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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Music of the "Spiritual but Not Religious"

I have a problem with Christian music. There was a time in my teen years when I was caught up in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene (think Mercy Me, Michael W. Smith, Chris Tomlin, etc.), but I left that genre with a sense of disappointment. I grew weary of listening to other people worship. My personal distaste for CCM is more complicated than I have time to express, so I’ll boil it down this way: CCM to me seems to be poor-quality remixes of contemporary pop or rock music behind lyrics that sound too, well, “churchy.”

I left CCM and developed an appreciation for just about every genre of music.[1] I find that pop music, R&B, and rap are some of the purest expressions of the ethos of our culture and thus a distilled resource for just what the Church is working with when it works with people. My work in public education helps me stay current with popular artists and songs, too – my students are always playing their favorite songs and inviting me to comment on them.

I’ve noticed that pop/rap/hip-hop music has been allergic to lyrics and themes about anything holy or sacred. Almost by definition, pop music avoids these themes in favor of more shallow ones, giving more value to the overall sound of the track. It is not surprising that secular music avoids the sacred – the history of our cultural music demonstrates a bright line between “church music” and secular songs.

Popular music is an expression of the culture that consumes it – those tracks that are widely known among Baptists in Mississippi reflect their personal and communal values and hopes. The music my students listen to does the same. These two categories are miles apart, though; Saccharin-sweet Christian pop has little in common with the get-money, hyper-sexualized music that my students blast.

In the early years of this decade I noticed something changing. I discovered the band Mumford and Sons, and couldn’t get enough. Their lyrics were profoundly spiritual and seemed to be a conversation with God that was unlike anything I was used to on the radio. The band’s lyrics were not explicitly Christian[2], and the band resists the label of being a “Christian band.”[3] However, their music was certainly spiritual.

Mumford and Sons is certainly not the only band to sing songs with Christian themes and spiritual lyrics. What was so striking to me was that their type of music gained so much popularity in pop culture that it won “Album of the Year” at the 2013 Grammys.

The infiltration of such overt spirituality into popular music seems to have coincided with the rise of the “nones,” those who have been categorized as the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd. They are hungry for spirituality in life but are against religion and organized churches. We were suddenly aware of these millions of people (mostly the younger, music-savvy group) who resonated with the themes of Sigh No More and Babel and were unashamed of it.

Since then I’ve noticed more and more artists climbing the charts with songs directly addressing the role of faith and the Church in their lives:

Hozier’s self-titled album directly addresses his antipathy toward the Church in Ireland[4] but bears the unmistakable marks of the artist’s own personal spirituality. “Take Me to Church” is a powerful song, full of rich Christian imagery baptized in sacrilege.[5] The rest of the album addresses themes that are undeniably spiritual (“In A Week” is a haunting song about love outlasting death) but that are set free from the artist’s perceived ecclesial constrictions.

“Ghost” by Ella Henderson tells of the artist’s desire to be free from the memory of a former lover. Her lyrics include
 “I keep going to the river to pray
'Cause I need something that can wash all the pain
And at most I'm sleeping all these demons away
But your ghost, the ghost of you
It keeps me awake”

            “Each time that I think you go
I turn around and you're creeping in
And I let you under my skin
'Cause I love living in the sin

Boy you never told me
True love was going to hurt
True pain I don't deserve
Truth is that I never learn”

Lilly Wood and the Prick have released a song called “Prayer in C” which includes the lines
“Yeah, you never said a word
You didn't send me no letter
Don't think I could forgive you

See our world is slowly dying
I'm not wasting no more time
Don't think I could believe you”

This track seems to be a confession to a God that the artist cannot forgive for the evil and suffering in the world. It is a lament Psalm, a fist in the face of an apparently unloving God.

For other artists, like Quiet Company, Christianity is something that they’ve left behind in favor of atheism. They have not abandoned the vocabulary of faith or the forms of the Church in favor of the cold, scientific language of Dawkins; they retain the themes of spirituality that I had not noticed in chart-topping songs before.

Again, these are not the first artists to include deep spirituality or religious language in their work. What I’ve noticed, though, is that more and more songs that are full of Christian themes and spiritual issues are being consumed and praised at a rate formerly reserved for Brittany, Taylor, and One Direction.

I think we’re listening to the music of the “nones.”

[1] I still struggle to enjoy country music; it’s just not me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Advent, Christmastide, and a High Ecclesiology

On Sunday, December 7th, I had the privilege of hearing a choir perform their annual Christmas music special at the First Baptist Church of a Mississippi City. The performance was predictable, but well done. There were traditional Christmas hymns intermixed with original songs, all performed wonderfully by the church choir and accompanied by an orchestra of mostly high school students. The songs were separated by narration that re-told the Christmas story and presented a basic plan of salvation to the congregation. Overall it was a solid program.

During the service, though, I had a recurring thought: “but it’s not Christmas…”

Yes, the sanctuary had been artfully decorated with garlands, candles, and other trappings of the Advent season.[1] But the performance of the Christmas music (and especially the accompanying narration) made it seem that Christmas had already come, that the “Silent Night” was passed, and that we should be reminded of the end-result of the Incarnation, that is, Christ’s crucifixion. It was as though the entire event was meant for a late-night Christmas Eve service. It would have been perfect for Christmas Vigil, in fact.

I realize that I am in the extreme minority among my Baptist peers when it comes to observing the Church Year, but my response to the service was more about our cultural relationship to Christmas than it was a desire to implement the Church Year in this local congregation.

I think I’m getting tired of synthesizing Christmas joy. There I sat, on December the seventh, participating in a performance that asked me to pretend that this bright, warm morning was Christmas Eve/Day. I was having to fake it. I do not mean this pejoratively; I simply mean that I was aware of the dissonance between the performance and the actual celebration of Christmas.

I need Advent. I need a time to reflect on my own need for the Incarnation. After all, since the last time the Church concentrated on the concept of “Emmanuel” I’ve certainly learned something new, forgotten something true, and sinned a great deal. I need Advent. But even if I emphasize the Hanging of the Greens, the Advent weeks, the candles, the readings and the rest, I’m bombarded by the earlier-than-ever Christmas shopping season, the radio station that my neighbor plays all day with its Christmas music, and Christmas parties for school and church.

Here’s a reality that I’m struggling with: we’ve allowed our work, school, and family schedules to divorce Christmas from the church, even in the church. Why do we have the annual Christmas performances of our choirs on December the 7th? Because our schedules and priorities have made the church give up one of its most important days. We would never be able to host a Christmas choral performance on Christmas Day. We couldn’t sync up the words we’re singing with the actual observation of Christ’s birth because, well, we’d rather be with family than at church. In truth, I’d rather be at home in my Christmas pajamas watching my daughter open presents than singing at church in a rented tux. That’s why I’m struggling with it: I’m tired of the dissonance but I don’t want to change.

I wrote several months ago[2] about the importance of Eastertide as a balance to Lent. I think that a similar argument could be made for the intentional delay of celebrating Christmas until after Advent. I realize that such a delay is impractical given the sheer momentum of our cultural observance of the Christmas season. However, it may be the solution to my feelings of synthesizing joy. I’d really just like to wait until Christmas to open my presents.

This is all wrapped up in what is becoming my personal theological project: a high ecclesiology for Baptists. I want to place a higher value on the believer’s participation in the congregation. I want the believers to make the choice to resist the cultural forces that divorce Christmas from the Incarnation, and thus the “season of giving” from the congregational celebration of God’s Gift to humanity. I’ve found some success in introducing Advent into my local congregations, but there is still the parallel “Christmas Season” that takes energy away from the heart’s contemplation of our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

I want the church to matter more to Baptists, and I want it to matter in such a way that one day, against even my own preferences, we could sing “Joy to the World” on the same day that we set aside to remember Christ’s birth.

[1] The church itself does not observe the Church Year, but it certainly participates in the traditional de-facto liturgical calendar of the SBC.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mars Hill, Church Leadership, and the Pastoral Office

Recent news of the “melt down” of Mars Hill Church in the Pacific Northwest has generated much commentary on the character of Mark Driscoll (see here, here, and here), the fate of Mars Hill Church, and the nature of multi-site megachurches. I live in a city with a very large church that is built upon a similar model, and I’m interested to understand the relationships between Mars Hill and Pinelake here in Jackson.

My generation of church leaders has found great success in the establishment and growth of multi-site churches. The Leadership Network has documented more than 5,000 multi-site churches in North America. Many of these congregations broadcast a sermon by a central preacher to the satellite campuses; at least one that I know of uses an internet-based metronome to control the tempo and timing of the worship music to best coordinate the live broadcast of that sermon.

The collapse of the Mars Hill network is, in a way, sad. I have at least one dear friend who has lost his ministerial position and will certainly be in a state of uncertainty and trouble because of the breakup of Mars Hill. I am sad for Driscoll and for his family, and for the thousands that will go through a period of mourning and transition as they (hopefully) look for a new church home. We should never celebrate the collapse of a ministry that was proclaiming salvation through Christ (Luke 9:49-50).

The breakup of the Mars Hill model reveals something else that I’m interested in: the relationship between the sustainability of a congregation or network of congregations and a single minister. There can be little doubt that Mars Hill Church’s decline has been directly related to Driscoll’s departure: attendance, giving, and momentum have all significantly declined since his announced leave of absence in August. Mars Hill, as it had existed, was unsustainable without the singular personality of Driscoll. It was the preacher’s personality, delivery, and activity that kept the organization not only thriving, but also alive. Once that personality was removed, the Network had no hope of staying together.

This (relatively) new model of ministry is the consequence of our departure from denominationalism. I can only competently speak of the Southern Baptist Convention and its offshoot organizations (BGCT, CBF, etc.), but I suspect that the situation in the PCA/PCUSA divide, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran organizations are similar. The Southern Baptist Convention is even now deciding how to fund that denomination’s Cooperative Program in the face of mega-churches being able to count their own missions work as CP giving.

As denominations crack and splinter over (important) social issues and react to new bureaucratic and management paradigms, large, multi-site churches are able to address missions and ministry directly. These congregations, though, are often built on the personality and preaching of one single minister. As these congregations invest in missions, buildings, and ministries of increasing scale and complexity, they increasingly risk catastrophic collapse if their lead pastor departs.

My primary concern is the congregational model of church leadership. The saga of Mars Hill’s collapse reads (at least in hindsight) as a story of the consolidation of power into a smaller and smaller group. Even though the staff and membership of the Network was growing numerically, authority over institutional decisions was placed into the hands of a shrinking group of Driscoll’s supporters. Congregational authority was diminished in two ways: the scale of the Network rendered the distance between a believer and institutional power too great to be meaningful to the member and the sheer quantity of worshippers reduced that authority so much that a single believer had little to do with the leadership of the church. Secondly, with Driscoll managing the entire network in a hardline authoritarian way, the congregation was effectively left out of ownership of the congregation, thus relegating them to some sort of “consumer” status.

If a church is to be congregationally led, that is, if the autonomy of the local church is to have any meaning in the 21st century, then believers must be given and must take responsibility for the institution itself. The pastors are certainly responsible for the spiritual care and leadership of the people, but power to make institutional decisions must not reside in the Senior Pastor or even in the Pastoral Staff. The congregation, whether through a committee structure or through a strong emphasis on lay leadership, must be cultivated to engage the work of being the church so that, regardless of pastoral leadership, the church may thrive.

In this way the congregation reflects what Baptists have believed for generations about the Priesthood of the Believer and the Autonomy of the Local Congregation. Our churches should not break apart when a pastor leaves; there should be such a strong sense of the congregation as the Body of Christ that, ministry, mission, and work exist independently and sustainably in partnership with preaching and pastoral leadership.

I worry about Pinelake and other multi-site mega-churches. When the charismatic pastor/preacher departs, who will fill the void?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Your Congregation Can Learn from Common Core - Part 3: Testing

At the end of this school year (just like every school year), our students will sit for an exam that tests their knowledge and understanding of the concepts they should have learned over the previous nine months. This year my students will take two tests: the first measures students’ proficiency in “expressing mathematical reasoning and modeling real-world problems.”[1] The second portion will “call on students to demonstrate further conceptual understanding of the Major Content and Additional and Supporting Content” from the courses they’ve taken.[2]

There is not that much different about this year’s assessments when it comes to content. I’m still teaching equations and modeling as well as problem-solving approaches to mathematics. What is fundamentally different this year is the amount that my students will be required to write on their state assessments. Mathematics has rarely been a field where “write in complete sentences” was a part of the instructions. Now, though, my test-takers are required to justify their answers in writing whereas in previous years they could simply select the correct answer from a bank of choices.

Testing is important, whether it’s through the PARCC assessment, the Smarter Balance tests, or simply through the frequent assessments administer to my students that I create. At no point should we teach something that we’re not willing to assess in some meaningful way. Although I frequently hear the objection that we’re “teaching to the test,” I contend that if we decide as a teaching community what we want our students to be able to do, we should then design tests (whether formal or informal) that measure how well our students have mastered those important concepts. Once we have developed a test to measure what is important to us, we then design a curriculum and daily activities that help our students prepare for the test. Thus I say, “of course I’m teaching to the test! I designed it to be an appropriate measuring stick of what I’ve taught!”

In our local congregations we have no such formal tests as the PARCC exam or the other state-level evaluations of academic proficiency. Instead, we have a mixture of evaluative measures that range from attendance in weekly worship to “bonus” activities like volunteering in the tutoring ministry or on Wednesday nights with the youth group.

Is it even possible to have “tests” in our ministerial contexts? I think so, but not tests that require a pencil and a calculator. Instead, our model of testing should be similar to that of the CCSS: we set a very lofty, seemingly intangible goal and design a “curriculum” to help our people meet that goal. We are called to “be perfect,”[3] to “take up [our] cross,”[4] and to “be blameless.”[5] These are very high standards, indeed! Accomplishing these things requires intentional, measured progress in the development of the disciple. We could, and should, in my opinion, develop activities that help us assess our progress on the pilgrimage toward perfection, cruciform living, and blamelessness.

What would these assessments look like? They probably would not take the form of white envelopes that ask our people to check whether or not they were on time, prepared their lesson, stayed for preaching, or brought their Bible.[6] Formative assessments[7] are the necessary method of evaluating our growing disciples, but these assessments are hard to define and certainly not multiple-choice.

Our testing in the local church requires an intimate knowledge of the lives of our neighbors. It is the same supposition that drives our application of Matthew 18:15-20: without knowing our brothers and sisters in the church we cannot hope to help correct, rebuke, or even guide one another. We must know one another before we can hope to evaluate our congregation’s progress. We must be able to share the very real things we think, believe, and do so that such things, once brought into the light, can be evaluated, corrected, or built upon.

There is thus a correlation between church discipleship and church discipline. I am not advocating a return to the Puritanical ecclesial/social church discipline of our spiritual ancestors. My point is that discipleship in its best form cannot happen without a congregation knowing itself and having the spiritual authority to correct itself.

If we are going to aim at such a lofty goal as Christ-likeness, then we must develop intentional methods of evaluating the progress of our pilgrims that go deeper than worship attendance or the amount of time or money given. Our pastors, teachers, and mentors must look deeper into the actual lives of those we lead and “test everything, and hold fast to what is good.”[8]

[2] Ibid.
[3] Matthew 5:48.
[4] Matthew 16:24.
[5] Philippians 2:15.
[7] This is another key concept from the new mathematics curriculum that my district has adopted. I find it tantalizing – we are measuring the formation of my young students into mathematicians!
[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:21.