job at keeping their room tidy? Not the one with the reward incentive, but the one to whom the principle attributed tidiness.

It has become popular to ridicule the self-esteem movement in education of the last decade, but it is mostly because both its critics and advocates misunderstand incentives and behavior change. It is well-established that attribution is a powerful tool for changing behavior for both individuals and communities. This is why good-hearted, well-intentioned pastors who whine about people not participating in missions can’t actually guilt people into serving, while gung-ho pastors who incessantly praise their churches succeed. People live up or down to expectations.

Worship in IMAX 3D

Last week I went to see Prometheus in IMAX 3D. For a sci-fi nerd like me, it was worth every penny of the $15 ticket. The most awesome thing about the IMAX theater is not the visuals, in my humble opinion—it is the speakers. You do not hear the bass so much as feel it, and it is so powerful that when Prometheus was landing on the alien planet I could feel the rumble of the engines in my body. I actually worried a bit that the vibrations might be throwing my heart out of rhythm, but I couldn’t remember if that was an urban legend or not.

But really, after the first thirty minutes or so of alien landscape flyovers, tiny shots of the ship dwarfed by enormous moons, and gut-scrambling engine noise, I more or less forgot about the special effects. All the noise and glam is pointless unless it enhances a good story, and I got wrapped up the story. I forgot I was watching a movie in 3D.

The same thing can happen watching an antique 6-inch black-and-white television screen, if the story is good enough. And all the special effects in the world can’t save a boring film. I was one of the unfortunate people who shelled out money to see The Matrix: Reloaded in the theater, and I found myself checking my watch and thinking about what I would do after the movie during the fight scenes.

I think the same thing is true of worship in church. You can put a lot of resources into creating an experience with lighting, fog machines, big screens, gimmicks, and great audio, but they can’t compensate for a lack of substance. And if the story is good enough, people get caught up in the experience and forget where they are, or the limitations of the technology.

It is also possible, of course, for technology to sabotage worship. A buzzing microphone or lighting problem will distract people and cause them to drop out of the experience. But these things are easily overcome. Nothing can take the place of a good story, well-told.