Monday, October 29, 2007

the relevant in the room

Okay, I admit it: relevance is slippery and somewhat subjective.

Back in the nineties we had a student ministry that connected well with a specific segment of the youth culture: the goth/punk crowd. I remember walking down to the basement of our building on a Sunday night where students met and finding the room extremely dark. I’m pretty sure a couple of kids were making out in the back and most were wearing black. It was a small group…and very relevant to a particular subset. But nearly every other student avoided it like the plague.

Hence, the challenge of cultural relevancy.

Our society is hyper-niched. When I was a kid there was only one radio program to hear music from Jimi Hendrix or the Doors or the Mothers of Invention or Buffalo Springfield or the Fugs: Jelly Pudding, a two-hour Saturday late-night program on the classical music FM music station WEBN here in Cincinnati. No kidding. Every other music station was AM radio playing pop-and-roll. Hard to imagine, eh? These were pre-talk radio days. There wasn’t a lot to choose from. Today Sirius and XM offer 300 stations that include niched channels from Hair Nation (hair bands from the `80’s) to XMU (indie and unsigned bands) and old-school hip hop to Canadian-only groups. And that’s not even considering internet radio…or myspace to hear bands that only your friends like.

So whose culture do you want to be relevant to? In culturally-aware churches, this gets tricky when each culture (or subculture) expects the same level of quality as the hyper-specialized media…or even the large weekend celebrations. That gets challenging to pull off without staffing against it; and who can afford that in a myriad of subcultures? When you throw in racial/ethnic issues, socioeconomic factors, age demographics, personal tastes, etcetera, it gets even more difficult.

So you want to be relevant to the culture? Uh, who’s culture?

And so for a church our size at that time in the mid-nineties—about two thousand people—that wasn’t going to work. I asked our student pastor to turn on all the lights next week. I’m sure he was bummed. But for us it was a matter of painting with a broader brushstroke. We had to reach a wider swath of students and watch out for the dog in the manger; the kids in acid-washed jeans and polo shirts were on a trajectory for hell just as much as the kid in Doc Martens back then.

Did that de-legitimize their ministry or the need? Of course not. It’s simply part of the difficult decisions leaders make in balancing the larger mission against resourcing.

Does that get you wondering? Welcome to my world…

One final note: I’ll be in Northern Ireland this week leading an Outward Focused Church Conference. I’ve struck up a friendship with Jason Scott, pastor of Vineyard Church Dungannon We’ll be bringing a number of churches together to talk about becoming more outward-focused in philosophy and practice. Mark Lutz will be speaking with me as well. Would you pray for us? And pray for Jason…I sent him a pair of boxer shorts with Guinness on the butt. Just being relevant.

Oh yeah…make your own hip cassette at

Monday, October 15, 2007

uncomfortable worship

This one officially takes the longest blog award. Put your feet up…

Here’s the question I’ve wondered about: in heaven, would I feel any of the restrained feelings I have here about expressing worship? Even when some of us say that worship is not our primary pathway to connecting with God, I wonder: is that an option? And if I make the case that a particular style of worship (pop band, four chord songs, repeating lyric lines, etc.) is not the particular method that floats my boat, then what is it that would make me throw my hands up, sing at the top of my lungs, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” and then fall on my face? Apparently that’s what’s happening there according to John the Revelator. And is it really that I struggle with what my pre-Christian neighbor would think if they stumbled into a setting like that with me, or am I afraid to admit my self-consciousness…or even my lack of faith, because Jesus is here now and I rarely do that even at home alone?

The topic of worship forces a lot of dross to the surface. And there just isn’t enough time on the weekends to tackle not only the theology of worship but the internal emotional and spiritual wrestling that takes place.

In Vineyard seminars on this topic, we used to teach that there were three primary words used for describing worth to God: worship, praise and rejoice. As I understand it, each has three to five different expressive Greek or Hebrew words. We can create a continuum, perhaps somewhat arbitrarily, of the full spectrum of expression that God gives us to use.

At one end, the word we translate worship may have more to do with quietness or stillness. There may be bowing involved. The most commonly used Greek word in the New Testament is proskuneo—it literally means to kiss or to come close or come toward and kiss. It’s a submissive expression of intimacy.

Along the arrow we come to the expression praise. In the Old Testament alone, there are at least three different Hebrew words each with different meanings that we simply translate as praise. There is the word halal, the root word of hallelujah. It means to brag, or to boast. Another word is yadah, meaning to worship with your hands extended. The psalmist talks about lifting our hands in His name as an act of worship. As I mentioned this weekend, in the New Testament, Paul said he wanted people everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer. My friend Dan Cox brought a coworker to the Vineyard who asked, “Why do some people raise their hands?” Dan told him they have to go to the bathroom.

Still another Hebrew word translated as praise is zamar. That literally means to strike a stringed instrument with your fingers. If that’s not a case for a Les Paul in church, I don’t know what is. It obviously suggests we’re to have music involved with our worship.

Lastly, we have the expression rejoice. There are lots of Hebrew and Greek words translated as rejoice, but they mostly mean to shout, jump or dance. It means to take full expressive pleasure in God. My oldest daughter was in Rome when Italy won the World Cup: imagine that scene. I saw a game show where a struggling single mom and her six kids won an all-expense paid vacation and a new car. They went crazy and started crying and jumping and screaming and hugging each other. The weekend we announced the total pledged for the Luke 4 Challenge was like that: jumping-and-shouting excitement. Rejoicing is electric, unrestrained joy.

Now if we were honest, we could write on either end of the graphic: “I’m comfortable with this” and “I’m not so sure about this…this borders on weirdness.”
Tell the truth: where are you on that spectrum?

When Jesus quoted Isaiah and said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” that can go either way. And I get nervous.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

gates of hell

I thought Joe did a super job.

Loved the reinforcement of “the gates of hell” being defensive…and that we were to be on the offensive. There is such a forcefulness in Jesus’ words at so many levels in that passage in Matthew 16:13-19:

…how He pushes His disciples to make a decision regarding who He was…
…the willful strength behind “I will build My church”…
…He confers power to the Church: “I will give you the keys”…
…His passing of authority to us: “whatever you bind”…

What’s just as interesting is that Matthew says “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). From that time on…

Jesus follows up those commanding, knockout statements with descriptions of how He would suffer and die a humiliating death, appearing powerless and pathetically helpless at the hands of jealous, phony religious leaders.

Real power and servanthood are inextricably linked in scripture.

Monday, October 01, 2007

not my feet

I mentioned this weekend about a group of people at the Vineyard who go downtown every Saturday and feed several hundred people lunch. It’s called The Good Sam Run. Two weeks ago during a routine lunch, our friends in the homeless community had arranged a surprise for the people who have been serving them for years. One of the people on the team journaled their experience:

“When we were through we packed up as usual. But then the team was asked to stop over across the street for a minute. As we walked over there, someone directed us to sit on the cement wall at Washington Park. There were the people we had just served. As we sat down, we noticed they each had a bowl and a cloth, and we thought ‘what’s going on?’

“They each began to read from a note in their hands. ‘Silver and gold have we none, but what we have we give to you.’ Yes, these were people that didn’t have silver and gold – these were the ‘poor and homeless’ and they had nothing. But ‘what we have we give to you’…what did they mean by that? Then they began to read some scriptures about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and how we should do the same. They were going to wash our feet! All of a sudden my mind began racing. I was used to serving them, but here they were, turning things upside down. They were going to do this for us! I never expected anything like this.

“A maze of emotions hit me. A cloud of bewilderment and humility fell on me. I was not used to this – I wanted to say ‘No, not my feet!’ but then they read the scripture where Peter tried to say that to Jesus. So I obediently took off my sandals. Standing in front of me was a tall, muscular black man with a gentle smile on his face. His gold tooth sparkled as he continued to smile while kneeling down at my feet. He gently lifted my ankle over the basin, dipped the cloth in the water, and lovingly washed my feet as if they were a precious gem he was handling. Then he poured some oil over them, looked at me and said ‘May you always walk with Jesus.’ At this point I could no longer hold back the tears.

“He stood up and leaned over and gave me a hug. Then he gave me a card that said ‘______ is praying for you today.’ He had forgotten to write in his name so I’d know who was praying for me. But I know I will never forget his face as long as I live. The love, joy and humility I felt will always remain with me. And I thank God that I was chosen to be one of those receiving such a precious gift, that ‘all they had, they gave to me.’”

Powerful, eh?

There are still a few churches that have made foot-washing part of their practices. It’s lost its meaning in our culture; centuries ago it was the job of the house-slave to do that for guests with dusty sandaled feet. And in modern “user-friendly” churches, that would be a practice that would freak everyone out. So we attempt to find the jobs that are the “lowest on the food chain” to do…and then do them for others. So if you’ve ever worked a summer at a car wash…or had the gig of cleaning the bathroom at your place of employment…you might understand what a shock that is to have someone offer that for free.

But one final note: once I was speaking to the volunteer leaders of our prayer team ministry and after I had prayed for them, they asked me to sit down and remove my shoes. I got very, very nervous and uncomfortable. Then they brought a basin out and washed my feet and poured oil over them. I can’t express how humbled I was by this. It made me speechless…and I wept on the way home. It brought our feelings I didn’t even know were below the surface. As out-of-place and awkward “foot-washing” is in our world, I had never experienced anything quite like that. And believe me, I’ve experienced a lot in my fifty-four years.

An act of humility on their part triggered a flood of humility in me. I felt unworthy but strangely loved at the same time. I really can’t explain it.

Can you imagine what the disciples felt when the King of the Universe washed theirs?

Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 New Living Translation)