Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Proof that You Can't Stop God

While Cindy and I have been married, we have been much like other married couples. We've had challenges. We haven't had so many problems with the ins and outs of our relationship, but we have had a series of external factors that have made our marriage something that required work. Just after our honeymoon and Cindy's move to Palestine, she started working for a local doctor's office. After nearly a year there, she began getting migraine headaches. After visits to several specialists, she wound up resigning from her job there. After a few months of that, the migraines seemed to have gone away, and things seemed to be getting back to normal. Until one Sunday morning last June, she woke me up around 6AM and told me that everything felt like it was spinning. Well, we wound up in the ER being treated for vertigo. She's had the vertigo come and go for nine months now and doctors have been able to treat the symptoms. The cause, though, seems to be a medical anomaly. While living on a single income hasn't been easy, we've learned to manage our money better, but had hoped that one day, Cindy would be able to find a part time job that would supplement our income and still allow her time at home with Peyton.

Several weeks ago, a co-worker pointed out to me that a local pregnancy crisis center was looking for someone to help in the office. After calling about the job, and getting an interview, it came down to Cindy and one other applicant. Cindy was called in for a second interview with the board. As it turned out, the second interview was unofficial because there were not enough board members present at the meeting to make a quorum. So she was scheduled to go in yesterday for an interview. Well, as life has a way of rearing its ugly head, she had the worst attack of vertigo she's had in several weeks yesterday afternoon. But upon calling her contact, she learned that the other applicant had withdrawn her application.

Last night, we learned she got the job. This job is a great fit for Cindy as it will allow her to use her life experience and ministry experience to make a difference in the life of other people. Jeremiah 29:11 says "I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you, and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future." God's plans don't always go the way we want them to, but he does have our best interest at heart. Some people my write this off as a mere coincidence. But if life is all about coincidences, where is the faith in that? Where is the hope that there is a God in heaven looking out for us? If I have a choice between going through this life alone, or going through with the help of a God above, I'll choose the latter. Especially a God who is so big that he cannot be stopped!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Is There a Difference Between Performance and Worship?

This weekend, our youth worship band led worship for our church. They played as well as I've heard them play and it did not feel like a "show off the youth day" and more of a normal worship service with younger musicians. But later on I was visiting with the band members and one of my youth said that after the service he asked one of the ladies in the congregation, "Did you enjoy the show?"

This reminded me of a concept that has been around a long time. That is, the difference between performance and worship. Music and song have been elements of worship for thousands of years. And as with any performance, music performed in worship should be played skillfully (Psalm 33). But the context of the performance must be considered. In a regular concert, the performer is playing for the pleasure and approval of the audience. In worship, though, the performer is playing for the pleasure and approval of God. The music should be excellent and inspiring to the audience, but the approval of the audience should not be a driving force.

In the book of I Corinthians, Paul tells the church at Corinth to do all things to the glory of God. So whether our performance is under the umbrella of "worship" or not, it should be excellent. But when we are leading worship, we are playing for an audience of one.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Teenager's Survival Guide to Worship Drumming

This is a concise guide to playing drums in a worship band. It will discuss some of the absolute most important principles when it comes to worship drumming (and in most cases drumming in general). Playing drums, while not employing notes and pitches, can be deceitfully tricky. Some of the greatest songwriters and arrangers were drummers. The drummer has the ability to wreck a song faster than anybody else in the band. So it’s important to play tastefully and to play with the band.

Tempo-Every member of the band is forced to follow the tempo of the drums. Try as they may to speed up or slow down, the other musicians are naturally drawn to the tempo of the drums. Therefore, it is extremely critical that the drummer’s tempos be consistent. Until the right tempo is determined, this will include a lot of listening to the rest of the band. If the vocalists are having a hard time getting all the words or phrases in or the lead instruments are having a hard time playing their riffs because of speed, the song needs to be slowed down. If it feels like the song is just dragging then it probably needs to be picked up a bit. It would seem that it would be easier to play slow than to play fast. Actually, just the opposite is true. The slower a song goes, there are more milliseconds between each beat and thus more room for error and inconsistencies. Another thing to consider with tempo is the nature of the song. Is it intended to be a fast, upbeat song? Is it intended to be a more slow, meditative song. It is up to the worship team and leader, but ultimately the drummer, to determine the right tempo for the song. Most young drummers have a natural tempo they like to play at (usually around 90 bpm). While this works well for jamming in the bedroom, it’s not a great tempo for all songs. Some will need to be slower (around 80 bpm) and many will need to be as fast as 120 (bpm). So it is important that the drummer practice playing at different tempos. The obvious way to do this is with a fairly loud metronome and/or a set of earphones. Another, more fun, solution is to play along to your favorite songs. While this doesn’t create as much musicianship as playing with a lone metronome, it does create a fun break in the rehearsal regimen.

Texture-Texture is a word that we use to describe something we feel. Maybe it’s rough sandpaper, soft cotton, or the tiny beads in a neck pillow. But texture also applies to music. The texture of a song is a collective feeling created by the tempo, the dynamics, and by which instruments are playing at which times. For example, if a song is rocking at 120 bpm and only the drums are playing, it will feel completely different than a song that’s at 90 bpm and has the full band playing. The thing to remember with worship drumming is that every song is a journey. If you listen to songs on the radio, they rarely ever start out full throttle. They may start out with only a few instruments playing, or just playing a very simple part. Then as the song gets past the intro into the first chorus it will change again slightly. Typically the first verse is not played exactly like the second verse or the chorus. While the other instruments may be playing the same parts on the different verses, the drummer has the ability to create tension in the song by playing these various sections of the song differently. So here are some ways to create tension in the song.

  1. Don’t play at all. Have you ever heard a song that was all mellow and soft, then about halfway through the song it turns into this anthem because the single voice with a single instrument is all of a sudden joined by many instruments and many voices? While it takes all of those instruments to drive that song, the primary driving force is the drums. But that cannot happen if the drums start rocking out on the intro. Many times, in drumming, less is more. It takes maturity to avoid the temptation to rock out all the time
  2. Play the same patterns on different elements of the kit. Rather than playing 8th notes on the high hat the whole song, try playing them on the floor tom for one section, the high hat for another section, and the ride cymbal for another. This will distinguish each section of the song from the others.
  3. Use the snare drum to creatively create tension. The typical rock drum beat is a 4/4 beat with the snare drum on the 2 and 4 counts. This is called a back beat. However, playing the snare not at all, or just on the 4 count, or on both the 2 and 4 counts creates 3 distinct patterns without having to change anything else you are doing on the rest of the kit. As you get more comfortable with groove, ghost notes, and single-hand 16th notes on the snare, these can be thrown in to create additional texture on top of backbeat techniques mentioned above.
  4. Use dynamics. Often times we think loud and soft only applies to vocalists and other instruments, but the drums only have loud and louder. While the drums are inherently louder than other instruments, they can be played softly. Cymbal rolls can be soft. Crashes don’t have to set off pacemakers. If you’ve done sound check and now you can’t hear the vocals, YOU’RE TOO LOUD! In many cases, the whole point of a band having a sound system is to bring the volume of the rest of the band to a level that can compete with the drums. So the drummer should be careful not to overpower. Playing sections of the song softly and others louder adds to the musical tension that creates texture in the song.

Groove-A groove is defined as a long, narrow cut or indentation in a surface, as the cut in a board to receive the tongue of another board (tongue-and-groove joint), a furrow, or a natural indentation on an organism., and also a fixed routine: to get into a groove, and finally Slang. an enjoyable time or experience. In drum vernacular, groove is all of these and more. Just as a groove in a piece of wood creates a natural boundary for something to fit into it, or a canal (groove) creates a boundary for water to flow, so does the groove of a song. The pattern created by the bass guitar and the drums (particularly the bass drum) is the channel, canal, or groove that contains the rest of the song. A groove can be smooth or rough. If the bass and drums can lock in on a 2-bar or 4-bar pattern, the groove will be smooth. However, if the drummer decides to showcase every beat he knows before the first chorus, the song will be disconnected. The foundation the rest of the band sits on will not be flat, smooth, or stable, but will be lumpy, ragged, and shifty. It is better to play the wrong beat (or one that doesn’t fit) all the way through a song, than to play three or four different patterns because it just “feels right.” Every time the drummer changes a pattern, it forces the rest of the band to change what they are doing to try to fit what the drummer is doing. So the basic pattern of the song needs to be consistent. All of the above suggestions for texture of a song can be played within the same basic groove. Keep the bass drum beats essentially the same (maybe add another 16th note on the chorus), but move the snare around to change the song’s texture but preserve the groove.

Drive-Drive is one of the main reasons people play drums. When the drums are rocking and everything is in sync, music is a joy. What I call “drive” is the sound that is created when a song has hit its stride (maybe the first chorus or even first verse), and the snare beat is on the 2 and 4 and the groove of the song is somewhat complete, employing bass, snare, and time keeping on a high hat, ride, or toms. When the drum pattern gets going, it is almost like turning the engine on in a car. When you put the key in and turn it slightly, you can hear the radio, see the lights, and even feel the air conditioner. But when you turn the key all the way and crank the engine, you feel what the car was built to do. When the drums kill the drive of the groove by eliminating the backbeat or somehow pulling back, it’s like turning the engine of the car off prematurely. Remember, every song is a journey. So once the car gets going, take it somewhere. Don’t crank it up, then shut it back off. Get it going and keep it going. Once the car has been running a while, you can later kill the engine and leave the lights on, or you can put the hammer down and go out with a bang—but don’t kill it while you’re driving down the highway!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How Social Media Has Made Me Lazy and What it Means for the Church

Has social media changed the way people think and experience the world? In 1997 I didn't even have a computer. I was the college kid who either used the school's computer lab or mooched off my friends who did have them. I remember how the internet became this new thing and how you could set up your own free email account. I also remember how cool it was that I could type something and my friend could respond. Not only was there email, but there were websites with all kinds of information about my favorite bands, celebrities, and sports teams. Any time I wanted information about these things, I could just go to www. "thatthing" .com. And that was all well and good for another 10 years or so until the popularity explosion of social media sites, like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter. Now my favorite bands, celebrities, and sports teams don't wait for me to come to their website, they send information to me through social media.

While this is a great way to receive information, this has made me lazy (lazier than I already was for those of you who know me). In some ways I'm content just waiting on my favorite feeds to be updated. I find myself, not going out looking for new information, but watching the stream on Twitter or Facebook waiting for new information that might be remotely interesting from someone, somewhere. And I can't help but feel that I'm not alone in this. So what has this paradigm done to the church?

1. We are so plugged into people commenting "about" scripture, that we don't consult scripture itself like we used to. Everyone seems to be concerned with being profound (and some people are or at least they retweet those who are), but in all of this profundity, sometimes we forget about the original substance of all of it-scripture. We all follow church leaders and great Christian thinkers and hang on the tidbits of wisdom they have to share, but what about scripture? I'm not saying that mega-church pastors and authors shouldn't be followed, but we get so excited about something Francis Chan or Rick Warren said, all the while our Bible is sitting on our desk (I'm convicted as I type this).

2. People may be decreasingly seeing the need to attend church as we know it because so much spiritual fodder is delivered right to their favorite tech toy. While the world may come to our fingertips through social media, the gospel demands that we "go." Christianity is proactive. So for the church leader, we must still find ways to impact the world. For the lay person, it means continuing to attend church and being involved as a spiritual discipline, rather than waiting for the kingdom of God to manifest itself through your Blackberry.

3. One-sided monologue sermons may be losing their luster as people are enamored with the interactive "reply/comment" nature of social media. Whether or not the Sunday sermon is becoming a thing of the past remains to be seen, but I do think that many churches are taking strides to explore different models for their services in an attempt to stay culturally relevant. Many pastors are using their Twitter accounts to put out sermon teasers in the days leading up to Sunday, while others are even tweeting during the sermon.

What trends have you seen as social media has impacted people and the church? Do you think things are changing or do you think while some things change, some things are here to stay?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Four Types of Rest and How to Attain Them

I spent Spring Break on two separate camping trips. The first was a tent camping kayak trip on the Colorado River with some male friends. It was body odor and testosterone with some trail mix and fishing poles thrown in. Then after two days back at the office, I went with my wife, daughter, and her friend, to a family camp ground called Jellystone Park, themed after the famed residence of Yogi Bear. While on the latter trip, I realized how much I needed, not only to sleep, but to slow down. Not only did I sleep later than normal, but I also went to bed earlier, and even took a nap in the afternoon. My life is usually pretty connected and I'm always contemplating the "next item on my list". But this week, I realized how good it was to turn everything off. Then Sunday morning, in Sunday School, we talked about how God rested on the 7th day and how important that rest is. As we talked I realized there are different kinds of rests that allow us to recuperate from different kinds of stress.

Physical--The most commonly addressed form of stress is physical stress because our body has a natural response to it-sleep. When we've been awake for too long or aren't getting enough sleep, our eyelids get heavy and our responses to stimuli start to slow down. If we are not in a position to go to bed or take a nap, we will remedy the situation by visiting the coffee pot or some new energy drink. But even if we are getting sleep, we may not be getting enough sleep. It's good to have time where we can clear our minds and our schedules of our commitments and let our bodies catch up to our busy schedules.

Mental--While our bodies can have physical rest, our minds do not rest while we sleep. Have you ever had a dream about something in your life that was stressing you out? Maybe a work deadline, or a job interview? Mental stress is more prevalent now because we have so much more stimuli going into our brains. Thanks to the smart phone, many of us are carrying the internet around in our pocket so literally our entire waking hours are spent connected to the rest of the world, following our favorite feeds on Twitter or keeping up with our friends on Facebook. It is good to let our minds rest from all of that. I recommend taking a media fast periodically. While on my kayak trip with my friends we had no cell service where we were. I was delighted to know that the world kept turning even though, I was out of touch. And all this is on top of stresses from work and family life (or even the stress to sit down and watch our favorite TV show). Sometimes we just need to shut everything off and let our brains rest. I shared with my youth that this included even giving up video games for a time.

Emotional--Emotional rest can be one of the most difficult to acquire. Emotional stress comes through getting away from the things that stress us out emotionally. Emotional stressors are often found in our relationships. Unless these are unhealthy or ungodly relationships, we can not and should not permanently abandon these relationships. However, it is good to get away from things that provide sources of emotional stress for a short time. This can even be getting away from our spouse, our children, other family members, or friends that we may spend too much time with. Often getting away from the emotional stress of our lives gives us a deeper appreciation for the relationships in our lives and we can return to those relationships with a fresh perspective.

Spiritual--God made us to be spiritual beings. We see that in Genesis 1 and throughout the rest of the Bible. Therefore, I believe humans are prone to spiritual stress and need to find times of spiritual rest. In Matthew 14, Jesus makes a couple of attempts at getting away by himself to pray. John the Baptist had just been beheaded and Jesus wanted to spend time in prayer. His attempt at solidarity was usurped by a mob of people wanting him to heal their sick. Prayer and time alone was Christ's source of spiritual rest. He cast his burdens on his Father, then he went back to taking care of his disciples as their boat was caught in the storm and he walked out to them. I think being the spiritual creatures that we are, we have spiritual stress in our lives that is brought about by circumstances beyond our control, or through choices we make. Some of these choices are sinful, and others are made with good intentions but just don't pan out right. Philippians 4:6-7 says that we should not be anxious (spiritual and emotional stress) about anything, but through prayer and petition we should submit our requests to God. Then the peace that transcends all understanding will guard our hearts in Christ Jesus. Prayer, study of scripture, and worship attendance are all things God has given us to deal with spiritual stress and to find that rest our souls need.

How do you deal with stress in your life? What do you do to find rest?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Learning About Youth Ministry from a Kayak

This weekend, I got some time off from ministry (work) to go spend a few days with some friends kayaking and fishing on the Colorado River in the Texas hill country. While youth ministry was not at the front of my mind, it is always swirling around in my head. So here are a few nuggets I learned on my trip as they apply to the amazing world of youth ministry.

1. It's okay to turn off your cell phone. While we were camping, I did not have cell service for 3 days. While I was frustrated about not being able to call my wife, I found out 3 days later when I had cell service that the world went along just fine without me. And the ministry-related text messages I received Sunday morning took care of themselves, too.

2. It's good to spend time with people who aren't in ministry. While we can learn a lot from colleagues who are in ministry (and we should), we also need to remember to spend time with people who are not in ministry-especially those of other denominations. This keeps us grounded and in touch with reality. I met some great new friends on this trip and just enjoyed talking about spiritual things without worrying "how this applies to ministry."

3. It is okay if a program reaches a different, unintended goal. While my main agenda on the trip was to catch fish, we were doing it by kayak. Well, the fishing left much to be desired, but I still had a blast kayaking down the river. Many times we schedule an event for a certain purpose but when it all pans out it wasn't that at all. For example, we may schedule a mission trip so that we can teach our kids to serve. Well, maybe we didn't finish the project, but our kids are closer together. So we increased the fellowship more than the service. We shouldn't call the event a bust just because it did not meet its intended goal.

4. Important things should be cherished and nurtured. In the kayak I had a thing called a dry box. This is a small box to put your valuables in (camera, wallet, no-service cell phone) to keep it dry in the event that you go into the drink. While ministry is a great adventure, we need to make sure not to neglect the things that are most important in our lives which God has given us, like our families and our relationships.

5. Trying to do to much, too fast, will create problems. My first time out in the kayak, I tried to paddle upstream through a patch of fairly swift water. Being inexperienced, I got off my line and the current turned me sideways and began pushing me downstream. Not to be outdone by the river, I began paddling vigorously on the downstream side. You can guess what happened-I wound up in the drink. I had done in a kayak exactly what I was trying not to do in my ministry job-do too much too fast. While the 50 degree water was refreshing, I knew next time what NOT to do. When we try to do too much too fast in ministry we can burn ourselves out and before we know it, we are off of our boat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is Youth Ministry Going Viral? What Does that Look Like?

I've been doing a lot of reading recently. One book I just finished is Youth Ministry 3.0 by Youth Specialties president Mark Ostreicher. Mark breaks down two previous eras in the way youth ministry was done in the past, citing some absurd examples of things that (unfortunately) happened in the course of real youth ministry. Some of you older youth guys like me remember the initiation ceremonies and the mild hazing (I remember being hung on a bunk bed by the back of my underwear as pre-teen at church camp and getting my first swirly as a 6th grader at youth camp) that went along with being the new kid in the youth group--stuff that we now know has the potential to scar kids for life (I went into youth ministry--what does that tell you?). Then he explores "Youth Ministry 2.0" where we've moved into the more civil and modern program-driven model. When he gets to the section about 3.0, he points out some cultural trends in youth ministry but doesn't really lay out what this new paradigm looks like. Another thing is that technology is changing so fast I don't think we really know what tech devices and programs are here to stay with teens because it's all coming at us so fast. I've been reading blogs and other books trying to figure out where youth ministry as a whole is headed. It seems it's going "viral." If you've ever clicked the "Retweet this" button at the bottom of a post, you've helped to make it viral (feel free to retweet this, by the way). By "viral" I mean that the information in the church bulletin is not the main form of communication. Technology has afforded us opportunities to arrange informal, spontaneous meetings with the "send" of a text message. So ministries can be "formal about being informal". And these meetings are often seen as more intimate and genuine because they were not promoted in the church bulletin, and did not have an agenda predicated by a postcard the week before.

Yesterday I read another blog post about how one youth worker doesn't plan for the summer. If there's anything I've learned from reading books and going to conferences, the last thing we should do is try to copycat what is working in another ministry. That is not my intent. But I do want to find ways to make elements of this approach work in my ministry. I've always wanted to be the guy the kids drop in on in the office and hang out, or they just come over to my house. But our church has a pretty rigid sexual ethics policy which discourages less formal encounters in ministry. Also, the majority of the kids who attend our downtown church live on the outskirts of town, some even 10+ miles away. But the more I read posts like this, the more I wonder if this is the new paradigm for youth ministry? Ministry that's not done on a Wednesday night with a band and a Power Point, but done down the street at the coffee shop sitting around a Bible and a mocha latte.

So for those of you who are reading this, I covet your feedback. Is your youth ministry "going viral." Have you gotten away from putting scheduled events in the church bulletin and gone to impromptu meetings prompted by a text message? If you've been able to do this, what obstacles have you encountered or overcome? How has this approach given your students a sense of being an insider to something more meaningful than just being part of a youth group?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Is Service More for the Servant or the Recipient?

Yesterday in church, I was sitting next to a friend of mine during announcements. Our pastor announced that we would be taking a communion offering for a church that had recently been burned in a series of arson fires. Her initial comment to me was, “Wouldn’t insurance cover it?” Having not yet pondered this I thought about it for a second and replied that giving to them allows them to be blessed by our giving and for us to be blessed by our giving.

I posted a few days ago about how when Christians wait on the establishment to render aid that God is not necessarily glorified. The glory of God is not in knowing that an insurance company will pay for the damages, but in knowing that Christian brothers and sisters are joining together in prayer and support for the hurting congregation. I’m not calling insurance companies bad. I used to work for one. They collect premiums from clients under the premise that a disaster will not happen while the client pays under the premise that a disaster could happen. So paying a claim on a fire after collecting millions of dollars in premiums is the job of the company. That is what they do. So can God use that company to bless a congregation? Absolutely. But is he glorified when the adjuster writes a big check to the church? Maybe so-but not as much as he is glorified when people give of their own resources out of the goodness of their hearts.

God is glorified when people make the choice to give to that congregation. When they help them with the clean-up and they help them rebuild God is glorified. When Katrina and Rita wreaked havoc on the Louisiana and Texas coasts, millions of dollars in federal aide and insurance money were unleashed. But I think God’s glory was not in this money, but in the people who gave out of their own pockets to help the people of those areas and in the volunteers who loaded up their vehicles with tools and supplies and headed down just to do something to start the rebuilding process. The same could be said of the recent events in Haiti and Chile. Numerous governments sent money and resources from all over the world. But the ones who were blessed were the people who sent text messages to the Red Cross, gave to groups like World Vision, donated to a special offering at their church, and especially those who were able to pack up their bags and go in person and help with the effort. Acts 2:42-47 paints a vivid picture of this as believers in the early church who shared their possessions with one another and gave to each other as each had need. They didn’t do this because they had to. It was their choice to love each other in a very real way.

Whether it’s federal money, or an insurance settlement, established entities have their place in accomplishing God’s purposes. If he can use a prostitute (Joshua 2), a talking donkey (Numbers 22), or an Babylonian king (Nehemiah 2), I think he can use a government or an insurance company. But his glory is found when people commit to do the right thing, even when they don’t have to.

So what happens if there is enough insurance money and federal aid to take care of those in need? We know that there will always be a need for service and missions. But what happens when we write off an opportunity to serve simply because a congregation had insurance or because people are receiving aid from somewhere else? We are the ones who miss the blessing. They will be blessed by someone because God has taken care of them. But it is you and I who have missed out on the blessing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Value of Liturgy

At our church, we are currently in the season of Lent-the 40 days of reflection and repentance, culminating during Holy Week, prior to the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Today, after listening to a message about the words Christ spoke from the cross, I had an interesting experience on the way home. While scanning through radio stations on the way home, I heard an Easter song that was about the resurrection. This was not speaking in general terms of how Christ is alive and alive in all of us, but it was specifically about the events of the resurrection. Immediately, I thought, “Wait a minute, it’s not Easter yet.”

I grew up in an evangelical church. Now I serve in a mainline church. This interesting path in my journey has given me what I consider to be a “best of both worlds” perspective on the way many Christians approach their faith. Growing up, every Sunday was either Easter Sunday or Good Friday. We were constantly reminded of the sacrifice Christ paid for us and the subsequent resurrection. Which was not necessarily bad, but it caused us to focus only on certain elements of our faith. Every message, in some way or another, focused on these elements. Christmas messages were inadvertently Easter messages. Holy Week messages were Easter messages rather than messages about Christ’s suffering. But now I am in the mainline church and we follow the liturgical calendar. Our pastor doesn’t preach from the lectionary every week, but we do emphasize seasons of the church year, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. And while I didn’t understand this stuff growing up, now I understand the value of following these seasons. Though we still walk daily in the resurrection of Christ, it is important to be reminded of all the different aspects of the Christian faith. So here are some reasons I think liturgy is valuable.

  1. It makes our faith well-rounded. If I could describe my faith journey early on in one term, it would probably be one-dimensional. But by following the seasons of the church year, I am reminded of many different aspects of my faith, such as the coming of Christ into the world at Advent, or the wisdom that comes from God and is celebrated at Epiphany.

  1. Liturgy creates a sense of anticipation. While Christmas has its own sense of anticipation as we look at the presents that sit under the tree for the days and weeks leading up to it, liturgical seasons create a similar sense of anticipation in the hearts of the believer. As believers light the Advent Candles the weeks prior to Christmas, their hearts are awaiting the coming of the Christ child into the world. And while one may await Easter’s arrival, for the one who has given up something meaningful for Lent, Easter is that much sweeter.

  1. It connects us to our Jewish roots. In the Hebrew calendar, there were (and still are) numerous festivals and feasts commemorating many different events in their history and emphasizing numerous spiritual attitudes. And while many modern Christians only observe Christmas and Easter, observing the seasons of the church year connects us to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Each season emphasizes different virtues and attributes that can be made meaningful to the worshiper.

  1. Liturgy also connects us with other believers. Any time people have a shared experience there is a bond between them. This is one reason Christmas is such a commercial holiday in our country. Some of the fondest memories many people have are things that happened during Christmases past. Liturgy allows us as a people to connect with other Christians around the world.

  1. Liturgy creates teaching opportunities for our children. When a child gets to walk down an aisle waving a palm leaf, or gets to help her mother light the Advent Candle, or gets to experience the pastor rubbing ashes on her forehead, it piques the curiosity she has in her family’s faith. This creates great opportunities for parents to teach their children about what they believe and why they believe it.

Whether we follow the seasons of the church calendar or are just a Christmas and Easter kind of peope, there is a lot that will go unnoticed and will be missed if we do not choose to make these spiritual concepts. Liturgy is not a magical script that will automatically move our hearts to a deeper faith. It is a tool that if used properly by the worshiper (not the pastor) in the right contexts will put believers in a position to deepen their faith. What experiences have you had (good or bad) with liturgy in worship?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Are We "Bachelor-izing" Our Youth Groups?

One of the shows my wife likes to watch is The Bachelor (or Bachelorette, depending on the season). You've probably seen at least parts of the show which is part dating show and part social experiments which puts a lucky single person with 25 "contestants" of the opposite sex who jockey for time with the single, all the while pulling out all the stops to rise above the rest of the pack. Aside from the fact that the bachelor or bachelorette is put in an environment with what most would be considered to be desirable suitors (smart, sexy, funny....etc.), is that the shows endless budget puts the contestants in some of the most romantic settings imaginable-swimming near an active volcano, helicopter rides, and a private concert from Chicago just to name a few. And after all of the gorgeous contestants, the exotic locations, the limousines, the champagne, and 5-star accommodations, 15 of the show's 18 final relationships crashed and burned.

While there are a number of factors at play, I think one main reason for this is because this "reality" TV show is not based in reality. Who dates 25 women at the same time? Who gets a private concert from Chicago on a first date? Who goes on group dates with 7 women at the same time? In the real world this scenario would go over as my former pastor said "like a flock of bird dogs." This would be enough to find the average guy broke and lonely with a big red hand print on the side of his face! So why do we do this with our youth programs?

No, I'm not talking about fixing up couples in our youth groups. I'm talking about creating an alternate reality for our students. While only 17% of Bachelor couples stay together, our numbers are not much better for students who hang on to their faith after high school-only about 35% according to one Barna study. Sure, when a student enters college, there is more time, less discipline, and mom and dad aren't breathing down the kid's neck watching his every move. But there are also new ideas, different worldviews, and concepts that challenge what the student was taught at home, at school, and at church. I think sometimes we, like the Bachelor TV show, play into this by creating a false reality with our youth programs. We do the best trips, attend the best camps, have the best outside speakers and worship leaders, and go to the farthest places for missions so our kids can be discipled and strengthened in their faith. Then when they leave the youth group and there are no more expensive camps with famous speakers and going on a $2000 mission trip has been replaced with trying to live on a student loan or a Pell Grant, the student doesn't know how to live out his faith in the real world. His social network of Christian students has been disbanded and he is on his own in reality, not the reality TV show he once knew. No more limousines, hot tubs, and steak and lobster. This is the real world and he will have to learn to use his faith to function in it or he will abandon his faith.

So what can we do to keep from "Bachelor-izing" our youth groups?

1. Make sure we don't do events just for the sake of doing events. Much talk has been made in recent years about moving away from program-based ministry. Programs are essential in youth ministry, but we must examine our programs and evaluate why we are doing them.
2. Remember that spiritual impact is not directly proportional to cost. "You get what you pay for" may be an appropriate credo when shopping at Wal-Mart, but is not a good blanket statement for ministry. Going to the biggest camp or hiring the most expensive speakers and going on the coolest retreats or missions trips doesn't mean our kids will automatically be mature disciples.
3. Teach our kids to engage the world around them. Too many youth workers, I feel, work really hard at sheltering their students from the harsh realities of things like network television, R-rated movies, rock music and other taboo subjects. While I don't advocate using too much of the world as fodder for teaching, we are not doing students any favors to refuse to acknowledge that certain things exist outside the walls of the church (and try to isolate them from it rather than teaching how to deal with it).
4. Move towards individual discipleship as much as corporate discipleship. Hopefully your kids are all on a journey together, but they are also all on their individual journeys as well. Much of our youth ministry programs focus on relationships, fellowship, and the collective experience. But we should not do that to the detriment of individual, personal discipleship. Teaching students to follow God on their own is an invaluable tool as they leave the nest of the youth group and enter a college or young adult ministry.

What things would you add to this list?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: My Jesus Year

One of my favorite expressions is “on the outside looking in.” I love this expression because it has so many different things it can mean. One meaning is that of exclusion carrying the idea of one having been ostracized and is now looking in at a situation from the outside. The other idea this euphemism holds is that of being able to get an outside perspective on one’s self. The latter is what I found in “My Jesus Year” by Benyamin Cohen.

Cohen is an Orthodox Jew who began to feel very complacent and uninspired in his faith journey of Judaism. After years of rituals, recitations, and rhetoric he felt his faith had become stagnant. The son of a rabbi with brothers who were rabbis themselves, Cohen felt like the black sheep of the family. This caused him to wrestle with his Jewish faith in a very raw, and authentic way. This led him to the journey which became the premise of the book.

In a quest to get more out of his own faith, Cohen spends one year exploring another faith—Christianity. This book is his memoir. He is up front that he had no intention of converting to Christianity or of turning his back on Judaism. But rather, he wants to find what elements of Christianity could be applied to his Jewish faith and how he could learn from the way others worship and experience God. He attends an Easter service put on by an African-American mega-church at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. He goes to a performance of the UCW (Ultimate Christian Wrestling) where Christians cheer for various heroes and villains then listen to an altar call from the founder and president of the UCW. He goes to confession at a Roman Catholic church and conquers his lifelong fears by attending services at the Cokesbury Methodist Church which was across the street from his home growing up and where he was forbidden to go. He even goes so far as to celebrate Christmas with his in-laws (his wife is the daughter of a Methodist minister but converted to Judaism in her adulthood), keeping kosher, of course.

The result is a delightful and even hilarious read of an outsider’s journey through the channels of Christianity that will challenge and inspire. There was a time when I would have been bothered by the thought of a Christian book written by a non-Christian. But I’ve learned that there is a lot to be learned from people who don’t share my views. And there are some things that Christians have done so long they are just “normal” but to an outsider, these things were so strange, and sometimes even absurd. So here’s what you can take from My Jesus Year.

  1. You can see just how odd some things we do in the church look to someone who is not a Christian.
  2. You get a good glimpse at the Jewish roots of Christianity and a better understanding of where we’ve come from as Christians.
  3. You get to see what value there is to a lot of the things we do in the Christian faith that have just become habitual.