• Archive for February, 2015

    Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): Everything is old

    February 19, 2015 // No Comments »

    san pedro(NOTE: This is part four in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings”  under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    I read church history last year, and it is a true horror from about 300 AD on, at least if one focuses on the seemingly endless stream of corrupt popes and emperors. The inquisitions, the crusades, the colonizing—it’s all as bad as you’ve heard. Worse, I think. But it’s also not the whole story. While the people with power did awful things, for which they get most of the attention, the average Joes, the common men and women in the proverbial pews, were simply trying to be faithful to their God. I had two paradoxical responses to church history—revulsion and attraction. While obviously repulsed by all of the church-and-state violence that was so opposed to the life of Jesus, I felt intense longing to connect with the goodhearted saints of old, folks like San Pedro Claver of Cartagena, whose life should be required study for every Christian. (The church named for him is pictured here.)

    Church history is at least partly to “blame” for my going Mainline. In The Story of Christianity, author Justo L. González notes that, at least as far back as the second century, barely a hundred years after Christ, there were two main components to a typical Sunday service: lengthy readings of Scripture with prayers and hymn singing, and then communion that ended with a benediction.

    Sounds a great deal like many Mainline services today, and I absolutely love that connection with my brothers and sisters from centuries passed. Just to think that I am participating in and passing down the same traditions as those very first believers is quite a thrill for me. It just feels more meaningful to me than sitting through a long sermon (a tradition that only gained traction in the 16th century) followed by singing the latest Hillsong tune.

    Nothing wrong with teaching—the church needs sound instruction—but the art of just sitting and hearing the Scriptures read is lost in many Evangelical worship settings. Nothing wrong with new songs either, or the bands that play them; in fact, I hope we’ll see some of the better recent worship songs make their way into Mainline hymnals so that we are contributing to the legacy of Christian worship. But I feel more connected to the saints who’ve gone before, the “great cloud of witnesses,” as the writer of Hebrews has called them, when I sing their songs, as well. Mainline churches are among the very few places where you can still sometimes hear early chant, Medieval and Renaissance choral works, and the later hymns of the Reformation and beyond. This is our inheritance. It is ours to preserve and pass on.

    And this desire to connect with our forerunners in the faith was a value of even the very early church. González says early Christians sometimes met in catacombs, not to hide from the Roman authorities, but because,

    “… Many heroes of the faith were buried there, and Christians believed that communion joined them, not only among themselves and with Jesus Christ, but also with their ancestors in the faith.

    “This was particularly true in the case of martyrs. As early as the middle of the second century, it was customary to gather at their tombs on the anniversary of their deaths, and there to celebrate communion. Once again, the idea was that they too were part of the church, and that communion joined the living and the dead in a single body. It was this practice that gave rise to saints’ days; these usually celebrated, not their birthday, but the day of their martyrdom.”

    Once you get past the morbidity of worshipping in a cemetery, there’s something downright beautiful about wanting to draw close, both physically and spiritually, to absent friends and saints, and to include them in the most intimate aspect of worship.

    Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Everything is old. Tradition trumps novelty. The hymns, the Scripture readings, the emphasis on communion—it’s all old, dating back centuries, connecting present with past and joining me to the great cloud of witnesses who gave me so rich a legacy. I want to share in it, contribute to it, and then pass it on to those who hopefully will remember to include me in communion as well. This is not the only way to worship, certainly, but for now, it is mine.

    Posted in General, Mainline Musings

    Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): The worship is rich

    February 12, 2015 // 2 Comments »

    hymns(NOTE: This is part three in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings”  under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    Right from the start, let me say that this is not a criticism of the more popular praise song movement among evangelicals. I’m not bothered by singing the same line twenty times in the same song, especially if the tune is catchy. And to be honest, many of the Psalms are similarly written (see Psalm 136 as an example, in which “His mercy endures forever” appears 26 times).

    I will say that I wish all praise song writers would strive for better than, “Lord, let your glory fall on us,” or other such theologically fuzzy lyrics. What does that even mean, “Let your glory fall on us”? As a pastor friend of mine said once, the word “glory” refers to the fullness, or full weight, of a thing—all that there is to it—so that if God’s glory ever fell on you, you wouldn’t be around afterward to say, “That was awesome!”

    Modern praise choruses take seriously the psalmist’s hope that all the earth would “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 96:1). Indeed, one of the complaints among evangelicals about the older hymn-style worship is that the hymns are, well, old. But that’s only a half truth since they are new to those of us who have never sung them, which is most of us. Maybe we’ve all heard “Amazing Grace” and perhaps a few others, but most Mainline denominational hymnbooks have 400 or more songs, and for all intents and purposes, they’ve still new. The music can feel dated, especially if hammered out ungracefully on a warbling pipe organ or slightly-out-of-tune piano. But the texts! The words are often rich.

    One Sunday recently, I was sitting in a Methodist church, tired and generally unmoved by anything happening around me. Then we stood to sing “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” a “new” hymn.

    O young and fearless prophet …
    We marvel at the purpose
    that held thee to thy course
    while ever on the hilltop
    before thee loomed the cross

    The full weight—the glory, you might say—of that image jostled me out of my morning fog. I could see Jesus going about the crowds, knowing all the while what would happen in the end. Maybe at times he’d forget about it, but then a cold chill would come over him, and he would remember the cross ahead and the sense of abandonment that awaited: “My God, my God, why …” (Matt. 27:46).

    O help us stand unswerving
    against war’s bloody way,
    where hate and lust and falsehood
    hold back Christ’s holy sway
    forbid false love of country
    that blinds us to his call,
    who lifts above the nations
    the unity of all.

    What a needed reminder for those of us living in the most powerful country on earth, which lately seems always at war with someone. The earliest Christians were primarily pacifists, refusing to fight in Rome’s many wars, and while I don’t buy the no-war-ever-for-any-reason mindset—hard to imagine how sitting out World War II would have been the morally preferable choice—I do wonder if we might have avoided the brutal conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam if more of us had pondered “his call, who lifts above the nations the unity of all.”

    Stir up in us a protest
    against our greed for wealth,
    while others starve and hunger
    and plead for work and health;
    where homes with little children
    cry out for lack of bread,
    who live their years sore burdened
    beneath a gloomy dread.

    Not only are we the most powerful country on earth, we’re also the richest. The global economy has been slumping of late, and yet America is actually rebounding from its 2008 dip. Probably a good time for this hymn’s fresh reminder, published in 1931, during the Great Depression. If they needed a caution against greed then, during desperate times, then surely we need it now, during relatively bountiful times.

    That’s just one of the many old-yet-new hymns I’m discovering. Why have I gone Mainline (for now)? The worship is so rich. And since, as we discussed before, the homily takes a lesser role in Mainline churches than in Evangelical churches, I like to know there is a little more meat on the bone in worship than what a simple praise chorus can offer. The benefit of having the hymns teach a little more and the sermon a little less, is that what’s being fed us through the music has been past many eyes and ears before it ever received entry into the hymnbook. That doesn’t guarantee the theology is sound, but it’s a sure better test than a pastor’s solitary discretion when writing his weekly sermon.

    Who knows, maybe I’ll grow weary of the every-other-line-must-rhyme tendency of hymns, but for now I’m enjoying the old-yet-new of the songs that generations of Christians before me have loved.

    Posted in General, Mainline Musings

    Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): There are no celebrities

    February 5, 2015 // 1 Comment »

    paparazzi(NOTE: This is part two in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings” under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    Some time ago, I got curious about church history. How did we end up at this point in the story of Christianity? Franklin Graham had used his considerable influence to help pass North Carolina’s anti-gay-marriage Amendment One. Mega church pastor Mark Driscoll was self-destructing after years of pastoral overreach and abuse. John Piper seemed incapable of tweeting anything sensitive. And Elevation’s Steven Furtick was building a three-million-dollar, 16,000-square-foot home that he said wasn’t “that big.” How did we get here? How did we arrive at a point where Christian ministers are sometimes elevated to celebrity status, often to their own detriment and to that of the church itself?

    The answer is complicated, but one factor stood out particularly as I read church history. While the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century certainly dealt with Catholic abuses, it gave the world its own set of problems. Never before had the sermon been so front and center in a worship service. For 1500 years, the taking of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, was the central act of Christian worship, something the entire congregation participated in, and for which the minister was, well, the minister, not the star. With the elevation of the sermon during and after the Reformation, the minister was the solitary participant and the one drawing the attention. The longer and more central the sermon became, the more a congregation came to associate themselves with a particular man. The church and its services became dependent on the pastor, and the pastor, who could not help but enjoy feeling essential, took on more and more of a central place in worship. Today, you will still hear people say, “What is Pastor talking about this week?” as though that were the primary concern on Sunday morning—one man and his thoughts on a topic as it relates to Scripture.

    The especially dynamic pastors attracted bigger and bigger crowds to hear their teaching, and huge churches began to grow up around these Christian celebrities, almost all of which have come from the Evangelical wing of the Protestant church in America. With celebrity status comes influence; influence is power; power corrupts; abuses happen; ministers fail; the church and the world suffer. Not all celebrity pastors fall, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t almost worse when they don’t. Should any one man and his thoughts on the Divine be so elevated in the context of worship? Should we place that much importance on anyone’s sermon?

    Just today I watched a message by Matt Chandler (which you can view by clicking here), one of the current rock stars of Evangelicalism. He’s young, he’s attractive, he’s eloquent, he’s firy, he grabs your attention, and he keeps it—in this case for 50 minutes. Fifty minutes! Ironically, he begins the sermon saying, “I’ve gotta go short because I want to give you an opportunity to see what [resources] we’ve got out there for you [in the lobby].” He invokes “all the boldness the Holy Spirit will grant me,” as if to say we should trust that whatever intense or excited emotions he might display are from God himself. And then there are the overstatements and outright misstatements that are inevitable when anyone speaks passionately and somewhat off the cuff, with only notes to guide him, about sublime things for nearly an hour. Chandler in this sermon calls Hitler and Stalin “brothers” and says the US has made them “look angelic” in comparison to the number of babies we’ve killed through abortion. He likens abortion after rape to tossing an old pair of jeans just because it has a tear (an odd and, I would think to any woman who’s been raped, outrageous comparison). Early in the sermon, Chandler says God has designed the intricacies of our very personalities; God even made sure Chandler had “tight vocal folds” so that he would be loud and without an inside voice all his life (pastors do love to justify and boast about their blusteriness). But then, later in the sermon, he says we are totally depraved and sinful from the moment of conception and that our personalities bear that out right from the get-go. So, are our personalities God’s design, or sin’s, or both? How do God and sin share that influence? Chandler doesn’t say. He couches his entire argument about the science of prenatal development in the decidedly unscientific Hebrew poetry of Psalms 51 and 139, the typical go-to passages on abortion, which were not written as scientific explanations of genetics. All of this goes on for 50 minutes, apparently unquestioned by any of the 10,000 (yes, 10,000) spectators observing this celebrity pastor.

    And the problem is not his staunchly conservative theological views; you could easily reverse his statements to make them staunchly liberal and end up with a similarly objectionable result. The problem is that in many an Evangelical service, the pastor and what he’s talking about this week are the showpiece of the service, even if what’s being said is highly questionable. The preacher and his preaching are what we’re really there for. Yes, the music and baptisms and scripture readings and occasional observances of communion matter, but mostly only insofar as they build up and support whatever the pastor’s message that week happens to be. That leads to innumerable abuses and overextensions of pastoral importance and authority, which can, and often do, end in destruction. The recent demise of Mark Driscoll is just one in a long train of examples from Evangelical Protestantism’s past, and while Matt Chandler has not unraveled (yet), he has had to retract a “few” things–like four years worth of sermonsI did a little research on Chandler after listening to his message. Turns out, as The Blaze notes in a profile on the pastor,

    “Visitors to the church’s website who want to listen to Chandler’s past sermons will notice that messages from 2002 through 2006 are gone. A note accompanying it reads in part, ‘We have removed all sermons prior to January 2006. The decision was made because of secondary concerns regarding tone, language and youthful angst over peripheral matters.'”

    Secondary concerns? I wonder how secondary those concerns felt to the people who may have been hurt for four years by Chandler’s tone? We all know that how you say a thing can hurt as much as or more than what you say. Do the 10,000 people hanging on his words every week know that a few years down the road he may wish to take them back over “secondary concerns”? Only, you can never really take them back. You can retract a statement, but you cannot retract the consequences of what you said.

    Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Because there are no Matt Chandlers. There are no celebrities. Some of that is a manifestation of Mainline Protestantism’s decline in recent decades. People aren’t flocking to the local Lutheran or Presbyterian USA church the way they still do to Evangelical churches, so there are no crowds to adore this minister or that. But part of the reason that celebrity pastors tend not to sprout from Mainline churches the way they do often from Evangelical churches is, I think, that Mainlines put less of a focus on the weekly sermon. To be sure, it’s still important; it’s just not as central as it tends to be in the Evangelical world. Time is granted for a sermon (homily, as Mainlines tend to call it), but there’s so much else that has to happen—hymns to be sung, communion to be taken, liturgy to be recited, plates to be passed, Scriptures to be read (often long passages from three different places in the Bible)—that the pastor’s sermon becomes just another part of the service. It’s important, but no more so than anything else happening. Typically in the more liturgical settings, the homily also follows the historic church calendar, so the minister feels at least somewhat less free to launch into whatever issue he or she feels passionate about that week, and I would say that is a very healthy restriction. (I couldn’t help noticing that Chandler’s abortion sermon was apparently part of a series on prayer. How in the world did he decide that, out of all the things one could say about prayer, he should devote a sermon to abortion?)

    Many of us are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of commentary all week long, from television “news,” from Facebook, from our own family members. Who really wants to sit for 30 to 50 minutes on a Sunday and listen to one more person tell us what they think, based (often tenuously) on a verse here and a verse there. My brain is tired by Sunday with opinion overload. I don’t mind hearing a homily or sermon, but at this point in my life, I’m less and less comfortable with a service structure that elevates the pastor’s role in speaking above even the congregation’s role in taking Holy Communion.

    Necessary qualifiers: I was a pastor. I delivered many, many sermons that were 30 minutes or longer which functioned as the centerpiece of the worship service. Millions of Christians have been nourished by this approach and I do not wish to demean their experience or the ministers who provide it (some of whom are my friends). Not all Evangelical pastors speak in the manner Chandler does. Most probably don’t. They don’t all make overreaching or careless statements about Hitler and Stalin or compare abortion after rape to tossing a pair of jeans with a tear. Chandler is merely an example to communicate a concern I have. This is not an attack on people; it’s a critique of a service structure that has traditionally granted too vaulted a place to the pastor and his thoughts—and however much a pastor may protest, they are his thoughts, and not, by extension, God’s. I’m in a transition time, where I’m asking questions and trying new things, after which I may end up right back where I started, so I’m not expecting people to abandon their church to join me down at First Methodist. I may end up Evangelical after all in terms of worship structure. For now, I really find that setting problematic. It remains to be seen whether I will, after a time, find the Mainline world more or less so.

    More thoughts later …

    Posted in General, Mainline Musings

    Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): An Introduction

    February 4, 2015 // No Comments »

    Church_of_the_Holy_Trinity_Philadelphia_red_doorAfter more than two decades in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, I recently made a switch and have been visiting Mainline churches, particularly Episcopal and Methodist congregations. At first, I’m not sure I was even aware of why I felt the need for change. Now, I think it had much to do with wanting to address concerns that had been building in me for years over how the Evangelical world worships: the style, the structure, the whole thought process behind the weekly gathering. While I may have had some misgivings over certain beliefs of evangelicals, my real problem was with what happened when we all got together on a Sunday and “did church.”

    Fair warning: This may be a phase. I may end up right back where I started, at a non-denominational Evangelical church, after I’ve taken a breather, so to speak. There is much I still like and respect about that world, particularly its more progressive churches. And that reminds me, I didn’t go Mainline because Evangelicalism was too conservative. There certainly are many conservative–even fundamentalist–evangelicals, but there are many, many moderate and liberal folks there as well. When I speak of Evangelical versus Mainline, I’m more speaking of worship styles and structures, though certainly what one believes about God, the Bible, the big-C Church, and the world affects how those styles and structures form in the first place.

    Also worth noting: This is not a blanket criticism of Evangelicalism (like I said, I still like much about it), and it’s almost certainly not a fully-balanced comparison. Right now, my mind is reacting to the discomfort I feel in the Evangelical worship setting, which probably blinds me to the shortcomings of the Mainline worship setting. So be it. As I said, maybe I’ll end up right back where I started after a time of toe dipping in the Mainline pool. We all need vacations.

    In the next few posts, I’ll describe how the Mainline worship experience has assuaged some of the uneasiness I had been feeling in church, and if you’re as boring as I am, you might even find those musings interesting.

    Posted in General, Mainline Musings