Theology: The Musical

hymnals-1Before you read this post, I want to say that I’m one of those people who loves the hymns I grew up on; I sing them often throughout the day. I find them encouraging, rich, beautiful, and important to my faith walk.  I also love most of today’s worship music. It’s passionate, powerful, and helps me express praise and worship to God.  This post isn’t about one “style” over the other.  Sadly, such debates have ripped Christians & local churches apart.  I can think of few things dumber.  Thanks.

I grew up with a hymnal in my hand.  The son of a preacher man, I learned from a young age that when what we believe is set to music, it often finds deeper, more fertile soil in our hearts.  The great hymns of the faith are great because they are literally our theology set to music.  Even since Biblical times, music has always been an integral part of worship.  The largest book in the Bible (Psalms) is actually a songbook.

praise_worshipIn the past 20 years or so there has been a widespread shift in many local churches from hymnals to “praise music” as its often referred to.  And as a pastor to students I swim in that every single day.  I serve and help lead a ministry where there’s not one hymn book in sight.  We’re V-neck-deep in modern worship music and are always looking around for the latest worship songs from around the world.  But in all this striving for up-to-date worship tunes, we need to also be careful that we’re actually worshipping at all, and ever-mindful of WHO we’re worshipping.  And why.

I recently had one of our teens ask if we could open an upcoming student worship service with a song called “Paradise”.  I thought, “Only one song comes to mind when I hear the title “Paradise”, and that’s the one by Coldplay….”Para…para…paradise.  Para…para…paradise.”  But certainly he’s not referring to that song.”  I was wrong.  He was.

What makes a song useful in worship and/or appropriate to sing in praise to God?  Some would cite the words of Paul, “Everything is permissible…” (1 Cor. 6:12)  They’d say, “Open a worship service with Lady Gaga?  Sure!  Why not?  All the kids know it anyway and they’ll sing along….’Papa…papa-razzi!’  It’ll be great and really cool and so hip and then we’ll be even more relevant!”  And then there are some with clear lines as to what songs should go into a worship service and what shouldn’t.  I’ve actually discontinued using certain worship songs because they didn’t fit the description of what I consider a “worship” song.  By the way, what’s YOUR definition/criteria for a worship song to be used in a worship service?  Most recently, we stopped using a song because it never actually addresses God.   We had sung it on a few different occasions when I realized and asked myself “Who is this song directed at?”  It wasn’t a bad song; quite good actually.  But God’s people had gathered to worship God, not themselves.  So out it went.

Here are a few thoughts I keep in mind when deciding what’s worship and what’s just good music (or neither):

  • What theology is the song teaching? What is the song saying about God? What is it saying to God?  Worship songs should lift God up, speak of His attributes, and worship Him for who He is, even apart from anything He has done (though that is often included).
  • Is the song relatable to the audience?  There are some great hymns of the past, but without a thorough education beforehand the language would be lost on the crowd.  By the same token, just because a song is current in its popularity, doesn’t mean its good or should be used.
  • Is the tune easily learnable?  This one might not be important to you, but some great songs I’ve found might have beautiful lyrics of praise, but the melody is so complex people would trip over themselves trying to sing it, and so it doesn’t lend itself to group worship singing.
  • Are the lyrics redemptive?  There are lots of ways song lyrics can be redemptive, but there are also ways that lyrics can seem to sound good, but actually not being saying much of anything good at all.  Really study the lyrics before putting a song in front of a crowd.  Or better yet: put the song in front of the crowd not for singing, for first evaluative reading before they agree to include it in their worship.

What about you?  How do you decide what music to include/play before, during, and after a worship service?

And if you aren’t the one(s) who decides which songs are used in the worship service you participate in, then what are YOUR thoughts on worship music and what constitutes a good worship song?

Get out if…

I was just thinking of some reasons that youth leaders should get out of youth ministry (or should reconsider entering it).  Feel free to add or disgree…this list is likely to be non-exhaustive.  These are all straight from my own experience or from conversations with other youth leaders, but I’d love to hear about yours.

exit1.  If you view youth ministry as the price you pay on the toll road to “real” ministry.

Believe it or not, some youth leaders view youth ministry as a “placeholder” until they get called up to the “big leagues” of real pastoral ministry.  I’d be offended if I weren’t laughing so hard.

2.  If you want to be rich.

There are some ways to create extra income as a youth pastor (i.e. speaking at events, selling material, etc.) but that’s not the same as thinking being in youth ministry is your ride to Easy Street. It’s not.

3.  If you want to be respected when in conversation with those in corporate jobs.

When I tell people who aren’t in ministry that I’m a fulltime pastor to middle school and high school students, I get a look that’s a combination of “What’s wrong with you?” and “That’s an actual job?” and “Better you than me.” usually immediately followed by awkward silence and an unspoken vow never to speak of it again.

4.  If you want the stability that more often comes with a routine/9-5 job. 

(Routine?  Youth leaders can’t even spell that word. This blog post might be the first time they’ve heard of it.)

5.  If you don’t have or have lost your passion for people.

Ministry is all about people.  Not projects, or projections, or purposes, or prosperity.  It’s all about people.  Forget that and it might be time to pack it up.  Pronto.

6.  If you find yourself irritated when face-to-face interaction pulls you away from project planning or some other such non-personal activity.

Closely related to #5, and more dangerous as your ministry scope grows.  I’m in a fairly largish youth ministry and I abhor spreadsheets as much as I always have.  I can’t ever forget that no matter what I’m doing at any given time in ministry, the attention and need of a teen trumps it.  I hate to admit it, but I’ve actually had teens start a conversation with, “Jerry, I know you’re really busy, but…”

7.  If you don’t feel compassion for the hurting.

People all around you are heading into eternity separated from God.  People all around you are struggling to see any light in the darkness.  People all around you have a story that would break your heart if you were willing to slow down long enough to listen.  If you aren’t willing to listen and hurt with them, you might consider looking for a job where that isn’t critical.

8.  If you’re searching for fame/notoriety/accolades.

Francis Chan (I know, I know–he’s “famous” in his own right) said, “Fame is the most powerful drug among those in ministry right now.”  Getting heard, getting seen, getting “out there” and getting known can be an alluring temptation, especially under the guise of being “more used by God”.  (By the way, have you subscribed to and have you tweeted to all your followers about me?)

9.  If you’re not unmistakably called by God to it.

Okay, this one can sometimes be seen as wispy, undefinable, and subjective.  And all I can say is that calling should be verifiable.  Those around you who know the Lord and know you should be able to speak to the issue of your calling.  Your God-giftedness should speak to the issue of your calling.  And given time, the “fruit” of ministry can also serve as something that verifies your calling.



Okay, it’s your turn to fill in number 10.  Even if you’re not in youth ministry, you can still share why you’re not or why you think others should think twice before jumping in.

Our Misery with Mystery

mystery-van-scooby-dooI’ve been an ordained minister since 1999.  However, when I moved from NY to VA I also moved from one denomination to another.  For the most part (typing carefully here), I’m not really big on denominations.  It seems like denominations are the most important to the people who are entrenched in them.  The distinctives between denominations really only serve to confuse most non-churchgoers, in my experience.  I think we’d be better off (again, treading carefully) taking our church signs down and replacing them all with a “You Are Welcome” sign.  But I digress.

So, in order for my ordination to be recognized within the denomination I’m currently in, I’ve been required to take a few classes.  I’m in one such class right now.  This past Saturday I was in the midst of a 4-hour-long conversation about theology and began to hear things and think things that made me want to write things.  So here I am writing things.

Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan: Part of who I am

I guess I’ll just ask a question: What’s our problem with mystery?  I’m not talking about the Charlie Chan episodes my dad subjected me —er, um…I mean–shared with me as I was growing up.  I’m not talking about Sherlock Holmes.  I’m not talking about the mystery of where your keys or your years since high school went.  I’m talking about our seemingly growing discomfort with the fact that we can’t possibly know the depths and heights of God.  He is unfathomable, unsearchable, and incomprehensible.  And yet when it comes to what we’ll decide to believe, we often get boxed in to what we can understand.  If we can understand it, then we’re okay to believe it.  But if its outside the reach of our intellect and logic, then we just can’t embrace it.  Careful there.  Don’t get caught building a view of God that can be contained by your definition of God.

I’ve heard people say in regards to a particular aspect of God’s character, attribute, or activity that “its not fair”.  Well, forgive me for saying so, but Boo hoo hoo.  Since when does what we consider fair have any bearing on the prerogative of Almighty God?  Statements that begin with “I just can’t believe that God would….” have no place in what constitutes our understanding of who God is and what God does.  In fact, if we’re going to get scriptural, the less sense things make to you, the more likely they’re making sense to God.  Check out Isaiah 55:8 in a variety of translations here.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.”

I will walk with, investigate, study, learn, love, talk with, and follow God for the rest of my life and I can guarantee that there will be times when I’m just going to have to be okay with scratching my head.  I imagine standing at a well.  It’s a deep well with an unending supply of fresh, cool water.  This well simply won’t run dry; it’ll always yield water to drink.  I’m holding a ladle and the ladle I’m holding represents all that I can know of God in my lifetime.  I will spend my life sipping from that ladle and marveling at the refreshment that water brings.  I will reach the end of my life never once thirsting because in that ladle was all I needed, and furthermore all I could handle.  But the fact remains that there is still a virtually bottomless well of truth about God that I’ve never even touched or seen in my lifetime.  It is in that satisfaction of heart that I live.  I am completely at ease with loving an unsearchable God.  It is at His complete discretion that He adopt me for no good reason in and of myself and it is equally within His discretion that He discard me and never give me another thought.  I am a child of His and while I can type it, I can’t fully comprehend it.  I know it, but I do not fully realize all that it means.  I embrace it and revel in it, but I cannot fully understand it.  This is what it means to love the mystery of God.  It is His to do with this world as He pleases, whether that is to think no more about the earth and in a moment see it vaporize into the dust of space, or to patiently wait for a moment in the future that only He knows where He will set all things to the right condition of His choosing.

How To Win An Argument

When was the last time you were in an argument?  Who was it with? What was it about? Did you win? Lose? Draw?  Did the person arguing with you persuade or even sway you to their way of thinking? Even a little?  Be honest–did the title of this blog pull you in? Even a little?

Arguments have a way of solidifying for each side that they’re side is right and the other side is wrong.  Dead wrong.  And even if you could shoot them in the neck with a syringe full of truth syrum, they’d probably never admit that they were wrong.  Pride won’t let them.  No, from what I’ve seen arguments do one thing really well: build walls that weren’t there before and thicken walls that already exist.

I saw a license plate recently that made me chuckle.  If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I’d have followed that person to wherever it was they were going and done my best to strike up a conversation with them, testing the accuracy of their claim.

love to argueWhen you find yourself in an argument with someone, you’re on a battlefield whether you realize it or not. It might be over something seemingly small, or it may be over something enormously huge.  No matter what the issue, its present enough to spark a fiery exchange.

I’m fascinated by people who don’t agree with my viewpoint.  In fact, I’d say they’re some of the most fascinating people I interact with.  But I’ve also been in dialogue with those who seem to agree with Mr. License Plate over there; as if once they find out my worldview and my connection to Christianity, well, its “go” time.  They’ve got an ax and they’re looking for a place to grind it.

But I don’t see anything in Scripture that tells Jesus’ followers to do any amount of verbal sparring with those who aren’t following Jesus.  I don’t see any mandate that calls us to “Go therefore and win arguments.”  Why? Because Jesus knew (shocking, I know) that people aren’t argued into a relationship. They’re LOVED in.  When the apostle Paul said “Make the most of every opportunity…”, some people read it as: “Make the most opportunities” and take the Holy Spirit’s job away from Him; He’s the one who calls (1 Cor. 12:3), He’s the who softens hearts, and who convicts of sin (John 16:8-11).   Not us.

Instead, Jesus’ followers are instructed: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”  (1 Peter 3:15)

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not one for mamsy-pamsy, milk-toast, easy-believism, I’m-okay-you’re-okay-we’re-okay-that’s-okay kind of wallflower follower of Christ either.  It’s just that I don’t see Jesus calling His followers into arguing His Kingdom.  If you want to take it a step further, you might want to check out the parable Jesus told about the “Wheats and the Tares”.  Jesus advocated for leaving the weeds to grow up among the wheat until harvest time when we’d all see what’s wheat and what’s weed.  In just the same way, militant argumentative attitudes are simply not the way of Jesus and shouldn’t be the tactic of His followers.  Instead, God’s Word gives us wisdom like “A soft answer turns away wrath.” (Proverbs 15:1)

And if you do find yourself in an argument and there isn’t an easy way out, here’s what you should remember:

1. Be motivated by love, not the need to be (or appear) right.  Remember that the other person is just like you, but with an opposing perspective.

2. Keep your answers clear and keep them gentle.  Let the other person know that you’ve heard them, even if you disagree with them.

3. Always have the goal of reconciliation at the forefront of your mind.  This was the mission of Christ and is the commission given to those who call Him Lord.  (2 Corinthians 5:18)


The Creative Flint

Gerber-Bear-Grylls-Ultimate-Knife-3I’ve heard lots of people say things like…

“Oh, I’m not the creative type.”

“I wish I were creative like other people.”

“How do you come up with this stuff?”

“Some people are just creative, but I’m definitely not one of them.”

But I have a few thoughts on creativity and believe me, I’ve had more than my fair share of “creative blocks” that I’ve had to deal with.  I’ve been in fulltime ministry for long enough to know that creativity is a powerful thing, but its also a universal thing.  Lots of people (most perhaps) see a great deal of value in being creative and as the worn saying goes, “thinking outside the box”.  First I want to address those who have thought anything along the lines of the statements above.  Then I’ll address all of us as creative creatures.

Bruce Lee once said “As you think, so shall you become.”  Bruce Lee is probably the most well-known martial artist ever and you gotta love that, but Mr. Lee was borrowing from the wisdom of Solomon in the King James version of the Old Testament Proverbs: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:…”  (23:7)

Now, I’m not saying that if you simply think you’re Picasso, then you’ll be cranking out million-dollar masterpieces by this afternoon, but I do believe there is something to be said for the power of our thoughts.  Most of your thoughts do nothing more than perpetuate your current state.  Think about this: what would happen if you began to thinking positively about who you are, where you are, and where you’re going?  I’m walking carefully here because quite frankly I strongly disagree with the pie-in-the-sky messages of communicators like Joel Osteen, Fred Price, and Creflo Dollar.  I’m not saying your thoughts will change your situation; I’m saying that your thoughts serve to either move you forward, keep you stuck, or even move you backwards.  Simply put, you’d do well to vow to not refer to yourself as uncreative or devoid of creativity.  You’re simply not.

I can say this with certainty because you and I are created.  Not only are we created, but our creative Creator has created us in the likeness of His own creative image.  So, simply by virtue of the fact that you’ve been CREATED, you are then CREATIVE.  You are.  You can refute it, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Also, we tend to only use the word “creative” in reference to those who create aesthetically.  We think of painters, artists, marketers, musicians, Bear Grylls, and sculptors. But what about engineers? Strategists? What about teachers? Mathematicians? Virtually anyone solving any problem in any context anywhere bears the creativity badge.  In fact, I’d contend that you cannot live a single day without a strong dose of creativity.  Its utilized in traffic, in conversations, in child-rearing, in conflict resolution, and in recreation to name just a few places.  Creativity abounds wherever you are, whoever you are.

Now, once you reckon yourself as creative (because you are), you may find from time to time that your sense of creativity wanes.  Don’t panic.  You haven’t lost it; it hasn’t been used up.  You just need to pick it up again.  Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful in regaining creative thought:

photo1. Read I’ve found fewer things that spark creative juices flowing like soaking in someone else’s thoughts on paper.  And for me, it doesn’t even necessarily have to be related to anything I’m facing.  Just the act of getting out of my own head and into someone else’s is a powerful act that brings back that creative spark.  You might say, “I don’t have time to read a book.”  Maybe you don’t, but a great tool I’ve found is an app called “Flipboard”.  Flipboard is a digital magazine that is customized to whatever topics you choose. To the right is my Flipboard home page and a few of the topics I’ve chosen to flip through.  It takes as much time as I choose to give it and I hardly ever come away without some new thoughts.  And Iobviously can’t recommend the Bible highly enough.  What’s today’s date? The 4th? Go to Proverbs chapter 4 (there are 31) and read it 3 times.  Whatever the date, read that chapter in Proverbs. Good stuff!

2. Talk.  Connect with someone in conversation, but aim at what they’re dealing with, not what you’re dealing with.  Listen to them speak about their own life, their dilemmas, their joys, their path.  Reflect back to them what you hear, asking them questions.  The closer you are to this person the better because they’ll trust you enough to share nitty-gritty.  Get coffee_chat_gifyourself to a place where you’re listening to and helping someone else and you’ll be amazed at the outcome and the insights you gain about yourself.  In the past couple of years, I’ve attended the Simply Youth Ministry Conference and this is a fantastic place to talk with people from all over the youth ministry universe and listen to the things they deal with and walk in.  I couldn’t make it to SYMC this year, but I hope to return.  That’s just one great example (albeit very large-scale) of what I’m talking about.  Often times listening to others and engaging with where they are helps us more than we think it will.

3. Break routine.  Sometimes its our surroundings that box us in.  Getting a different physical view can help get a different mental and spiritual view as well.  And don’t be picky; any change in scenery can help knock loose your gummed up creative gears.  Are you usually working at a desk?  Stand up, walk outside, and take nothing but a voice recorder for you. As you walk, you’ll think, as you think, talk and record what you say.  There’s something called oxygenation and its a payoff of getting up and moving around. Your thoughts get clearer and even more creative.

4.  Just start.  This past week, my wife and I painted our livingroom.  We moved into this house 4 1/2 years ago and when we first walked it, we swore painting the living would be the first thing we’d do.  We often fear starting because we’re unsure of what the outcome will be.  Will it be any better than where we are? Or will it be worse?  The truth is, we are usually overblowing the likelihood of some negative outcome.  We’re in fear that stepping out from where we are automatically equals stepping onto a tight rope over an inferno just waiting to consume us.  Silly us.  Start whatever it is and do it today.  You’ll likely wonder why you waited this long.

If you’ve ever watched the show “Man VS. Wild” with Bear Grylls, you know that Bear goes nowhere without his knife and flint.  Now, you may not find yourself making a sleeping sack out of a seal hide tonight, but the fact remains that we all need that “flint” to create that “spark” to start the fire of creativity.  Which of the 4 sparks listed above to you need to try?  Or is there another you can add to the list?  How do you step back into creativity when you find it lacking?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.