Monday, February 18, 2013

Jesus Can't Show Up If I'm Alone?

Several times on this blog I've dealt with scripture that has been taken out of context.  Recently a friend of mine (Thank you, Melanie!) pointed out a verse that is commonly taken out of context.  It's one I had never thought of but realized is terribly confusing when not put in its proper place.  It's Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."  This is often used by Christians to state that when they pray together, Jesus shows up.  But, wait?  If that's what it means, then apparently Jesus just can't be with me when I pray alone.  I mean, he's going to be there when two or three are there, but not one.  Right?  Wrong. Friends, Jesus doesn't need people to be together to show up.  I'll let you in on a secret: Jesus is God and that means he's omnipresent.  He's already with you!  If that is true, then what does this verse mean?  Let's take a look at the context.

Here are the verses that come before Matthew 18:20: "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven."

The context of Matthew 18:20 is church discipline.  If we go back to Matthew 18:1, we discover that Jesus was talking to the disciples, not a general crowd.  Jesus is instructing the disciples, future leaders of the church, how to handle discipline issues in the church. The picture is of a brother in the church who is stubbornly committing sin.  He is approached one on one, but doesn't listen.  He then is approached by two or three people, so that there are witnesses to the fact that he refuses to listen.  Then, the matter is brought before the church body.  Jesus then notes that the disciples as leaders of the church will have the weight of the authority of heaven on their sides.  In Matthew 18:20, who are the two or three gathered?  Where have we seen the number of people before in the context? Matthew 18:16, the one or two you take along to talk to the erring brother.  What is Jesus' point in Matthew 18:20 then?  That when the disciples, the leaders of the church, approach an erring church member together, they come as if Jesus was physically standing with them.  The weight of Jesus' authority is with them in the room.  They discipline with his authority.

Dr. Thomas L. Constable says it this way: "It should be obvious from the context that this promise does not refer to whatever two or three disciples agree to ask God for in prayer. The Bible contains many promises concerning prayer (cf. 7:7-8; 21:22; John 14:13-14; 15:7-8, 16; 1 John 5:14-15; et al.), but this is not one of them. In the context 'anything' refers to any judicial decision involving an erring disciple that the other disciples may make corporately. God has always stood behind His judicial representatives on earth when they carry out His will (cf. Ps. 82:1). This is a wonderful promise. God will back up with His power and authority any decision involving the corporate discipline of an erring brother or sister that His disciples may make after determining His will. Here again (v. 20) Jesus takes God's place as "God with us" (1:23; 2:6; 3:3; 11:4-6, 7-8; cf. 28:20). This statement implies a future time when Jesus would not be physically present with His disciples, the inter-advent age, specifically the period following His ascension and preceding His

So there you have it.  Jesus is with you all the time.  You don't need to be with people for Jesus to be with you.  This verse has nothing to do with prayer whatsoever.  What an assurance that even alone, I can know Jesus is with me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Critical Appraisal of Current Worship Music and a Resolution

Before I get to the main discussion, I need to start with a disclaimer. This post is not meant to indict certain people or their motivations. I will not be mentioning any songs or artists in particular because I am not writing this to pick on Christian artists or raise up certain artists by putting others down. What I am hoping to do in this post is help Christians to critically consider what we offer to God in the way of worship. I think if we could honestly take a step back and look at our worship objectively, we might be able to recapture worship worthy of His glory.  By worship in this post, I mean music. Yes, worship is far more than that. But for the sake of clarity, when I mention worship, I mean when we stand before God and sing to him. I will be addressing four topics for consideration: the music, the lyrics, the congregation and the resolution.

1) The Music--This post has come about from a video I saw on YouTube. I've had issues with worship music for years, but Jordan nailed it when he made this video. Pretty much what Jordan is pointing out in a funny way is the issue. Our worship music is the same old same old all the time. Same old isn't necessarily bad, but we seem to have found ourselves in a  rut. One author, Brett McCracken, describes current worship music like this: "It’s 90% crappy, knock-off Keane or secondhand U2 (i.e. it is usually very predictable and unoriginal)." Yep. I know exactly what style of music I will hear at church every Sunday. Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But I can't help and ask myself why the church can't do better. We've got to have amazing musicians in the church that can do better than the same 4 chords over and over, right?

McCracken also notes this: "It’s more about creating an emotional response than eliciting a profound spiritual reflection. The measure of a good worship leader is often how many in the audience stand up or raise their hands out of their own volition." I am a hand raiser. But I'm a weird hand raiser and maybe that's because it took me a long time to be able to raise my hands. I raise my hands when I want to say something to God, not because the music told me to. Seriously, just watch how people raise hands during the worship set. The hands go up when the music gets really fast or loud. The music is designed to elicit a certain response. Is there a lot of thought going on at that point? Maybe...but maybe not. I've heard multiple people in the Christian music industry state that music that sells is music that provides an experience to the audience. Lest we forget, Christian music is an industry at this point. That means it must make money. To make money it must sell and what makes money is what people buy because it makes them feel.

Now, I know some would just skewer me here: "How can you judge someone's music experience?" This question in and of itself frustrates me because it reveals a current way of thinking that gets to me: music is relative. That is, it doesn't matter much what it sounds like or says. Anything goes as long as I feel close to God. Music is outside any kind of critical thinking. I find it interesting to note modern Christians' own response to the emotional evangelism of the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a time in American history where people were converted by the hundreds and thousands. And how were they? By preachers yelling about hell and damnation, by being stirred up to faint in the aisles and collapse to the ground. We modern Christians look back at that and say, "Well, how many were real conversions? I mean, they just got all hyped up. How many actually stayed in the faith?" Do you see the irony here? We are skeptical about preaching that makes the gospel purely emotional. Yet we don't see any danger in music we are offering to God that might be eliciting only emotion.

2) The Lyrics--Of course, the lyrics reflect the music. Most of them are similar. And mostly they are romanticized. It's a sad state of affairs when a character on the secular and heinous show South Park points out, "All we have to do to make Christian songs is take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them. See? All we have to do is cross out words like 'baby' and 'darling' and replace them with Jesus." Ouch. As a Christian, that hurts. Is there nothing different between Christian worship music and music that worships the secular world? Can we create nothing that speaks a better word? This trend I fear is reflective of the "relationship not religion" popular way of thinking. We don't want songs that have any kind of theology or dogma in them. That won't draw me close to God emotionally and give me the experience of worship I want. A commenter (John Kelly) on a site I read said this: "Maybe we are writing more shallow, simple worship music because we are more shallow, simple people... and were just writing from what we know... David wrote long complicated and wordy laments because that was who he was and that was the culture...Is it wrong that we may write music from who we are? Or should we just pretend we're deeper than we are?" Another ouch. Could it be our worship music reflects the shallow people that we are? John Kelly asks some provocative questions. If our music reflects our shallow relationships with God's truth, then we need to rethink our very lives. As a way of rethinking, I want to point out the reason Jesus said he came to earth: "For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (John 18:37). Nowhere does Jesus say in the Bible: "I came to make sure everyone felt cuddled and warm and fuzzy." Of course, this doesn't mean that Jesus doesn't love people or want to love us physically. He likens Jerusalem to a city he wants to hold under his wings like a mother hen protecting her chicks and the church to a beloved bride. But that doesn't change the fact that Jesus' number one concern was objective truth claims about who he was and who God is. Could it be this is where our music could differ from the world's? Could Christian music seek more than emotional response?

Another problem with lyrics: they can be at the least nonsensical, at the worst wrong. This is where music relativism rears its ugly head the most. Worship music, most think, cannot be judged.* The common thinking is that an artist spent his time pouring out his heart to God to write that, so you can't judge it. Wait a minute. I can critically scrutinize the sermon a pastor worked on for months, but I can't touch a song? Christian songs that purport to claim truth about God can and should be judged. I often tell my students to never turn off their brains. This includes music. Are the lyrics in the music true? I have heard many worship songs where the lyrics were just plain biblically wrong. One of them attempted to use a scripture, but changed some terms, completely changing the meaning to a biblical untruth. When we sing we must think.

3) The congregation--This is where it gets personal. So far I can pretty much blame musical artists. But what about me? I'd like to look at a passage of scripture, Isaiah 1:11-13. In this passage, God addresses the sacrifices of Israel. Sacrifices were designed to express relationship with God (three out of the five types of sacrifices have nothing to do with sin whatsoever). Israel had gone its own way, focused on its own desires rather than God. Yet the people still went to the temple to sacrifice. In this context, God says this: "'What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?' says the LORD. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goatsWhen you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me.'" The sacrifices were worthless because they were done out of meaningless tradition. God did not want meaningless worship. We must critically ask ourselves, "What does my worship sound like to God?" Am I uttering trite phrases over and over without a thought? Is music relative to me? That is, if I don't get a sweet, fluffy feeling, do I tell myself I haven't worshipped? Do I sing untruths, claiming my life is for God alone, when I have expressly excluded God from areas of my life?

4) The resolution--It is my contention that the banal music and lyrics of our worship music makes it extra hard for our worship to be real. It's so easy to come to church and mouth words on a screen and not think about them once. I do this all the time. Same old songs, same old music, same old lyrics. I get lulled into a timeless existence where the music just flows around me, but really without me. But let's face facts: this is our culture. The music isn't going to change anytime soon. So I can sit around and grouse about that or I can do something about it. Here is what I have done to try and make my worship meaningful to me and the Lord--1. Really hear/read the words. Don't just passively sing. Make sure you know what you are singing. If it is a biblical untruth, stop singing. I sometimes stop even if it just isn't personally true, if singing it would be lying to God. 2. Talk to God during the music. Make it a prayer. Take a moment to turn it in inward, to reflect on it. There's a reason Psalms, the Bible's songbook, has indications to pause (selah). I wish music would just stop sometimes so we could reflect on what we are singing instead of just plugging along. 3. React to God's truth, not the emotional push. You don't have to raise your hands with everyone else if it's a meaningless act for you. Maybe you need to just sit down, even though every worship leader commands you to stand. Maybe you need to kneel. Maybe you just need to stand there and think about what you are singing.

When it all comes down to it, I just want to implore my fellow brothers and sisters to worship God in spirit and truth. As we come to God in worship, let's keep our brains active. We can hope that worship music will someday step outside the common to reflect an uncommon God, but in the meantime, we'll make sure we enter worship eyes, ears and brain wide open.

*A word on the term judge--The common response in Christian circles to any use of the term judge is "Who are you to judge? Jesus said judge not lest you be judged." Those that levy this response seem to forget that all throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to make judgments, to determine if something lines up with the truth or is false. There are two senses of the word "judge" even in English. Judge can mean to condemn or judge can mean to consider critically. I am not saying here that we need to go into churches and start railing about the music and having hissy fits. I am saying that we need to be willing to critically consider the music we produce.