Communal Music

I am pastoring a young churchplant right now here in Baguio, and we are diverse in age, status, and ethnicity. One of the challenges we have is music. What music should we use in church. A couple of decades ago, a large percentage of Evangelical churches in the Philippines suddenly turned over their music to a worship team made up of high school and college youth. This was a pretty painful experience— listening and watching church youth try to mimic their favorite Hillsong videos right down to the enunciation and body movements. I recall being in a seminary class and having students speak derisively of those old fashioned churches that still hold onto hymns because their parents still prefer them. My response was to be kind to their parents because their own tastes are likely to be mocked by their own chuldren. Well, today that has happened with the new generation commonly rejecting the “Praise & Worship” style of the seminary students 10 to 15 years ago.

Around that same time (10 years ago or so)  I recall reading a book on worship music styles describing 6 major styles (six in the area that the writer lived at least). One of the styles was called “Blended” or the mixing of musical genres. The writer spoke rather negatively of that, much in line with others such as Rick Warren who believed that growth (or at least church health) comes from, in part, consistency of style and tone.

None of this suggests what music we should focus on today. But then I was reminded of what my church back in the US (our sending church) has done. While their format has changed over the years. The last time I was there, they had three services. Service A utilized Country Gospel (and a bit of Christian Bluegrass). Service B utilized  Contemporary Christian (perhaps a bit more from the folk tradition than some versions of CC). Service C utilized Hymns. What does this tell me? One thing it could tell me is that different people like different things, so the church sought to keep them all happy. That is probably true, and perhaps it is the prime motivation. But I felt that I saw something different that is key.

CONNECTIONS

Hear me out here.

Service A.  The church is in a part of the US where country and bluegrass are BIG. The service, with the focus on this style, then connects the church to the community.

Service B.  This particular service is called the “Family Service.” Musically, one can see why. It’s focus on a folkish contemporary Christian results in a style of music that is pretty accessible to a wide range of ages. The style connects generations.

Service C.  The church has a large number of people who find hymns inspirational. While some people see them as old-timey (and certainly some have long passed their sell-by date), the new generation of Christians seem to be open to hymns more than the previous one… especially if the tunes are reworked a bit, with unnecessary bridges or choruses added in. In fact, hymns are my 21 year old’s preferred style. But to me, hymns connect to history. The church is not a 20 year old phenomenon, it is a 2000 year phenomenon. Hymns, in a small way, connect us to our history— remembering and honoring those who have gone before us.

So what do we do in Baguio? We are a church plant of around 40 people who all meet together in one main worship service per week. We don’t have the option of having three different services— music tailored to each group. So do we chose music that is inoffensive to the majority— music that is mildly pleasant, or maybe pleasantly mild?

My thought right now is to focus on connections. Separate genres for separate groups in a church, undermines the connection ideal a bit, I think. Instead, we must recognized that corporate worship is for worshiping God, but also for making connections. If it was simply about worship, we could give tailored individualized playlists that people can plug into their ears as the walk around… singing along if they want. But for corporate worship, we are connecting with each other in our worship.

As such, we should find ways to choose music that:

  • Connects to the community. There should be music that is accessible to those in the surrounding culture.
  • Connects to the generations within the church. There should be music that everyone can, on some level, appreciate.
  • Connects to our history. Our music can, at least at times, draw us to generations of the faithful before us.
  • (Adding a fourth) Connects to our diversity. The church is made up of great ethnic diversity. Our local church certainly is… and if yours isn’t, why is that? As such, music should also honor that diversity, reminding us that John’s vision of (perhaps) ideal worship starting in Revelation 7:9 is first identified by the unity within its extreme diversity, and the diversity within its extreme unity.

I really don’t think that these four areas can be handled with one single musical genre. As such, I believe we do need to embrace a sort of blended worship. A major complaint regarding blended styles in worship services is that it tends to result in a lot of different groups all being relatively unhappy. That seems a valid concern. But connection doesn’t happen simply by mixing together different styles of songs. It must be an intentionally educative process. Singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” followed by “Mahal na Mahal Kita Panginoon” doesn’t automatically get people to recognize that the church of the early Protestant movement in Germany is connected to the modern evangelical church in the Philippines. The connection must be identified, and integrated into the music worship experience.

Judging Not?

I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount at church, and soon I will be getting to one of those veses that some people use as a weapon, and others act like it is not there. Some people seem to think that the verse supports a sort of radical “let it be” perspective. On the other side, some seem to have become so skilled at “explaining” the verse that it seems like they have explained it into non-existence.

As always, I try to find a middle position between two untenable extremes, but that hardly answers things. Two obvious (I think) points are:

  • Judging can be hypocritical, since we often are tempted to judge while pretending that we are above being judged.
  • Judging can commonly be wrong since we tend to be incompetent to judge well. We can see the beautiful whitewash on the sepulchre, but see nothing beneath the thin layer of color.

Recently, however, I noticed another issue. My wife and I like to watch crime dramas and reality crime shows (judges us at your own peril). There were two recent cases that were shown on reality crime that got me thinking. The first was a wife and mother in Texas (I believe). She was a church-going woman, and noted as a fine upstanding Christian and fervent in her Bible reading. Oh sure there were quirks that made one wonder about her integrity, but overall, highly regarded. She was eventually charged and convicted of poisoning several people who were close to her.

The other was a pastor from Pennsylvania. He was a popular preacher and expositor of the word. Yet he was a chronic womanizer, and killed two of his wives.

What was perhaps most problematic was they were able to kill multiple times because they were seen as such unlikely killers.

This got me thinking. We often think of judging as an activity of condemnation. But in these two cases, the problem was that they were judged favorable for having the trappings of being “good Christians.” It seems to me that if this form of judging is just as wrong as the other. And since Jesus went out of His way to point out that we often fail to see the evil or emptiness in people’s hearts because of an external piety (whited sepulchres again), I think it is fair to say that Jesus was at least as concerned with this second form of judging as the first.

So while I still struggle with how best to live a life of “judging not,” I am pretty sure that avoiding the temptation to judge unfavorably is no worse than to judge favorably.

 

 

Ending Well

We are all going to die.

And that is okay. Oh, I know you might say that Jesus is returning any day and will take the redeemed meeting with them that had not “slept” in the clouds. Statistically speaking, however, history is decidedly on the side of “it is appointed unto man once to die” for your fate and mine. And nothing is wrong with that. If we are comforted that Christ will come… why would it be any less comforting that we are a couple of heartbeats away from eternity?

But that seems to be the thing about being human. Death bothers us. Maybe it shouldn’t… but it does. It does a lot. It does so much that many Christian leaders fail to plan for their death. Erik Erikson notes that near the end of life one must deal with integrity versus despair— struggling with the impending threat of non-being. In ministry, people can struggle with this or more  confusedly, act as if one will never die and not train up a replacement.

I recall a former pastor who claimed to be referencing Jerry Fallwell when he expressed the belief that organizations rise and fall by their leaders. Within the context of his point, the pastor was actually saying that one should hardly bother to train up a replacement because things are going to fail anyway once that visionary leader is gone. I can’t help but think that was simply a justification of laziness and hubris, rather than doubts about his mortality. Curiously, Jerry Fallwell died, and our former pastor was pushed out of the church… without such collapse. Go figure.

But organizations and groups die as well. So do churches. So do websites. Times change and structures that were important at one time lose their purpose for being.

I am mentioning this because I am considering bringing this blog to the end.

Why? Am I nearing death?  It is certainly possible, but I have no reason to assume that.   But I am changing. For much of my time in the Philippines, my focus has been on Missions. It is my topic and passion. However, starting in 2009, I became administrator of a counseling center… and then registrar of a chaplaincy certifier. And then an instructor in a number of pastoral care topics. I find that much of my research in recent years has been in terms of pastoral care topics. My missions research has been growing stale. And those areas that I have been continuing to take seriously have been those areas of missions that overlap with other fields. These include:

  • Contextual Theology (Missions Contextualization and Systematic Theology)
  • Missionary Member Care (Missions and Pastoral Care)
  • Interreligious Dialogue (Missions and Pastoral Counseling)

Additionally, I have been doing more in terms of Pastoral Theology (Pastoral Care and Practical Theology) and the somewhat related topic of Theological Reflection.

As such, I find less and less new to say on missions that I have not already shared in my over 1000 previous posts.

So does that mean that this is my last post. Probably not. But I will probably start a new blog that is more in the area of my newer focuses. 

Should I stop now completely? I am getting more views per day on average than I have ever gotten in my 8.5 years of doing this blog. It seems like that would be ending well. End with strength and transition.

But I understand the other side. One doesn’t want to let go. Like many ministry leaders… it feels strange to give up on one’s pet work or project. It always seems worthwhile to keep things going past their usefulness.

Maybe this blog will not end well…. just slowly peter out. Or maybe I will get a new fire in my belly and have more things to say.

Time will tell.

I Think We Are Confused

Okay… at times I people say things that are strange. Nothing wrong with that. I say strange things at times. But some things really confuse me… and I think that my confusion stems from the presumption on my part that others are NOT confused. So here are a couple of things

  1.  People will talk to me something like this.  “Wow… I was walking around ________ and I saw Muslims there. They are growing!!” Well, Islam is growing. Actually, so are many other religions… and secular ideologies. At the moment, Islam is the fastest numerical grower among explicitly religious entities. However, in the United States and the Philippines (where the people I speak to live) this is not situation at all. What they are experiencing is mobility. People move around more now that transporation is becoming relatively cheaper and job opportuninities and political struggles drive migration. We see this here in Baguio City, Philippines. I live on the campus of a Baptist seminary. However, within a short walk of where I live is an Islamic mosque, a Sikh Temple, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a Bahai Center, a Brahman meditation center, a Christian Science reading room and church, a Mormon church, a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and more. While many of these are driven partly by missionary fervor, much of their existence is owed to migration. For the world religions, this is especially true.  Around 1 out of 5 humans on earth are self-identified Muslims. So if the worldwide stats were true everywhere, 1 out of 5 people we would see walking down the street here would be Muslims. What is NOT surprising is that there are so many Muslims (or Hindus, Buddhists, or more) in Baguio City,. What is surprising is that there are so few. Migration is likely to continue (xenophobic nationalism notwithstanding) so the important thing as Christians is to figure out how to deal with people of other faiths as neighbors. Of course, it should not be that complicated. Jesus already told us how we are to treat neighbors.
  2. I have had so many people express shock and anger that Christians are being persecuted. In some cases that persecution being noted is true persecution.  “True persecution” in my view involves physical abuse or death, outlawing Christianity or Christian practices of private individuals. For many, however, persecution includes taking away preferential treatment. Others seem to mix Christian beliefs with secular political ideologies so that challenging such ideologies is seen as attacking Christian beliefs. Instead of fighting about what is legitimate persecution and what is not, I would rather avoid that mess and simply note that Jesus said that we are to expect persecution if we are following Jesus. It is understandable to be angry about persecution. Some people truly suffer for their beliefs. But after the anger… what do you do about it. Do you feed the anger? How do you treat those who are persecutors? Curiously, Jesus answered that one as well.

Not so Courageous

A few days ago I got involved in a pretty mild disagreement on FB. It was on a Christian topic that I consider fairly minor, and one in which my view is rather middle-of-the-road and nuanced. Despite all of this, at the end of the discussion, the one who had started the conversation remarked positively on my courage to express my opinion in a forum of those who held a very different view.

I really did not think I was being courageous at all:

  • My view was far from opposite of the others. It was just more flexible.
  • I, frankly, did not know that I was going into a group with a different view than my own. (Truthfully I probably should have guessed that the group was embracing a different view. The signs were there—  a person shares an e-article on FB and adds the comment something like, “Mmmm. Interesting article. What do you think?” That comment usually really means, “Hahhh!!! Checkmate!”– despite the mediocrity of the actual article cited. “Confirmation Bias.”)

But that is not the main reason I was not being courageous.  But before I get to the main reason…

I wrote a post a few months ago that suggested that John Calvin may be a “wee bit wrong” about something. I got a response from a friend of mine that said that I had probably hit a nerve with a large number of people. I may have been courageous to share it… but perhaps a bit foolish.  Again, I don’t feel all that courageous because:

  • Theology is a human construct, and theologians are— well— human. As such, it should be fully anticipated that theology and theologians are wrong… a lot. Calvin (and not just his overzealous followers) is certainly wrong a lot because humans are wrong a lot. It should not be hugely controversial to say that his theological perspective may be a bit missiologically deficient or that, just perhaps, he confused the sovereignty of God with the control of God in a way that distorts exegesis of some key Biblical passages.
  • I am wrong a lot because I am also human. It is hardly courageous to share something that could be wrong since we all do that even when we try not to.

And that leads to the biggest reason I am not being courageous:

As Christians, we are called to give each other grace, understanding that we don’t and won’t always agree on everything. It is not courageous because it is not supposed to be courageous. We are supposed to exhort and admonish and love and encourage one another. Where is the fear and danger in that?

I do admit, however, that it is amazing all of the blogposts and articles out there calling pretty much everyone else heretics. But that reflects badly on the writers more than their targets. This is not to say there are not false teachers. Since all of us are wrong at times, we need to give a bit of grace regarding what level we say that wrong good people have crossed the line to wrong bad people.

It is hardly courageous to express one’s opinions to those who may not share those opinions, but it is certainly cowardly to only hang out with one’s  “Yup, me too” gang members and take hurtful potshots at those passers-by who hold a different perspective.

Nostalgic Christianity and the Ambiguity of History

nostalgiaOver the years I have been fascinated by those Christians who regularly point back longingly to a time in history that they identify as ideal or idyllic— especially from a Christian perspective. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look back to the early years of their own faith tradition (whatever period that may be) with the pillars of their faith. Some American Christians point back to the “founding fathers of the US, or to the time of the Puritans. Many go back to the first century church.

I have always wondered why. Even a casual student of pretty much any period of history would find a lot that Christians would (or should) feel ambivalent or even uncomfortable about. One of the challenges I have in teaching missions is that in so many periods in missions history, it is hard to find things that are commendable. But they are there. There is beauty in times of ugliness, and ugliness in times of beauty.

But I do wonder what makes people want to view the past in an idealized manner? Consider this verse,

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.   Ecclesiastes 7:10

One would think that Christians would avoid expressing nostalgia if for no other reason than to avoid being declared unwise. But the fact that nostalgia was an issues over 2000 years ago suggests that it is an issue of humanity, not simply of our times.

A present belief is that nostalgia becomes more pervasive in times of uncertainty and anxiety. In these times, the world seems dangerous or at least uncomfortable. A response to that is to embrace a form of exoticism (temporal exoticism, if you will). Exoticism is the belief that some other culture or place is kind of awesome, while our own place or culture stinks. Exoticism is built off of ignorance. Distance obscures unpleasant details. While it has been said, “Once they’ve seen Paris, it is hard to get them back on the farm,” it is probably more true that “Once they have embraced an idealized vision of Paris, it is hard to keep them from leaving the farm.”  For “Temporal Exoticism” the far off place is far off because of time, not space.

For Christians, what are some things that can lead to nostalgia? A few thoughts.

  1.  A feeling of lack of control or power.  When we have power, or the perception of power or control, we tend to be less anxious.  This may not be a universal thing. The feudal system placed people in a position of no political or economic power, yet anxiety most likely came from uncertainties about illness and weather, not the fact that their daily existence was in the hands of the lord of the land. But in the present era in the West, where autonomy is given great priority, lack of control can be highly stressful. (It is strange that Christians feel this sort of lack so acutely when Christianity was built on the presumption of having little to no political or economic power.) People who feel this as a stressor look back to a time that is more triumphalistic or where their own worldview was seen as universally appreciated.
  2. Pluralistic communities. For many people it is stressful to be around people of other cultures or faiths. Living in a culture that is almost entirely unlike the culture I was raised in, I struggle to understand this. However, I met people from my home culture who now live in the culture I presently dwell in who seem to live in a state of continuous trauma. They look fondly back to the time before easy transportation when monocultures were prevalent. It seemed safer back then. But was it?
  3. Progressives. The term “progressive” is so loosely used for so many situations that it is pretty close to meaningless. But I suppose that gives me the right to appropriate the term. In this case, I am using it to refer to those who tend to judge the past based on present ethical perspectives. As such, they often disrespect the same periods of time that are embraced by the nostalgic Christians. Nostalgia may be a way to reduce stress by creating a somewhat false narrative, but when others try to crush that vision, the result is an increase in stress. This increase in stress can lead some to “double-down” on the fantasy.

The reality, however, is that history is messy. Consider, for example, a church of which I have a connection. It is a fairly old church and when one looks at the earliest church rolls, one finds that there were slaves who were members of the church. One can look at that with horror— Christians who went to church and yet “owned” other human beings. Such horror is quite understanable. Of course, if someone else looked at the same situation, they may say, “Isn’t it wonderful that these Christian slaveowners  cared about their slaves enough to be concerned about their immortal souls! Oh yeah, and isn’t it nice that these slaveowners recognize that their slaves have immortal souls!” I think you may see how the ambiguity of the situation can be difficult for people to wrestle with so they embrace a one-sided perspective. Shortly after the American Civil War, the slaves associated with that church were emancipated. They formed their own separate church… which still exists to this day. Should one feel good that former slaves now have self-determination in terms of religion, or should one feel bad that a church could only be racially integrated when there was legally mandated “caste” system in place?

I hope I don’t have to point out the ambiguities of the 1950s in America or of colonial expansion of Christian nations. Some unambiguously bad things like the Crusades also become a bit more murky when one realizes that it was an evil response to past evils of others. Pretty poor excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.

I think we grow as people when we address the ambiguities. It is okay to look at King David in the Bible as a great hero of the faith, but it is also okay to look at him as a self-righteous self-serving monster. But maybe better than either of these is that King David was a man who (truthfully) did many many bad things, (it is kind of awesome that the Bible portrays a man of faith who was an adulterer, a horrible father, a mercenary, and a racketeer) and yet when challenged in his failings was able to humble himself and seek forgiveness. Not many kings outside of fairy tales do that. The ambiguous human is best I think. Heroes and monsters are caricatures. We learn better from humans than we do from caricatures.

Nostalgia is sometimes identified in two forms:  restorative and reflective. In restorative nostalgia, there is the desire to return to a time—- a time that did not truly exist. Reflective nostalgia may be more benign… perhaps even beneficial. To have a time that one can reflectively look back with pleasure does not necessarily have to be done “with rose-colored glasses.” For example, one may look back fondly on one’s time in high school… while still being well aware that there were aspects of high school (puberty, bullying, social awkwardness, and fears regarding the future) that one remembers vividly.

Perhaps, if one seeks to find value in nostalgia, it can be done reflectively… enjoying some aspects on the longing, while still embracing realistically that one can never truly go back (and that returning to the past would, in fact, be a very bad thing).