artistic worship| factory or faithful?

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(from Daniel Lim)

For the past four (almost five) years, I’ve been serving as a worship director in a small church in a small suburb in Illinois. Those who’ve known me longer than that may find that surprising. Prior to my position in the church, I was labeled as a secular musician; and I loved it. I loved the freedom it brought. I was allowed to write and create as an individual with all my frustrations, edges, and dirt. I didn’t have the need nor the desire to mask the things that the church would have deemed embarrassing. While I certainly am not asserting that I celebrate my imperfection, I believe it is a sign of maturity to sit as I am before God, knowing that I am covered by His blood.

I remember a conversation I had with my wife a week ago. We talked about how the language in music labeled “worship” was often bland and repetitive. I noticed that the vernacular used in Contemporary Christian Music was judged based on how well it fits in its narrow spectrum, rather than the content or message of the song. It got me thinking – what is worship? Or what are the characteristics of worship? And most importantly, is my art worship?

At the heart of the matter, I believe that your view on worship is dictated by your view on your relationship with God. For example, should you view your relationship with God as a mere compartment in your life, and hence void of significance in other areas, then your worship may be sterile – a representation of a nice and neat factory-cut delivery of praise to the doorstep of God’s Sunday apartment. But if you realize that God is the God of your entire life, including the dirt and the areas you are yet to be fully sanctified in, then sing to God as such a person.

Create art that speaks of your brokenness, even if it isn’t “Church ideal.” Is true worship not honest and raw? Why would we sugarcoat the truth to the God who knows and is the hard truth? If anything, labeling a song as secular (meaning void of God) because of arbitrary reasons such as a petty swear word or a cynical take on the writer’s walk will make us guilty of diminishing God’s all-encompassing presence in life. So artists, don’t create as if your walk with God is perfect. We all know it’s not. Write about this bumpy journey with all the bruises and cuts – this is true worship for the artist.

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summer picks

It’s been a while since we’ve last posted, and that’s because we’ve been scouting out a team of contributors who are as wonderful and interesting as you all are.  You’ll be hearing from us quite a bit this summer, but as a brief window into who we are, here’s us, along with what we’re listening to, watching, and reading.

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Hattie R. Buell

Bio: Hattie Buell has grown up immersed in church music, classical music, and that necessary pinch of 80s pop. Buell met her Raines after he came back from Africa, they now are worship arts leaders together at an Anglican church and are involved with two others. Hattie’s training in ethnomusicology is one of her greatest joys in life, as she continues to analyze the music she hears, even when her family tells her to “please stop, you’re making our heads go round like a record”.

Reading List: I no longer feel inspired to read, which is the bleakest thing I have ever said about myself. If you have suggestions, I need them.

Summer Playlist: Rued Langgard, Kíla, Beauty & the Beast soundtrack

Currently Watching: I’m in a total splurge of “Great British Bake Off” until “Stranger Things Vol. II” or “Rick & Morty 3”.

Current Artistic Project: Just finished my embroidery phase, now it’ll probably be bread baking or starting a women’s chorus.

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Andy Decker

Bio: I’m an aspiring filmmaker currently residing in Chicago. My ultimate goal is to attend film school in Ireland and get involved in the Irish film industry. While I’m saving up, I’m operating a film criticism website at cinemainframe.wordpress.com. You can also keep tabs on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd profile.

Reading List: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, Sorry For Your Troubles by Padraig Ó Tuama, The Myth of Sysiphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus, Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Summer Playlist: “Slowdive” by Slowdive, “Sunbather” by Deafheaven, “Run the Jewels 3” by Run the Jewels, “No Shape” by Perfume Genius, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles, “Ujubasajuba” by Kairon; IRSE!

Watchlist: Televison – Fargo, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, Silicon Valley
Film – Baby Driver, Detroit, The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, The Square, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mother!

Other Stuff I Love: Soccer (watching and playing), running, board/video games, getting lost in the woods

Current Artistic Project: Currently in the second round of the Screenwriting Challenge 2017, working on a couple of other screenplays and a short story

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Kirsten Ekstrand

Bio: Kirsten has been playing piano since the age of six, but it wasn’t until studying piano in college that she realized her music found its sweetest fulfillment in serving the local church. Now working full-time as the service delivery manager for a Chicago-area IT firm, she pours her free hours into serving as her church pianist, as well as in the women’s and college/20’s ministries.

Reading List: Currently I’m reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (my book club is reading a sampling of Pulitzer Prize winners) and Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. Once I finish Te Deum, I’m hoping to pick up The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg by Robin A. Leaver in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I’ll probably look for a P. D. James murder mystery for my summer travels, too.

Summer Playlist: I’ve been obsessed with Psalms albums in recent months. Sandra McCracken, Shane & Shane, and Wendell Kimbrough have some wonderful ones. I expect to frequently return to the Hamilton soundtrack as well.

Currently Watching: I’m excited to watch several of last year’s Oscar nominees this summer, including Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, and Hacksaw Ridge. For TV shows, I’ve been enjoying The Newsroom, and my guilty pleasure lately has been The Great British Baking Show.

Other stuff I love: Coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, and Oreos — but not necessarily in that order. On the average weekend, you might find me taking in a performance in the city, enjoying dinner with friends, or sitting at home with a good book and that glass of wine.

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Desirée Hassler

Bio: In addition to singing in the full-time chorus at Lyric Opera of Chicago, soprano Desirée Hassler has sung and covered roles at Lyric in Tannhäuser, Oklahoma!, Manon, Macbeth, Boris Godunov, Show Boat, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. Recent performances include Bach’s B Minor mass with Chicago Bach Project (John Nelson, conductor), Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata with the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra, Ellen in Oklahoma! at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Kondja in The Rose of Stambul with Chicago Folks Operetta, soprano soloist in the Brahms Requiem (Los Angeles, CA), Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 with the Prairie Ensemble, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, as well as Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass with the Wichita Symphony.

A California native, Desirée has successfully competed from the regional to International levels at the Bel Canto Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, International Franz Liszt Competition and is the recipient of many distinguished awards. The soprano is musically curious and stylistically flexible, and enjoys performing music from the Renaissance to the 21st century– in recital, concert, opera and performance art mediums. Her voice can be heard on everything from commercial and film soundtracks, to oratorio, opera and operetta and even progressive heavy metal albums.

Hassler graduated in 2011 with a doctorate in Vocal Performance and Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she completed a master’s degree in 2003. Dr. Hassler has served on the faculties of Eastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently serves on the voice faculty of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL where she teaches voice and music history courses. Her voice studio is happily comprised of students singing classical, jazz, rock, musical theatre, original compositions and everything in between!

When she’s not doing lip trills or drinking coffee, Desirée is likely gardening or riding bikes with her super-husband Dan and four perfectly quirky children in Oak Park, IL.

Reading list: Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis, Nom Nom Paleo Cookbook, Practical Vocal Acoustics and Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy: Motivating Acoustic Efficiency, Kenneth Bozeman (yeah nerdy singing stuff), various books on Egyptian history and mummification + embalming techniques to my mummy-obsessed 5 year-old, whatever catches my fancy at the library–we can’t always plan these things.

Currently Watching: Ok. Here we go. I’m not a TV person. I’ve tried. And I’ve failed. If I was to be persuaded to sit and watch something it might be a documentary. Or an episode of Parks and Rec or Chef’s Table. But most likely it would feel stressful and I’d walk away and go straight to my hammock. And people wouldn’t understand this when I tell them. But then again, I’m 38 and my life is noisy. Sometimes I just need some shhhhhh.

Other stuff I love (in no particular order): Jesus. Using the summer to grow a huge garden and cook from scratch and can things. Walking in the forest. Bach. Hard work. Quirky eyeglasses. Growing out my hair and chopping it off and growing it out again. One on one time with those close to me. MUSIC. Honesty. Stories of redemption. Hugs. Adventurous ethnic food. A beautifully-curated art exhibit. Delicious coffee, wine and chocolate. Toddler eyelashes. Chicago! I actually love Chicago.

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Allison Keeport

Bio: I am pursuing my Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance at North Park University in Chicago. When I’m not in rehearsal, a practice room, or the library, you’ll probably find me in the kitchen trying out new recipes on friends. I blog here, where all writing flows from a simple premise: art is great. Jesus is supreme.

Reading List: The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene; None Like Him – Jen Wilkin

Summer Playlist: Mainly repertoire for the upcoming semester, I’m also a little bit obsessed with the musical Waitress. Also high on the list: Ellie Holcomb, Andrew Peterson, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, and power ballads from the 80s.

Currently Watching: Trying to watch less these days because my taste is hardly high-brow. Chef’s Table if I’m feeling classy. Parenthood if it’s a lazy night with a glass of Malbec. Probably more stand-up and late-night comedy than is really good for me.

Other stuff I love: Cooking! I have a DVD cooking class that I’m slowing working my way through. Other than that, I make great stuffed shells, my boeuf bourguignon ain’t too shabby, and I’m learning to bake bread from scratch. I’m discovering a love of gardening. I love red wine and dark chocolate and cheese. If you bring me wine with either of those two other things, I will be your best friend for life. I spend lots of time volunteering at my church, Renewal Church of Chicago.

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Rae Paul

Bio: I’m a student and lover of both words and the Word who breathed them first. I currently study theology at Moody Bible Institute, drink coffee like there is no tomorrow, read compulsively from an ever-growing TBR list, and write because the words will not stay in my soul. Take a peek at this for more of my life.

Reading List: I’m currently wading through The Source, by James Michener; savoring Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves; and waiting for Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis.

Summer Playlist: Twenty One Pilots’ eponymous album

Currently Watching: Sherlock Season 4

Other stuff I love: I dabble in photography, watch whatever superhero movie my Netflix can find, drive too fast, and occasionally cook an interesting meal. I crave honesty, vivid speech, careful theology, and the sunsets of my beloved Midwest; all of which are best enjoyed with a cup of strong coffee in hand.

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Chris Wheeler

Bio: I’m a Christian, husband, father, writer, and beverage lover.  I grew up in rural Indiana until I left for college, studied in Chicago at Moody Bible Institute, and work there now.  I’m always looking for conversations and I love ideas.  I write poetry, liturgies, and stories here.

Reading List: Lila (Marilynn Robinson), Contagious (Jonah Berger), The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene), The Happiness Industry (William Davies), The Death of Expertise (Tom Nichols), A Philosophy of Education (Charlotte Mason). I’m also a big fan of graphic novels during the summer, and I read a spectacular one called One Soul (Ray Fawkes) recently.  Also the New 52: Swamp Thing and the Giant Beard That Was Evil.  Not kidding.

Summer Playlist: For the past month or so it’s been Jack Garratt, Dirty Projectors, Benjamin James, Gorillaz, the National, Kishi Bashi, Panic! At the Disco, Infected Mushroom, Solange, Watsky and Vulfpeck, depending on the mood. Just discovered Tank and the Bangas and they’re definitely on my steady soundtrack for the summer.  I will never escape Bon Iver.

Currently Watching: Plowed through the new seasons of House of Cards, OITNB, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently, and my wife and I are enjoying the Great British Baking Show together, but the home run this season was Patriot (Amazon Original). We have this unspoken rule that we should enjoy the shows our kids are watching, so I’m really into Sarah and Duck and the Stinky and Dirty Show.  Recent movies were Moonlight, Wonder Woman, Alien: Covenant, Valhalla Rising.

Other stuff I love:  I’m loving discovering everything in a fresh way with my kids right now.  My job is office management, but it fascinates me to no end, mostly because of my colleagues.  If I could have any meal for the rest of my life minus the clogged arteries, it would a burger, cheese curds, and craft beer.  I love mixology, trying new beers, and brewing/tasting the best coffee I can find.  I like to grill and read and play with LEGOs.  And I will always, unabashedly, love experiencing new artistic stuff.

Current project:  I’ve got a couple, but the primary summer ones are Words for the Church (poetry based on the church year), a book of parenting experiences, and a collection of my dad’s childhood stories.


Anything to add?  Let us know in the comments and we’ll check it out.

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repeat the sounding joy | year in review

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We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary here at made | new, and in the grand tradition of online lists, here’s a look back at some of the most popular posts of the year:

excellence | identity

the artist in church

ordinary designs

this beautiful altar | surrendering the creative process

hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

content warning

en-courage the fearful artist

glimmers & resolutions

For those of you who’ve been along for the ride, we’re grateful to you, and we just want you to know that we plan to repeat ourselves even more in 2017.

Repetition gets a bad rap for a variety of reasons. Mostly, it gets annoying (although classics like “Seagulls, Stop It Now” will probably carry us onward for a good few years now). There’s no surprise. The new is more interesting. The more you see something, the more stale it becomes. Our worship must be fresh every morning; sing a new song, right? That’s in the Bible.

The Psalms, that grand exercise in reiteration, is also in the Bible. Also, admonitions to remember Christ as often as we eat and drink, and to tattoo Scripture everywhere you look so that we’re always being reminded of God.

Then there’s seasons, and the movement of the earth around the sun, and sunrises and sunsets, and the cycle of water and growth and death and rebirth… Seems like repetition is the lifeblood of the world. It’s definitely our lifeblood here.

We are a forgetful people, and our work is to sing it again, dance it again, paint it again, create it again, until by reminders we remember.

That’s how habits are formed and life is found, in the redoing, in seasons and traditions, and practice of skill and patience. New life is, paradoxically, always new, and there is nothing new under the sun. The Gospel is the same day after day, and mercies repeat every morning, and we pray without ceasing, and Christ is always pleading for us before the throne of God, and the creatures say it again:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.

Heaven will be the great Repeating.

We need to hear over and over that God loves us, so that we end up believing it at some point, and we need to hear “I forgive you, go and sin no more” over and over again until we love the Forgiver more than the sin.

At the heart of made | new is the idea that the great story of the Gospel is being retold, over and over, by artists of all disciplines everywhere. This is why we exist: to repeat the sounding joy.

So raise a glass with us to another new year, and may you and yours prosper in Christ as we wait for the coming of our Lord and the grand Making New.

From all of us here,
Chris Wheeler
Desiree Hassler
Allison Keeport
Andy Decker
Hattie Buell

bon iver’s 22, a million | a review

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Bon Iver’s long-awaited third album, “22, A MILLION” dropped on Friday.  I’ve historically been a big fan of Bon Iver’s work and was very curious which direction Justin Vernon and the band would choose to go after a five year recording hiatus.  Vernon has been up to some pretty interesting creative endeavors of late:  appearing on Kanye West’s “Yeezus” album, launching the Eaux Claires Festival in his Wisconsin hometown, producing albums for the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Staves.

Facing self-proclaimed burnout after the instant fame and touring schedule with “For Emma, Forever Ago” and “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Vernon said,

“It’s a thing about self- and mental discovery, and those are all important things. But it’s not 148-shows-over-a-year-and-a-half-important, though. It’s a machine, and it’s money, and you just get put on this indie rock cart, and it’s embarrassing.  I’m not trying to score again.  I’m trying to prove to myself it’s about the music you make.”

Lucky for us, Bon Iver does score again: big time.  I’m writing this review the day of the album’s release; partly to make a deadline, but mostly because if I give myself longer than a day or two to write, I will surely overthink it—and this is an album that can be easily overthought, but really shouldn’t be. I taught a voice lesson today and asked my student if he had listened to the album.  His response was, “Yeah, I don’t know if I get it—but I love it.  Do you get it?”  After a first listen the album comes across as deliciously noisy, experimental, transcendent. To my ear there are snippets of Frank Ocean, West, and certainly James Blake.  The soundscape is genius:  it oozes invention while still managing to be quintessentially Bon Iver.  This is what seals the deal for me—and is the mark of lasting creative sustainability.

Each song, complete with individual artwork, is highly symbolic—almost hieroglyphic and rich in numerology.  The tracks are packed, often dense with layer after layer of invention—rich, expansive invention, constantly mixing distorted and manipulated sounds with the natural ones we expect of the band.   2009’s “Woods” from “Blood Bank” gives birth to      _ _ _ _ 45 _ _ _ _  on this album, Vernon’s (and my) favorite track.  This track was first performed live at Eaux Claires 2016.

In a press conference at the Oxbow Hotel in Eau Claire, Vernon said the following:

The ’45’ song with Lewis, that’s my favorite. We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument, and everyone before that — [talk box innovator] Robert Troutman, who did the most amazing vocoding in the world. We all made an instrument together. And then me and Lewis, the instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible. When we made that recording, I played it for my friend Brad Cook, and he was like, ‘Just put that out. That is the best song you’ve ever made.’

This sound is fresh and previously unclaimed.

What grabs my curiosity and attention the most, though, is the open soul-search that tangles itself throughout the whole album.  Ideas of faith, prayer, consecration, God and eternity are laid out like a playground where nothing is off-limits.

The sixth track on the album, ballad, ‘‘666 Upsidedowncross,’’ gives us Vernon’s uncertain musing, ‘‘I don’t know the path.’’ The album booklet cites the anguished Psalm 22 — ‘‘Why are you so far from saving me?’’

‘‘33 ‘God’’’ was released 33 days before the general album release and is 3 minutes, 33 seconds long.  33 is also the age most agree upon as being Jesus Christ’s age at the time he was crucified.

Vernon names music as his religion: ‘‘For me from a very early age, music has been my religion. It’s been my way of understanding, it’s been my way of celebration, it’s been my way of contemplation.’’

–Christ-follower: how is our faith our way of understanding, of celebrating, of contemplating?  How does this spill over into the art we create?

contributed by Desiree Hassler

ordinary designs

made|new|altar

(contributed by Hattie Buell)

I told my boyfriend, Mr. Johnny Raincloud, about my post, as I am eager for his constant approval and he had momentarily moved his attention off of me and onto The Dread Crossword Puzzle That The NY Times Just Put Out Today And I Need You To Understand How This Makes Me Happy!!

After I explained how I was going to write terribly clever things about artists in the church, he snorted: “Like that’s never been written on before!” Let it be known that after I made shocked noises at him he laughed and told me what a good job I’m doing and that I should write the post. But his sarcasm was correct.

This subject has been written about. A lot. But maybe that’s because it’s really important?? And also it keeps changing. Art changes, popular mediums pop up, churches develop the theology of art, artists burn out, babies are born! So, in defense of this post, and every post ever written about this topic (even if it is a very stupid article): it is O.K. for us to return to this again and again and again.

If you haven’t read Chris’s post from last week, please go back and at least skim his concluding admonitions. This post relates to and is partly inspired by his. I consider this post a sort of next-step to the basic needs of artists that Chris outlined.

For me, the relationship between art and the church has been great. Super healthy and mostly inspiring. I grew up in a home of musical worship leading that was basically like a legacy, I went to an Anglican church made up of many art majors, maybe because of that it had a right and good understanding of the liturgy of art in life and worship, and I was always encouraged to explore my art faithfully. And now I’m dating a worship leader! Clearly I have a “type” that not only applies to dating relationships, but also to all of my friends. Yes, all two of them.

My involvement with the church borders the insane: I go to a three-year-old church plant in Chicago, and some of the things I do there include baking bread, sewing & embroidering cloths for the altar, playing on the worship team, and most recently I’ve written a song for Sunday worship. Truth be told, some leaders at my church realized how much I was doing and asked me how I felt about maybe cooling my freaking jets?! (They definitely did NOT say that. That’s a total paraphrase.)

But I just feel so strongly about incorporating beautiful things into worship, so strongly that I create opportunities for me to make art in the church. Yes. I sneak about the church, looking for little things to beautify. “Oh lay deacon, having that as an altar linen looks great,” I say enthusiastically, “but what if I took it and embroidered it? ….Yeah? Thought so.” Voila.

And again, in the new song-writing coalition at church, I carefully picked a text that would be used for a sermon about a month away, so that when that Sunday rolled around, I had a new song that could be sung together during the service! Note: I am not actually being sneaky! I am being ambitiously helpful. I am making spaces for myself to be creative and useful.

Now, there are already huge, lovely spaces for the artists in the service structure and life of my church. This gives me a definite advantage. The leadership never says “oh my stars sacrilege what were you thinking m’dear”, but rather, “let’s see what you can do”. (Needless to say, we have great leadership and a well-established concept of art and beauty.) Then I do a thing, which is sometimes a horrible, disastrous failure of a thing and then I melt into a great pile of incompetency. And yes, I am referring to all of my doomed embroidery designs that I would sew over and over, only to rip it out every time. But then there’s the church again! She says “oh that’s just marvelous!” or she takes my ugly thing away and says “no matter, let’s try again!”

And so I am renewed by my attempts to create beautiful things for God and the church.

I’ve talked to a couple of my artsy friends who are in positions of church leadership, and although they all expressed a desire for seeing/doing more art in churches, one has taken it upon himself to make opportunities in church life for him to do art. I think that this is the simplest, easiest, and kindest sneaky way to begin incorporating art into a church’s life. It’s perfect! It does mean work, though. You have to hunt out needs in the church, you have to take ownership over that need, and then you have to deliver the goods. You might get to the end and discover that no one cares. Now if this irks you to the core and sends into blind rages, I’m going to hazard that you have Motivations That Need Attending To.

My own motivations were poignantly called into question over my embroidery.

I delivered a purificator one Sunday morning that I had thoughtfully embroidered. (A purificator is just a linen cloth that is used on the altar to cover the chalise of wine and to wipe the rim after each person drinks the sacrament.) For the past two months I had been trying out these larger, complex designs that were gorgeous, but were just not. working. So I scrapped it. I went back to nothing so that I could create something. I embroidered a tiny red cross, signifying Christ’s humanity, and then went back in and wove a thread of blue amongst the red: Christ’s divinity! I was so pleased with myself. Then I embroidered tiny vine segments about the cross. Wow. The symbolism was impressive, I told myself. My visions of the whole congregation noticing that embroidered white cloth rivaled the effect that Cinderella had as she entered the ball and changed everyone’s lives.

Hey, that didn’t happen. The most affirmation I received was after showing my two friends the design and they liked it a lot, so that was comforting.

At church, all I got was a tap on my shoulder after I had passed the cloth on to the altar guild.

“Hey, is this supposed to be a special cloth? Like for special occasions or something?”

I stared at the member of the altar guild and felt my artistry hanging in the air before us. Finally, I answered.

“No, it’s not special. It’s ordinary*; you can use it any time.” And I turned away contented, my artistic pride staring at me open-mouthed. Because, you see, it wasn’t just answering his question so that he’d know how to set up the altar that morning. I was in fact, answering MY question:

What is this for? Who did you embroider that cloth for? Why did you do it? I think, with the Holy Spirit’s constant help, I embroidered and will continue to embroider as a creative servant, both to my Lord and to my church family. Recognized or not, I have the satisfaction of creating beauty, with the Holy Spirit and my church, using my art in a way that I pray will always be earnest and helpful.

*Ordinary refers to the longest division of the church calendar where no major feast days occur. We’re currently in ordinary time after Pentecost. 

 

glimmers & resolutions

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In an age reliant on selective realism to sell art, music, and stories of all mediums, artistic communication is necessarily shot through with sadness.  Instead of escapism, serious art now champions the exploration of a surrounding darkness, bald representation of brutal realities, ingrown wallowing in self-discovery and self-pity, and the lauded unresolved ending.

This is the primary critique of much Christian art, leveled by non-Christians and world-wise Christians alike: too many happy endings.

That’s not the way the world works, we say.

Christ doesn’t solve all your problems, we insist.

You are presenting an expectation that is not reliable, I argue.

Your story does more harm to Christ’s reputation than good, I accuse.

So we start writing stories that showcase our own faults and problems, with little glimmers of hope here and there designed to make us feel better about the fact that they offer little else to the world.  We laud the cultural stories of the world for their “reliability” on the topic of sad endings and unresolved conflict.

My book club recently read the Sylvia Plath novel “The Bell Jar”, which is a classic case of a painfully real story with an unresolved ending.  Esther’s gradual insanity is so sympathetically constructed that it worried me how much I related, and the rhythm and metaphor in Plath’s prose composed a work of intimate force.  Even as the heroine is preparing to enter her final examination before leaving the asylum, she dreads a future descent of the bell jar – that isolating, suffocating illness that has been her normal for so long.  She enters the room, and the story ends.  Only a slight mention of a house and a baby on page 3 of the novel suggests that her life is now “normal.”

For Sylvia Plath in real life, the ending was much more certain and undeniably sad.

As a book club of Christians, we looked at this book and saw so much value – for those of us who had been through mental illness or depression, it provided the opportunity for validation of their experiences, and for those of us who hadn’t it offered an opportunity to empathize.  However, believers all, it didn’t offer us any sort of satisfactory answers to the problem of mental illness, because the author didn’t ever find one herself.  We don’t discount the value of this book, but we do acknowledge the absence of a right perspective or a form of truth worth grasping in such difficult situations.

What alternative can we offer?

Christian art – that which comes from a sincere belief that Christ is the answer – should have three aspects.

Christian art must be true.  

We absolutely should write heroes that grow to be more full of life then ever, or who realize pain and remain faithful.  We should aspire to exemplify the truth in our poems and songs that such growth is desirable, attractive, and worth pursuing.

We live in and affirm the truth that the world is going to hell.  We must also live in and affirm the truth that Christ is taking us to heaven.  Between this world and the heaven we long for is a life that must be informed by the resolution of it all.  If we sit and simmer on the problems of the world without offering truth and beauty – in essence, answers – we are merely patting people on the back as they drown in quicksand.

“Oh, hey there.  Look, I don’t want to be obnoxious or anything, so I’m going to sit over here with my guitar in this pit-side brewery and play some quiet confessional songs with spiritual allusions in them.  And then I’ll read you a little poem I wrote about my troubled family life and how dark our shared fate is here on the cursed earth.  It will be a suitable ode to your impending death…”

…when maybe we should be cranking out death metal, screaming, “YOU ARE DYING AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW IT / DO YOU FREAKING WANT A ROPE?”

We have such low expectations of the power of the Gospel to transform us and those around us into Christ’s image.  Never be ashamed of the cross.

Christian art must be excellent. 

If you’re like me you’re moaning, does that mean I have to watch the latest attempt at a movie from that one church?

The evangelical alternative to secular art that we’re all familiar with is “kitschy Christian pseudo-art.”  You know the type: blatant, half-assed gospel beat-downs with miles of smiles and miracles (s’miracles?) affixed on perfect Christians with perfect teeth.  This is crass marketing at it’s finest, not art that communicates, and it smacks of a different cultural age of evangelical crusades and big business Christianity.  Of course, our own cultural age is more about high-quality, small-batch, moody, independent faith.  Hm.  Myopic much?

Besides the irony (I am a millennial, after all), the basic fact of this faux-art is that it is simply not true because it’s trying to sell something.  Christ cannot be bought or sold.  You don’t convince someone that Christ is worth following, because all human logic says following Him is totally not worth it.

As believers we have an even higher responsibility to create something excellent when we make art.  This means depth, it means symbolism, it means beauty, skill, nuance and simplicity.  Excellence and truth can protect us from cheese-ball Christianity.  When we strive to do our best with our art, we avoid using it like a hammer (except where necessary!) on unbelievers, because our life in Christ bears incalculable nuance.  We invoke robust hope and curiosity, not easy answers worthy of the mockery they receive.  We explore the “not yet” of our current life while celebrating the “now” nature of salvation and considering the “wow” nature of glorification.

Christian art must be motivated by love.

As is everything we do in life.

Not by pride, not by fear.  Not by an ancillary desire to pay the bills.  Not by an ambition to increase our “reach” in order to “maximize our effectiveness.”

Christ’s kingdom advances when we are so connected to Christ that our actions are fully motivated by true love.  It’s not a numbers game, or a followers game, or a name game.

Love, tempered by truth, characterized by excellence, actualized as art.

this beautiful altar | surrendering the creative process

made|new|birdinreeds

(originally posted by Allison Keeport at Crabapple Creative)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered my creativity and sensitivity to beauty to be among my most defining personality traits. I once was mildly irritated that I am right-hand dominant because (supposedly) left-handed people are more creative because they use the right side of their brains more, and the left hand is controlled by the right side of the brain, or some such nonsense. I’ve since learned that creativity really isn’t controlled by one side of the brain over the other, that we use each half of our brains equally, and that my frustration (like so many of my neuroses) was unfounded.

But, still, I am driven by beauty. The search for beauty compels me to create. Beauty often aches, but as Rich Mullins wrote, ‘it’s a hurt that can heal with its pain’. That aching beauty binds me. It is elusive, and my best efforts to capture it are often insufficient, but I believe that if a thing is beautiful, it reflects Divinity in some way, and so I pursue beauty. I create so that I will be a part of Divinity. After all, the first thing we learn in Scripture is that God is the Creator, and shortly after that, we learn that man was made in His image. To bear his image makes us natural creators. Consequently, artists have striven to create perfect beauty for millennia. They may not recognize it as such, but that passion for beauty and the pursuit of perfection reflects the Triune God of the Bible, for God is the Most Beautiful, perfectly holy, and the consummate Artist.

My own search for beauty as an artist and creator is bound inextricably with my communion with God, my pursuit of meaning, and my bedrock belief that all beauty in this world is a dim reflection of YHWH the Most Beautiful. And yet, my own creative development is strangely divorced from this understanding that God is the Most Beautiful. I approach a practice room as my jurisdiction, as if I am the law of the land and my voice is some renegade that must be brought under my rule. As if God does not really care about what happens in a practice room, or that he does not have a vested interest in my creative development.

But how could He not care? If there is any beauty in this world, it is His beauty. It is our charge as artists who bear His name to steward that beauty well, to ensure that it reflects Him well. What a fragile thing he has entrusted to our care! Beauty is easily broken.

But what if he does care? What if the tasks of a practice room matter profoundly to the heart of this God who calls himself not only Creator, but Father too? What if our frustration during a practice session gone wrong, the elation of mastery, and the twinge of heartache that accompanies beauty evoke the same responses in the heart and mind of Almighty God? I think they must matter to Him. Our art tells His story, those joys and frustrations are the first-fruit offerings that we lay on the altar, and beauty aches because we are longing for Him – our Maker, Father, Lover, and Friend. Even one of these elements would be sufficient reason for Him to be concerned with our fledgling creative efforts. How much more must He care when so much is invested in our art?

And yet, I enter and leave my favorite practice room with a blind determination to succeed apart from Him, and with no recognition of the sacred thing I am about to do. If I were wise, I would perhaps take few moments to dedicate my effort to Him and to ask that he be  pleased with it and be pleased to bless it. I would perhaps revel more, as He does, in what I can do and grieve less what I cannot do. I would ask for His help in reproducing what I learned at my last lesson. I would squander less time on my phone. I would thank him when I am singing well, instead of wallowing like a pig in mud over the sound of my own pretty voice. And when nothing is going well – when my voice creaks, goes flat, and screeches out all the high notes (as it did today before I wrote this article) – I would thank him that He loves me apart from how well I tell the story or how clearly I reflect His beauty.

I would remember that He walks into that practice room or onto that stage before me and beside me. I would remember that whatever good I do as a musician, He did it first and best. I would remember that he made the overtone series, the singer’s formant, Puccini, and the minds that formalized the common practice theory and Western music that we all love and slave to perfect. I would remember that the morning stars sang together when He created the foundations of the earth and that one day we will sing a completely new song that will eclipse every aria yet composed.

Above all, I would remember that the beauty and the music are His, and that he has graciously loaned them to me for a season so that I would learn to use them as well as I can and then offer back to him in worship what was never mine to begin with: a passion for beauty and a mind that creates.

Take joy, my King, in what you hear – may it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear…

content warning

made|new|blinders

So I was planning on watching Deadpool.  Seriously.  I was psyched.

But then I tried to convince my wife that it was worth it.  She applied the appropriate amount of disdain for the idea (yes, I had her watch a trailer), but that wasn’t the motivating factor in the end.

What transpired was an in-depth conversation about how much VSL content (violence-sex-language) was too much with my brother-in-law.  As I was driving back after our weekend with them, I was verbally-processing to my wife.  It went something like this:

C: “Not engaging is not an option for me, even when content is heavy.”

L: *silence*

C: “There’s a lot of truth and beauty in some content-heavy material, besides the importance of understanding situations realistically.”

L: *silence*

C: “I mean, there are things I won’t watch because of content…”

L: “Are there?”

C: *silence*

The truth of the matter is that there haven’t been for quite some time.  Walking Dead is “worth it” because of the interesting moral dilemmas.  House of Cards was politically intriguing and c’mon, it’s Spacey.  What an antihero.  Who engages in awful, horrible things.  Jessica Jones was not only excellently acted and written, it was a riveting depiction of abuse and manipulation in relationship.  Which makes the content… apropos?

I guess I’ve always had a scale in my head that weighed artistic quality and imperative dialogue against offensive content.  The problem being that while I was defining it as offensive and leaving it at that, I was gradually becoming less offended where it mattered – in my spirit.

In other words, I’ve been choosing my level of engagement by my ability to ignore offensive content rather than by obedient holiness.

Here’s the thing – engagement in the arts and cultural streams of communication is vital for us as creative people who are the salt and light in this broken world.  However, to think that mere engagement for the right reasons makes me immune to unholy pressure is ignorant.  Intaking sinful acts, usually portrayed with all of the allure that they inherently hold, is not without consequences.   But we are also called to confront darkness with the light of Christ.   How do we reconcile our own weakness with our call to courageously and lovingly proclaim Christ to a dying world?

Recall the oft-quoted: “It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret”?  With some context comes further understanding:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.  

It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.  But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

Ephesians 5:8-16 (italics added)

In other words, our involvement in culture is an “in-the-world-not-of-it” variety, in which we choose to expose the fruitless deeds of the culture rather than ignore them while we look for truth.   Part of living in a truth-suppressing culture is shining the light of Christ into each situation (and media stream) we see.

This is holy obedience.  This is faithfulness to Christ. This is believing that our weakness is transformed into strength by His redemption.

Questions we should not ask ourselves are:

  1. How much can I handle?
  2. Is the engagement worth the content?
  3. Will knowing about this increase my street cred with unbelievers?

The prayers we should offer are:

  1. Lord, what do you want me to do in this moment?
  2. Help me to see my weakness, and rely on your strength for courage.
  3. Guide me to holiness and love that will transform my perspective, my soul, and the lives of those around me.
  4. Guide me through Your Word to know the next steps in this conversation.

This could mean engaging in cultural streams with content depending on the context and the leading.  This kind of engagement involves dogged reliance on Scripture, prayer, the Holy Spirit, and the communion of believers to guide our interactions and conversations about culture as we encounter it.  It involves the recognition that we sometimes have to sacrifice our own fleshly desires or pseudo-spiritual comfort-fear to clearly communicate the Gospel.

And it also involves humbly listening to those closest to you when they rebuke you (thanks, sweetheart).

a good friday liturgy

made|newgoodfriday

2,016 years ago, God couldn’t walk.  He had to be carried everywhere, like most babies.

2,014 years ago, God took some staggering first steps, fell and scraped His knee.  He cried, and His mother wiped away His tears and told Him to try again.  Or maybe He still crawled everywhere at two years old.  Some toddlers are late bloomers.

2,010 years ago, God ran across the street in a small town with the other kids, perhaps playing a version of soccer.  He might not have been very good at it.

2,000 years ago, God walked across the dirt floor of a carpenter’s shop and got a splinter stuck in his big toe.  He possibly said “ouch!”

1,986 years ago, God hoofed it all over the countryside, talking to people and healing them of diseases.  He accidentally stepped in sheep dung, and had to wipe his sandals on the grass.

1,983 years ago, God walked the streets of Jerusalem, bloodied and beaten, carrying a rough-hewn beam of wood on His back.  His feet failed Him, and someone stronger had to carry the cross for Him.

The liturgy below presents glimpses of the last walking moments of God (incognito).

We easily forget that it wasn’t just our salvation that Jesus Christ bought for us, it was the opportunity to walk out our salvation.  Through an entire sinless life −even in the unwritten mundane ways − Jesus placed before us both a standard and a directive.  We are to walk in His steps, through His strength, for His glory. We worship a God who has walked in our shoes, and our highest hope and assurance is that we would walk in His.

Stay tuned for part two on Easter Sunday.  Let’s just say, leaping may be in order.

This liturgy was written for tonight’s Good Friday service at my church, and it borrows elements from the liturgy of the Stations of the Cross.

 

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We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

God of power and mercy, in love you sent your Son that we might be cleansed of sin and live with you forever.

Bless us as we gather to reflect on his suffering and death that we may follow his example and walk in his steps. We ask this through that same Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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The Garden of Gethsemane: Matthew 26:36-41

Lord of Power and Might, in this moment, you submitted yourself to the Father. 

We are weak and weary. Our spirits are willing, sometimes. May we keep watch on this dark night with you, for you, because of you. We submit our wills and our prayers to you, knowing that you hear. May we accept your plans as exceedingly greater than we can imagine.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Go to Dark Gethsemane

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Betrayed by Judas: Mark 14:43-46

Faithful Friend, in this moment, you surrendered yourself into the hands of a faithless friend.

With the symbol of love and trust, you were betrayed; that you would be a steadfast companion to all who accept your offer of friendship. May we turn to you now in loyalty and love, and remember your faithfulness to all generations. 

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended

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Denied by Peter: Matthew 26:69-75

Resolute Father, in this moment, your strongest follower proved to be a coward. 

So often we waver and whimper our way through life. When we hang out with like-minded people, we are bold and brazen. When we face hostile consequences, we are ashamed of you and ashamed of the Gospel – like Peter. Give us the courage to claim your name with boldness.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

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Judged by Pilate: Mark 15:1-5, 11-15

Just Judge, in this moment, you made yourself weak and gave your enemies power over you. Your trial was rigged, your jury blinded by jealousy, and your judges unjust.

As sinners, you judge us with honesty and equity – based upon your holiness, we have been found guilty. As our Savior, you took our punishment as your own; based upon your sacrifice, we have been made righteous. In response, may our hearts be grateful, our attitudes toward other gracious, and our lives holy.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Man of Sorrows, What a Name

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Scourged and Crowned with Thorns: John 19:1-3

Suffering Servant, in this moment, you endured scorn and ridicule from those you came to save. You were crushed for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.

The punishment that brought us peace was placed upon you, and with your stripes we are healed. May we see your sacrifice clearly, feel you suffering deeply, and hear your voice calling us to repentance and holiness.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed

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Crucified: John 19:15-17; Luke 23:33-34

Healer of the broken, we broke you.

Binder of the wounded, we wounded you.

Lamb of God, we slaughtered you.

Yet it was the Lord’s will that you be crushed, that your life be a bloody sacrifice for our sin. You emptied out your life unto death, that we may have life overflowing. May this be ever before us, never far from us, always within us: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Blessed are those whose sin the Lord will never count against them.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Beneath the Cross of Jesus

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Promised His Kingdom to the Thief: Luke 23:39-43

Lover of the Unlovely, in this moment, you made straight the path for a crooked man to enter your rest.

Our ways are bent and our hearts are twisted, but the kingdom of God is not populated by perfect spiritual specimens. We are in a holy company of thieves, prostitutes, murderers, and liars – who have met God, in Christ. Remind us of the grace that does not give us what we truly deserve.

Lord, Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us 

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Died on the Cross: Luke 23:44-46

Giver of Life, in this moment, you gave yours up for us. Through the rending of your flesh, a way was made for us to enter your presence. 

Remind us of the depth of this death and the breadth of your love, that we, ever thankful, may die to ourselves daily and live a life worthy of your sacrifice.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Amazing Grace

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Placed in the Tomb: Matthew 27:57-60

Rock of Our Salvation, in this moment, all hope was sealed away.

May we remember the silence of your grave, and keep silence.

(silence may be kept)

Lord Jesus Christ, your death is the sacrifice that unites earth and heaven; through your blood you have reconciled us to you. May we, who have faithfully reflected on these mysteries, follow in your steps and so come to share your glory in heaven, where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

   Hymn: What Wondrous Love

you’ll have to boycott believers

made|new|hymns

Recently the article It’s Time to Boycott the Worship Industry came across my feed through a friend of mine, Alex Bersin, who subsequently wrote about it at The Christian Skeptic, taking on an ancillary topic – the lack of honest representation of the Christian life and ethic through modern worship.  He suggests that instead of a boycott, disciplinary action should take place.

Thinking through these two articles left my mind bubbling with ideas, so naturally I had to grapple with them.

Jonathan Aigner’s post on boycotting the worship industry brings up a lot of important criticisms: for instance – and I think most importantly – that the priority and responsibility of worship should be with the congregation and not the leaders.  The denouncements of money, idols, and remaining dissatisfied customers are important as well.  Truly, the modern worship movement has problems.  I don’t disagree.

But then I step into Church.

The fellowship of believers, company of redeemed, people who have accepted Christ and are united under whatever physical roof they’re under to know Him and make Him known, full of sinner-saints and grandstanders and rebels and those who are ashamed, broken, ambitious and beautifully loved.

And the Church is different.  In context of this post, the worship of the Church is different. This isn’t the place for celebrity or ambition just as much as it isn’t the place for judgment of those around me.  I would argue that the worship of the church should be dissatisfying to you on multiple levels, because in essence it’s not about you.  It’s absolutely impossible to please everyone in a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-background, multi-class congregation, and nearly as impossible to find a congregation that matches all of those qualities – probably for that reason.

Jonathan petitions us:

There are many of you: all ages, denominations, and cultural backgrounds. What we’ve done with worship makes you cringe. Your senses are dulled by the lack of artistry, the pervasive emotional manipulation. But you remain in churches controlled by the worship industry, maybe for your family’s sake, maybe because all your friends go there, maybe because you find a certain theological like-mindedness. But it’s time to speak up or move on. We must. Corporate worship is more important than programs for your family. It’s more important than your life group relationships. It’s theological at its very core, so the like-mindedness you sense may be shallower than you realize. We have to make ourselves heard. The industry’s chokehold is starving us of the vital nutrients we so desperately need, Word and Sacrament, and offering the empty carbs of commercial entertainment in its place. It’s killing us, and we’re consenting to the slow, agonizing death.

That “certain theological like-mindedness” – maybe, Christocentric in nature? – demands something much more robust of us than running away or running our mouths off.  It demands consistent faithfulness to Christ and His Church, warts and all.  Maybe we’re uplifting an ideal of corporate worship when we should be uplifting Christ.  And maybe we’re blaming the ubiquitous “industry” for our own apathy when we should rouse ourselves to love.

Alex’s pungent (in a good way) reply to Jonathan layers on a comparison of modern worship to prosperity gospel.  In his rebuttal of said gospel he points out that:

Hope does not laugh at frailty nor does joy wink at misfortune. They endure. They persevere. They do not expect from God but rather accept his will. They remind God of his promises but they also remind us of our place. We hope in God, not our persistence, and we take joy in his plan, not our ignorance to it.
Evil will happen. We will experience trial and loss, but we must not spit in the face of divine sovereignty by ordering our own steps. God designed our suffering, like that of his son, for a purpose–a purpose we reject if we sing songs glorifying our commitment to our own happiness.

What he describes here is a full perspective of the “now but not yet” Christian life – one which is vital to corporate worship.  Many enduring songs of the church provide this perspective (which is why they have endured), but many more fell off the grid in the interim.  Some modern songs will also endure, and many will fall away.  It’s the prerogative of time to winnow out what we can’t seem to shake off now.

It’s important, I think, to remember that songs that endure are always penned by humans – frail, with stuttering tongues and faltering pens, writing song after song dedicated to chronicling the story of Christ because they just can’t escape what He did for the world and in their lives.  What makes historical feeble attempts worthy and modern feeble attempts unworthy besides the fact that we don’t see the rejects in real time?  Is full metal jacket worship attainable in the schizoid melee we currently inhabit, or only back when the printing press started this whole crazy information overload?

I think fuller perspective is attainable in corporate worship.  And I think we want it.  I also think we won’t find it solely in songs.  We’ll find it in Scripture.

Our songs will elevate our worship to the extent that they elevate the scriptural view of God and man and the collision of the two.  But there’s no rule that they have to do it all on their own.

It’s also true that God can speak through [donkeys].  Modern worship songs do exist that possess transcendence and truth.  In our pursuit of God’s Word, both inspired and Incarnate, we find heavy yokes lightened, tired souls refreshed, deep sorrow transformed into deep joy.  The resolution, in the end, will overwhelm the pain God ordained by a thousandfold.

That’s why we tell the story.  God became devastatingly human so that we could be made new in Christ.  It’s two parts of a whole that we enact again and again in our corporate worship.

This is not a “leave your brain at the door” deal.  Engage your mind and your heart and your spirit with the truth and beauty of the Word, inspired and incarnate.  It’s your responsibility as a believer.  Our own personal ideals, aesthetic preferences, and critical eyes should not be shut off.  But it might be important that they shut up until the appropriate time.

Then, to practicalities. Turning around a consumeristic trend in the worship of a church could mean some of the following:

  1. Pray.  It’s, like, a big deal in the Bible.
  2. Get involved in worship, the worship team, and in worship planning if possible.  Remember, this isn’t just a musical thing – the entire service and life of the Body is worship.
  3. Work to create spaces in the musical worship itself for times of silence, lament, confession, and definitely congregational participation.  These are sorely underrepresented in many churches.  These days creative worship techniques are fashionable anyway, so take advantage of that.
  4. Incorporate Scripture into every corner of the service and life of the congregation.
  5. Worship wholeheartedly when you are in the position of a congregant.  What’s happening on stage doesn’t have to divide your heart.
  6. Open thoughtful dialogue with people about the issue.

So, let me ask the question: are you determined to break fellowship with redeemed sinners over an admittedly real issue, or are you determined to stick it out and lovingly speak the truth?  Because I’m pretty sure the latter is what Christ decided He would do.