Archives For The Church

In my last post, I argued that repetition isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. In fact, repetition is important. We are shaped by repetition—and that’s true whether we are aware of the formative power of repetition or not. James K. A. Smith argues that we are immersed in “secular liturgies” every day and that these shape us deeply without our conscious knowledge. Smith’s solution is capitalizing on repetition in a healthy way within the church. This is part of counterformation: intentionally shaping ourselves through saturating our lives and practices and worship with the story of what God has done in Christ.

While we’re usually allergic to repetition in worship, Smith argues that we need to engage in healthy repetition. What this does not mean, however, is that all repetition is equally helpful. In fact, some types of repetition are harmful.

For example, I remember a time in my life when the song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” was incredibly meaningful. I would get teary singing it. I had never felt closer to God or more passionate for his mission than when I was singing those words. So I sang the song. And I sang it. And sang it. Over. And over. And over again. Until the lyrics became meaningless. The song died for me. But I kept singing it in church and chapel and youth group. And it continued to mean nothing to me. But I continued to sing it.

The end result is that a song that had been a meaningful form of repetition for me, that was instrumental in shaping me for God’s kingdom, now became a harmful form of repetition and became instrumental in shaping me to be the kind of person who proclaims powerful truths without meaning them. In other words, “Lord, I Life Your Name on High” became a training ground for my hypocrisy.

This little example probably summarizes much of what people fear when they hear about repetition in worship. If we don’t keep things fresh and ever-changing, we’ll just be singing songs and repeating rituals that have lost their meaning.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

One ritual that every church repeats regularly is the Lord’s Supper. Within 30 years of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, Paul had to challenge the Corinthian Church to treat it as a meaningful practice—which indicates that it had become a dead ceremony to many in a short amount of time. Who among us has held the profound meaning of Communion in mind every single time we have participated? And yet none of our churches is ready to give up on repeating this practice. We recognize that repetition is essential in this area. And here’s why.

Communion 2Imagine how much it shapes us to regularly hold the bread and cup in our hands. We are reminded that Jesus shed his blood and broke his body in order to redeem us. We hold the symbolic evidence of that sacrifice in our hands regularly: weekly or monthly or whatever. We taste the bread on our tongues and our bodies participate in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice. We drink the cup and our taste buds get involved in the repeated memory. We take this meal together and remember that Jesus’ body has placed us within his body—these people who worship alongside us. And we do this again and again and again because this act is central to our life in Jesus. The repetition cements the action in our conscious and preconscious selves. It sinks more deeply and shapes us in ways we don’t understand.

Can people allow the repetition of Communion to shrink into a dead practice? Absolutely. Does this make the repetition of Communion bad? Absolutely not. It’s still important, and that’s why Paul calls the Corinthians back to a sincere and meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. By continually eating this meal, we repeatedly “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). He attacks the misshapen and misdirected practice of Communion, not the meaningful repetition of it.

I believe it is important for us to incorporate thoughtful, meaningful repetition into our church gatherings. This might mean singing certain songs repeatedly as anthems. We’ll want to help each other avoid the hypocrisy of singing truths we don’t mean, but the pull should be back into the significance of singing these songs jointly rather than abandoning the songs we’ve been singing for more than a month. It might mean repeating a benediction in the service, or praying regularly, or reciting the Lord’s prayer together, or engaging in corporate confession, or incorporating bits of ancient liturgy that have shaped the life of the Church for centuries.

Communion 1When we sense that the repetition has devolved into cold gesturing, it’s time to revisit the significance of the action. Maybe there’s a better way to enact the story of what God has done in Christ. Maybe we just need a reminder of what we’re doing when we do ___________.

I’m not trying to argue for a particular form of liturgy. But we are being shaped by the repeated, embodied practices in the world around us, whether it be going to the gym, going to the mall, scrolling through Facebook, clicking our remote controls, or whatever. Unless we see the value of repetition in our church gatherings, we will be neglecting a vital form of counterformation that will help us combat the consumerism and individualism and whatever else seeps into our bones through these secular liturgies. We don’t have to be liturgical in an old, confusing sense. But our worship should be liturgical in the sense that we find powerful ways of embodying the Story in actions, words, songs, and symbols that can shape our life together. And when we find these powerful practices, we should repeat them.

Hymnals

We all know what it’s like to be bored with worship. Anyone who has been around the church for a while knows what it is to sing a praise song so many times that it becomes almost painful. Our worship services can become boring, predictable, numbing. And that’s not good. Boring, predictable, numbing practices can rob us of our passion and make God seem like something he is certainly not: boring.

While I’m convinced of this point, I don’t believe the answer to boredom lies in constant novelty. Certain church paradigms believe this. Change it up, keep everything moving, shift gears incessantly or we’ll lose their tiny attention spans.

But passion in worship is not the inevitable byproduct of constant novelty. Nor is repetition the opposite of vitality. In his excellent and important book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a case for repetition as a central part of our worship:

“We, especially we Protestants, have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, though we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship” (Imagining the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, 181).

Does that strike you as odd? You’ll never become a musician if you don’t value repetition. You’d be stabbing yourself in the cheek with your fork without a lifetime of repetition. You wouldn’t speak English if it weren’t for repetition. We know that repetition is important for mastering a skill, for getting a practice to sink deeply into our being.

BasketballTo use a basketball analogy: being a good basketball player requires the ability to dribble, pass, shoot, screen, and block out without giving a second’s thought to these activities. You’ll only be a solid player when these practices are second nature, automatic, natural. You push the ball towards the court, your fingers receive the ball when it bounces back up. You push it back down again. The shot goes up, your body immediately gets into position for the rebound. It just happens. You’re not letting your eyes be distracted with these actions, you’re not wasting your brain power on them, this is simply how you’ve trained your body to behave on the court. You’ve spent countless hours repeating these skills, forcing your body to learn these practices without the conscious assistance of your brain.

So it is with worship. You won’t be good at worshiping God in the moment that you lose your biggest client or get cut off in traffic or lose your temper with your child unless you’ve trained yourself to be a worshiper. And this requires repetition. Our corporate worship services and church gatherings are, in a sense, our basketball practices. We listen to sermons to hear the story of what God has done in Christ. We speak and sing and exult in this story with our songs. We acknowledge our need for this story in our prayers. We enact this story in taking Communion. We incarnate this story in the words and actions we do in fellowship and service with and for one another. With repetition, the story sinks into our bones.

We enact the story of what God has done in Christ as if by second nature. It has become part of us, it has come to shape us. And thus it shows up unexpectedly in actions that we would not have thought have anything to do with worship.

In comparing our church gatherings to “practice” I don’t mean to imply that what we do in church is not serious. It is. And it’s these serious (yet joyful) times of intentionally saturating ourselves in God’s story that make the story a natural part of who we are.

The world around us knows the value of repetition for shaping the human soul: think of how deep-seated consumerism has become in our society, our churches, and our hearts. Smith recognizes how effective the advertisers are at shaping us and laments how weak the church is at countering this formation that we receive from the world:

“It is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition…Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies” (183, emphasis added).

In other words, if our worship experiences remain fixated on novelty while our society engages in effective repetition, our Christian formation will take a back seat to our secular formation.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what healthy repetition might look like in our church gatherings.

It’s easy to be grumpy about all of the denominations in the church. If we’re supposed to be united as the body of Christ, then why do we have Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Evangelical Free Churches and Assemblies of God a host of others? I recently saw a report estimating that we have over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.[1]

I can think of a lot that is unhealthy with the reality of denominationalism. But when we look at church history, the introduction of denominations was actually very healthy, and we should all be thankful for this development.

In the wake of the Reformation (roughly 500 years ago), each church saw itself as the one true church. Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans: each of these groups (and more) held different beliefs and followed different practices, and each was convinced that their church was right—to the point that they would banish and even kill those who saw things differently. These churches, which took root in specific areas, began to war against each other. The Huguenots (followers of John Calvin) were rounded up by Mary Queen of Scots, tried before Catholic judges, and then tortured and/or burned. The Thirty Years’ War started as actual warfare between Protestants and Catholics.

Eventually, everyone got tired of the fighting. It was clear that no one church would arise and dominate the religious landscape. Christianity seemed hopelessly divided, and war seemed an increasingly useless way to try to unite the church.[2]

Into this mess came the theory of denominationalism, introduced by the Dissenting Brethren of Westminster. Rather than each branch of the church considering itself the one true church, denominationalism sees each church as simply one expression of the whole of Christianity. Each church is referred to (or “denominated”) by a specific name, but it is still part of the larger whole.

The Dissenting Brethren built their theory of denominationalism on four points:

  1. Human beings do not understand God’s truth perfectly, so differences of opinion are inevitable.
  2. These differences of opinion are important, and each church must follow its convictions on what the Bible teaches. Nonetheless, many differences of opinion do not violate the heart of the Christian faith.
  3. No church has a full grasp of God’s truth, so no one church by itself can adequately represent the true, capital C Church. We are the true Church together, not in our individual expressions.
  4. Separation does not mean schism. In other words, we can disagree about many points of doctrine and practice, but still be united in Christ.

Thus denominationalism allowed the church to move forward. We no longer had to kill or banish one another over every doctrinal disagreement. (Can you imagine elder meetings if this were still the case? That would make a great reality show.) This mentality provides the basis for a Baptist church disagreeing with a Presbyterian church on many issues, but still viewing one another as Christians.

Denominations

So while the denominational landscape can be discouraging—if we are all one in Christ, then why have we splintered off into these innumerable groups?—we should actually be thankful for denominations. The diversity in the church is a reminder that Christians still differ from one another significantly. We’re not brothers and sisters in Christ because we happen to think exactly alike. Far from it! No, we are brothers and sisters in Christ despite our very real differences in interpretation and practice. But we are brothers and sisters nonetheless. The Baptist church sitting next to the Presbyterian church are reminders that though we have differing convictions, we still choose to stand side by side as representatives of the larger Body of Christ.

But of course, everything I’ve just said is meaningless if we choose to demonize other denominations. My guess is that as you read over the Dissenting Brethren’s four points, you had mixed feelings. Yes, this is a good perspective, but no, I tend to view my own church as the only right one. We believe the way we do because we’re right. My “Christian” neighbor attends that other church because she doesn’t understand the Bible. Etc.

With the Dissenting Brethren, I affirm that our differences are important. How we interpret the sovereignty of God, the way we practice baptism, and our views on divorce and remarriage are very important, and we need to continue seeking truth in all of these areas. But the authority is the Bible, not the leaders or doctrinal statement of my specific church. And as long as the church next door is committed to God and his word (not superficially, but really and truly), then we stand together as representatives of the full (and diverse) Body of Christ. May we all be variously denominated, but essentially united.

If you want more on this topic, consider Tim Keller’s perspective.


 

[1] The estimate of 33,000 denominations is almost impossible to believe, until you consider that (1) each major denominations is made up of subsets (e.g., not just Baptist, but American Baptist, Southern Baptist, etc.), (2) each denomination can look much different from country to country, and (3) nondenominational churches are very popular, and being nondenominational does not mean that they are united in doctrine and practice—it basically means that each individual church is almost a denomination unto itself.

[2] It should sound crazy to us that warfare amongst Christians was ever considered an option, but this was the result of hundreds of years of the church being tied to the state.

One year ago, internationally acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura published a small booklet entitled On Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care. This booklet, and Fujimura’s concept of “Culture Care,” have resonated with many. This month Makoto Fujimura released the full length expansion of his Culture Care concept, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life.

Culture Care Makoto FujimuraFujimura has written eloquently and inspiringly on faith and art before. With Culture Care, he gives us many important concepts to ponder and pursue. Fujimura talks about the culture wars that are all too familiar for most of us. Unlike those who would glamorize our modern culture, Fujimura acknowledges that there is much in culture today that should sadden us, much that is toxic, much that harms the soil in which we are trying to grow. But unlike those who want to throw up their hands in disgust and sit in condemnation of culture until Jesus returns, Fujimura insists that we have a responsibility to the culture all around us.

“Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.”

Culture Care means viewing all of life as a gift, viewing culture itself as a gift. Our own abilities, and the abilities and cultural goods of the people around us, whether Christian or not, are gifts from God. Rather than disdaining culture or the works of those outside the church, we need to be life-giving participants in culture. Fujimura explains:

“Artistic expressions are signposts declaring what it is to be fully human.”

When we free ourselves of our utilitarian mindset that insists on valuing only that which is useful, when we begin living “generatively,” creatively bringing something new and life-giving into existence, then we create new possibilities in the lives of the people around us.

For Fujimura, this is a matter of stewardship. If we all fall prey to the utilitarian mindset that fails to value beauty, creativity, and generativity, then the cultural soil will be further poisoned by the time our children inherit the cultural world we have failed to steward. But if we labor to tend the soil of culture, our children may live in a cultural world that is bursting with life, in which gospel seeds can grow, in which beauty takes root and shapes the imagination and daily life of society.

Too often, the cultural efforts of Christians are derivative (simply imitating the “secular” culture with a Jesus-twist) or speak almost exclusively to other Christians. But Fujimura’s concept of Culture Care calls us beyond this introspective existence.

“Western Christianity in the twentieth century fell into an ‘adjective’ existence with Christian music, Christian art, Christian plumbers. Even today, artists are often valued in the church only if they create art for the church, or at least, ‘Christian art.’ Culture Care will mean moving away from such labels…I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being.”

In this mentality, Fujimura sees artists functioning as “border-stalkers” (think of Strider/Aragorn in Lord of the Rings) who are able to cross boundaries with ease and mediate between diverse groups. Fujimura’s vision here of what an artist’s role might become in relation to the church and the surrounding culture is especially insightful, and he gives very practical and helpful advice for those seeking to fulfill that role.

Fujimura leaves us with a number of “what ifs” to spur or thinking about what might be possible if we took Culture Care seriously. Here are a few of my favorites.

What if each of us endeavored to bring beauty into someone’s life today in some small way?

What if artists became known for their generosity rather than only their self-expression?

What if we committed to speaking fresh creativity and vision into culture rather than denouncing and boycotting other cultural products?

What if we saw art as gift, not just as commodity?

What if we empower the “border stalkers” in our communities, support and send them out?

What if we created songs [and other forms of art] to draw people into movements for justice and flourishing?

All in all, I believe that Culture Care is an important book, one of the few that is taking the discussion of Christian involvement in the arts and culture to a new level. If you are an artist at any level, this is an important book to read. If you are convinced of the importance of art and culture in the life of the church and/or world, this is an important book to read. And if you’re just becoming interested in the concept of art and culture as it relates to your faith, this would be a great place to start.

As I write this, I am only aware of one place to purchase the Culture Care book, and that’s through the International Arts Movement’s website (click here).

churchMany of our towns are overflowing with churches. If you’ve ever tried to find a new church, you know how many options are typically available.

You can choose based on denomination: Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, Assembly of God, Foursquare, Brethren, Methodist…you name it. And many of these broad categories actually refer to several denominations (e.g., there are multiple Baptist and Presbyterian denominations). And don’t forget the large number of nondenominational churches out there that don’t align with any denomination.

You can also choose based on the style of worship music. Do you prefer hymns or modern praise songs? If modern praise songs, do you lean more towards Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, or Maranatha?

You can also categorize churches based on their approach to preaching. Do you prefer expository, verse by verse preaching? Or do you like the topical approach with relevant sermon series?

How do you like to take communion? Weekly, monthly, or at a special communion service? Which is more “biblical,” juice or wine? Should communion be taken all at once or on an individual basis?

What’s your take on baptism? Full immersion? Sprinkling? Adult or infant? On the spot or after a lengthy baptism class?

The point is, church comes in many varieties. But should it? Aren’t we all worshipping the same God and reading from the same Bible? If that’s true, then why do we have so many denominations?

The simplest answer I have come across (from Tim Keller) is that denominations will always exist as long as Christians are concerned about both unity and purity.

If we were only concerned about unity, it wouldn’t matter what differences we encounter in doctrine or practice. One church per town would be enough. On the flipside, if we were only concerned about purity in our doctrine and practice, we wouldn’t be able meet together at all, because we all disagree with each other on some level.

Church2So every group of Christians is trying to walk that line between unity and purity. To love one another, even in the midst of significant differences, while still upholding the truth of Scripture. And that’s tough. Not only do we disagree about specific doctrines, we also disagree about which ones are “hills to die on.” Should you leave a church and/or start a new one because your church is/isn’t elder ruled? Because there is too much/little liturgy in the services? Because the doctrinal statement affirms/denies a premillenial, pretribulational rapture? These are all issues that have produced new denominations.

Throughout church history Christians have been navigating this tension between unity and purity.

We all have to wrestle with this question: How do we balance unity and purity? I can’t imagine the fragmented state of the church today makes Jesus happy. And yet, I’m sure that he is pleased when someone takes a courageous and gracious stand for the truth of Scripture. I’m also sure he is pleased when someone chooses to love and serve together with people who disagree.

Maybe the point of it all is that simply getting all of the churches together under the banner of unity isn’t the obvious choice. Doctrinal purity matters too. Nor is splitting churches over minor doctrinal issues the right approach. Unity is important. Perhaps it’s more about the way we view and interact with the other denominations in town. Even if you’re not sitting in a pew with the Baptists or Presbyterians or whomever, do you still consider them fellow workers for the sake of the gospel? Brothers and sisters in Christ? Co-recipients of the command to make disciples of all nations (including your own town)?

Here in Simi Valley, most of the pastors in town meet regularly to pray together. These are pastors of churches that belong to a variety of denominations and hold significantly different views over many doctrines. They are each trying to be faithful to what Scripture teaches about baptism, the return of Christ, communion, and so on. But they see themselves as part of the same team, so they pray together. I love that picture of godly people working to preserve both purity and unity.

It won’t surprise you when I say I don’t have a solution for the “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) of denominationalism. But I will say that unity and purity are both important. The way we relate to one another matters. So be sure to wrestle with that question: How do we balance unity and purity?

(By the way, if you’re trying to choose a church or denomination, here are some wise words from C. S. Lewis.)