Avoiding “All the Same, All the Time” Syndrome

This tweet by Carlos Whittaker has been retweeted by a few of my Internet friends:

I’m not quite sure what he means by “lie,” though this subsequent tweet by Alan Jacobs certainly seems to be relevant here.

It’s strange that Whittaker equates 15 minutes of reading and praying with being “like a monk,” and even stranger that he thinks that quiet time is mutually exclusive with encountering God through a party. I see assumptions like these a lot, and I’ve decided to call it ASATS – All the Same, All the Time Syndrome.

ASATS demands that our spiritual life should be “all the same, all the time.” Everyone must have the same spiritual temperature as I do right now – invariably, this temperature is “enthusiastic and full-spirited” – and no one can depart from this temperature at any time. Everything must be awesome, all the time, and everyone must be all in the same place spirtually, all the time. It helps if everyone is in the same place, physically, too. None of this sneaking off and having a quiet moment!

ASATS is one of the reasons why my wife and I have stepped away from the dominant “contemporary” worship style of evangelical churches and sought out churches that use historically rooted liturgies. In contemporary worship, it’s always a party. We visited a church recently that used a countdown clock to mark the exact moment when worship would begin. At 0:00, the drummer immediately launched into an uptempo rock beat. Within moments, it was as loud as a rock concert. The music remained within a few decibels of the same volume up until the moment the sermon began. Even the announcements and welcome message were given over loud background vamping. Though this was only one Sunday, I bet that most Sundays are exactly the same. No one programs a worship countdown clock on the spur of the moment. Continue reading

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What Churches Can Learn from Grammy Awards Speeches

Awards show speeches aren’t usually masterpieces of rhetoric. Most, in fact, are simply lists of people whom the winner wants to thank. While their list may include celebrities or important people in the industry, it’s also likely to include their parents, their family and friends, and members of the team that helped create the film, song, album, etc., that is being honored. Occasionally, the winner will give thanks to an artist of an earlier generation who influenced their work. Unlike the credits at the end of a film, there are no contractual obligations to name certain people in an awards speech, but leaving out someone who should have been thanked can lead to major embarrassment.

What does this have to do with churches? In my experience, most churches do a great job of listing the writers and composers of worship songs when they are legally required to do so by copyright law. For songs in the public domain, however, it’s fairly common to omit any information about the source. I’ve even seen churches credit “© Public Domain”, as if we had Mr. Domain to thank for the song.

Why does this bother me? In part, I’m sure, it’s because I’ve written a few hymns and vainly hope that a church in the 23rd century will include my name in their holo-bulletin. Beyond this selfishness, I have a few reasons.

Naming others is essential to community. Our church services ought to be full of names. The Bible is, after all. Those long genealogies and the greetings at the ends of Paul’s letters aren’t just filler. Those names represent real people and real relationships, and they remind us that the people of God is made up of, well, people.

Crediting the sources gives us a sense of history, rich worship, and communion of the saints. When we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we’re singing a song that, in one form or another, has been used in worship for over a thousand years. There’s something remarkable in the ability of a hymn written centuries ago to capture our emotions and shape our worship today.

Learning the origins of our favorite hymns can help us discover new music. It’s easy to lump all the songs in a hymnal together as a generic genre called “hymns,” but hymns come in a great variety of styles, both musically and lyrically.

  • Love the simple majesty of the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”? The tune, called “Old Hundredth,” originated in the Genevan Psalter of the 1500s and likely written by Loys Bourgeois. Consider other hymns from the Genevan Psalter for your worship.
  • Prefer the mystical harmony and imagery of “What Wondrous Love Is This?” You might want to explore other songs from Southern Harmony (edited by William Walker) and The Sacred Harp (ed. B.F. White and Elisha King), two influential song collections from early 19th century America.

You get the idea. There’s no legal requirement, of course, to include these credits. I hope, though, more churches will take the time to thank and recognize those who have enriched our worship.

Worship: Stand Out By Being Traditional

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Stand Out by Being Traditional

My friend Jeff Gissing recently wrote about why contemporary worship is not the answer for churches trying to revitalize their congregations. In fact, I would say that, if your church wants to stand out, try offering traditional worship. A church that takes its tradition seriously, that seeks creativity and freshness within its tradition rather than breaking from it, is going to stand out as different from all of the churches that are trying to look, sound, and worship in conformity with the latest trends.

Contemporary Worship Is Nothing New

There was a time — 10 years ago? 20? — when offering a “contemporary” worship service would make a church stand out from all the others. This simply isn’t the case any more. In the broader evangelical context, contemporary worship has won the worship wars. If you want contemporary worship, there are a dozen churches in your community that already offer it.

If your church is thinking about changing to a contemporary worship style or adding a contemporary service, what will you offer that’s different from the dozen churches already doing the same thing? If someone is searching for a church based on its contemporary worship, why would they choose your service over the one down the street? If they’re choosing a church based on contemporary music, can you compete with the megachurch that meets in the old mall, with the worship team of professional musicians and the best sound equipment that money can buy?

Living Tradition

When my wife and I were looking for a new church, we had a few things we were looking for:

  • Solid evangelical theology
  • A healthy community where we could serve and our kids could find friends
  • Traditional liturgy

It was extremely difficult to find churches near us that worshipped using a traditional liturgy. We love our new church — which is good, because it was the only church we could find that offered all three items!

Too often, “traditional” worship is a synonym for “old and tired” worship. I know a church that has been singing the same rotation of hymns for over 30 years, using the same pianist, who plays every hymn at the exact same tempo in the exact same style. (I think it would be called “Southern camp meeting.”) This is not “traditional” worship — this is dead worship!

“Traditional” does not mean “old.” It means that you are part of a tradition, which includes a history of styles, conventions, and content, but which should also make room for new works of art and new variations within the tradition. If a tradition does not make room for creativity, it’s an archive, not a tradition.

Ideas for Traditional Worship

If you are seeking revitalization in your church, what does your existing worship tradition offer? If it feels tired, try asking yourself a few simple questions:

  • Are we doing justice to the music? Is the music being played with a high level of skill and preparation? With the appropriate style and energy? If we’re just going through the motions, should we take a step back and examine our motivation?
  • Can we return to the tradition’s roots? For example, if the song was a Southern camp meeting song, what if we returned to traditional instruments and harmony for the song? What gave the tradition energy and life when it was new? Are there great songs that we have forgotten about that haven’t been sung in our church for decades?
  • What can we contribute to the tradition? Could we write a new verse to a traditional hymn? Write a new arrangement? Play the song on contemporary instruments? It might be as simple as discovering a new combination of songs that complement each other.

You might discover that the “old” tradition can still offer new life.

Photo credit: Laurelville Mennonite Church, via Flickr

How Did You Celebrate Easter?

Easter Eggs

Easter Eggs

Do you think of worship, hospitality, or celebration as spiritual disciplines? If you’re like me, you associate the idea of “discipline” with things that are hard, like fasting, daily prayer, intense Bible study, and so on. But if a discipline is something that trains us to live and think rightly, then what better response to the resurrection can there be than over-the-top celebration?

In fact, celebration holds a place of honor in both of my top two books on spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, places celebration at the conclusion of his classic work, while Adele Ahlberg Calhoun puts Celebration at the very front of her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.

Here’s what Calhoun writes about Celebration:

The world is filled with reasons to be downcast. But deeper than sorrow thrums the unbroken pulse of God’s joy, a joy that will yet have its eternal day. To set our hearts on this joy reminds us that we can choose how we respond to any particular moment. We can search for God in all circumstances, or not. We can seek the pulse of hope and celebration because it is God’s reality. Heaven is celebrating. Right now the cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, prophets, apostles, martyrs and all the company of saints overflow with joy in the presence of their Creator. Every small experience of Jesus with us is a taste of the joy that is to come. We are not alone — and that in itself is reason to celebrate. (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 27)

The Hickerson Family at Easter

The Hickerson Family, all dolled-up for Easter

Here are a few ways that my family and I celebrated the resurrection of Jesus:

  • Dressing up in new clothes (including new shoes for me)
  • Attending a packed church, taking communion, and hearing a powerful message on the hope of the resurrection
  • Singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” (and hearing perfect silence at that moment of tension before the final “Hallelujah”)
  • Joining extended family and old friends for an Easter feast of lamb, ham, and too much sugar, all while being welcoming my principal role models of hospitality, my father- and mother-in-law
  • Catching up – unexpectedly – with some good friends who have had a rough spring
  • Puzzling over my 6-year-old’s sudden obsession over reading the Bible – and trying to decide whether it is sincere or not (and whether that matters)
  • Delving into the study of God through conversation about justification and covenant
  • For my wife, playing (and winning) some great board games with cousins and friends we don’t see nearly often enough

All in all, a great day of celebration. And I didn’t even mention the eggs.

How did you celebrate Easter?

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Books I Like: Why Church Matters

Why Church Matters: Worship, Ministry, and Mission in Practice by Jonathan R. Wilson bridges the gap between theologians of the church and practitioners of the church.  Though the book is short (158 pp.), Wilson’s ambition is large:

In this book I intend to give a relatively comprehensive account of the practices of the church: the role of the pastor, the proclamation of the gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, worship, evangelism, discipline, and many more activities are developed as practices.

“Practice” is an important word to Wilson.  By “practice,” he means regularly developed, intentional acts that create and shape a culture or community.  He includes worship, communion, baptism, discipleship, preaching, and other acts of the church. Continue reading