What kind of church does the world need?

The world needs a church that continually gathers around God’s story and table, and then embodies that story and food for the life of the world.

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ELCA Worship – Frequently Asked Questions

One of the things I enjoy most about my calling in ministry is being a resource to others. One of the things that drew me to the Lutheran understanding of faith is our connectional polity. Churches aren’t designed to be individual islands in the ELCA. We are connected to each other. We are connected to our neighboring churches in Houston, we are connected to our sisters and brothers across the Gulf Coast Synod, we are connected to all the other ELCA churches around the country, and we are even connected to other Lutherans across the globe. One of the most common signs of our connection is when we share resources. I really enjoy being helpful to others and supporting the work of the church both near and far.

I was asked by the ELCA worship staff to write some Frequently Asked Question articles for their website. These are common questions the churchwide office gets asked, and my responses are meant to be helpful, guiding suggestions on how to address these concerns. Last month, seven of the articles I wrote were published on the ELCA’s website. Here are some excerpts:

What is “postmodern” or “emerging” worship?

  • “In general, the postmodern worship practices of emerging churches are reactions against the pragmatic, baby boomer-oriented, seeker-sensitive movement. Instead of “services” of worship, emerging churches frame their assemblies as “gatherings” that are not afraid of a return to more liturgical forms. The gathering is highly experiential, focusing on the participation of those assembled, often through stations that guide people to interact with prayer, scripture, art, poetry, and other spiritual exercises.”

How can a worship band be used in Lutheran worship?

  • “Music for worship provided by a worship band must be done with the same sensitivity and care as any other type of sacred music. The worship band must frame their role in worship leadership as subservient to the assembly’s voice.”

How can video projection be used in worship?

  • “As a core function, video projection should be used for enhancing the environment for worship. In serving the liturgy, it should not be distracting but aide the space for worship as the body of Christ gathers.”

What components are needed for a sound system?

  • “The pace of technology can be difficult to grasp. Technology that at one time cost churches thousands of dollars to utilize now would cost hundreds of dollars. The cost of technology continues to diminish. At the same time the performance of technology continues to increase.”

What components are needed for a video projection system?

  • “There are many options when it comes to the video projector component. Generally the most important specification will be the light output of the projector, measured in lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the projector will be. It is necessary to take into account the brightness of the room in which the projector will be used.”

How do we evaluate worship?

  • “Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the reader, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.”

How do we make worship contextual?

  • “The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual.”

Slow Poke Discipleship

The other day I was skimming through Facebook and saw this ad:


Disciple Fast Track. I had to do a double take. Seeing this add made me stop and consider what the purpose of this program might be. I read a little bit more about it.

Fast Track … is ideal for busy people who want to fit a comprehensive Bible study into their schedule.”

I no doubt think that the producers of this curriculum have the best intentions. In fact, it looks like it could be something that everyone would benefit from: a 24 session overview of both the Old and New Testaments. But I think the title of the series misses several crucial pieces of discipleship.

Busy lives are counter-productive. You don’t need me to remind you about sabbath. Sabbath is anti-empire. Sabbath makes us acknowledge that we aren’t really in control of anything. Instead of producing curriculum to meet the needs of busy lives, why not invite people to reorient their lives into something more holistic?

Discipleship is slow. Jesus walked around with his crew for three years. Relational bonds take an investment of time. Disciples are grown and cultivated, watered and nourished. You can’t mass produce them or assemble them in a production line.

Following Jesus is not a race. Calling it a “fast track” implies that there is competition. It implies that there is a slow track where all the losers end up. Arriving at the disciple finish line first means you win.

We don’t ever finish our participation in Christ. We never stop growing into the reality of what it means to be in Christ, guided by the Spirit, living lives of love to the glory of God. We don’t follow Jesus on a race track and there is not a faster lane. It is a journey, it has scenic views and side trails. Going faster doesn’t get you to the destination more quickly.

Summer Reading List

Yesterday I realized that I have read 12 books this summer. I have a few weeks left to squeeze in a couple more. I’m currently on What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell. Here is a look at what I’ve read so far:

  • Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus
    • I started this *before* I knew Bob was coming to Sugar Land in October.
  • In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri J.M. Nouwen
    • For Fall seminary class. The second time I’ve read it.
  • #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line by David and Lauren Hogg
    • These kids have some wisdom to share.
  • Is Nothing Sacred? by Marie M. Fortune
    • Also for Fall seminary class. This story has interesting parallels to the story coming out of Willow Creek.
  • Mentoring for Ministry by Craig T. Kocher (ed.)
  • Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg
  • Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation by Andrew Sung Park
    • This was a book I read for a paper on atonement theories last semester.
  • Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today by John Shelby Spong
  • Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too by Louie Anderson
    • If you haven’t seen “Baskets” on FX you need to.
  • A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone
    • I bought this book like a week before Dr. Cone passed.
  • Waco: A Survivor’s Story by David Thibodeau, Leon Whiteson
  • The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship by Gordon W. Lathrop

The Eucharist in a Food Desert

As I’m preparing to deliver the message at church this Sunday, I’m thinking about food deserts.

From Wikipedia: “A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.[1][2][3] In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis.[4] The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible.[5] Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods.[6] In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas.”

For those of us that live with an abundance of food security it can be hard to imagine not having whatever we want readily available to us at all hours. The gospel for this Sunday tells about how Jesus miraculously fed thousands with just a small amount of food available. Jesus was concerned about their well-being. He wanted the people to be really nourished, not just spiritually fed. What does that mean for us? How does the fact that we assemble around a table for communion every Sunday lead us to action?

The table is not just a place for us to commune with God privately. It is a sign of God’s overflowing abundance and desire for all to be fed, physically and spiritually.

The Real Worship War Is Not About Style

I experienced some backlash this week after sharing a Patheos article on Facebook. The article, “How Offering Different Worship Styles Contributes to Church Decline” by Jonathan Aigner has made the rounds recently.

One commenter referred to the article as “toxic waste,” said I was wasting my time, and claimed I was starting a “worship war.” I found it hard to understand why there was such fiery backlash. Most of the objections were because they felt the author was invalidating any style of worship other than his personal preference. They seemed to think that the author was advocating for one, and only one way of worship.

To be upfront, the author is coming from a Baptist, evangelical framework which could be a reason for some of the backlash. And the author did take some potshots at contemporary worship: “Sentimental worship is just as toxic as contemporary worship.” Perhaps it was because I was just skimming the article, but when I read I tend to skip over the less helpful parts and focus on the things I think are said well. For example, one of the highlights for me was this excerpt:

“When we tell our people that we’re here to connect them with God through their own preferences, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.

When we suggest that corporate worship is about fitting everyone just right, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.

When our strategies for church growth hinge on making the worship life of the church fun, entertaining, and easy, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.

When we design worship services to flow seamlessly like a theatrical production, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.”

I have long questioned whether offering multiple styles of worship within one congregation is all that helpful. Is it a quick fix, a patch job, any easy way out of the slow, painstaking work of building a community that actually appreciates one another and puts their needs second to their neighbor?

Can we really claim to be surprised when church members act immature or self-centered after we have programmatically catered to their whims and preferences?

There are good reasons to offer multiple styles of worship. I think you could say that a church in a metropolitan, or ethnically diverse suburban area is being contextually faithful by offering multiple styles. But do we lose something by not learning each other’s songs? Are we missing a depth and richness of our song when it is stylistically monochromatic?

The real worship war is not about musical style or preference. The real worship war is about narrative. Who gets to be the main character in our worship? Whose story is the reason we assemble in worship?

An Update from Me

Vacation – Kate and I traveled to Calgary in Alberta, Canada during the month of June. We had a really wonderful trip. It was the perfect vacation for us. It had a really careful balance of hiking and getting lots of exercise, watching lots of TV, trying out the local food, and seeing the incomparable Banff National Park. There is not another place on earth like this. The weather was cool and we kept our jackets on most of the trip. One of the things that make a vacation complete for me is disconnecting from email. I was able to unplug my brain from all the normal things that grab my focus on a day to day basis.

Seminary – I completed my first year of school at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, IA. I am pursuing a Master of Divinity degree and am in candidacy for rostered Word and Sacrament ministry in the ELCA. I am not taking classes over the summer, which creates a nice break. My second year of school begins in September. This fall I’ll be taking courses in Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Lutheran Confessions, 21st century leadership, and youth and family. One of the things that I am making a plan for is CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). This requirement gives me about 400 hours of education and clinical work as a chaplain providing spiritual care for those in need. With my current trajectory, I should enter the internship phase of my training in February 2019. One of the brilliant things about the Collaborative Learning program that Wartburg offers is that I will be able to fulfill my internship right where I am at Faith in Bellaire.

Summer blessings to you…

Hymns in the New Testament – 1 Timothy 3:16

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

This short, hymnic verse comes from the Pastoral Epistles. “Since antiquity, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus have been understood as a unit, because their vocabulary, writing style, and concerns are so similar.”[1] These letters were likely written in the late first century, not by Paul, but by authors who respected Paul as an authoritative figure in church doctrine.

The third chapter of 1 Timothy also includes instructions on the qualification of church leaders. Specifically, bishops and deacons are mentioned as needing to be strong in faith and devoted to their families. “The emphasis on virtues rather than duties for leaders no doubt proved valuable to generations of church leaders who followed in different contexts and circumstances.”[2]

The Pastoral Epistles were written to church communities under duress. Persecution was spreading as the Roman Empire cracked down on the spreading religion. This was “an inevitable consequence of adopting a faith that is at odds with the ways of the world.”[3] Another threat to the growing Christian movement was false teaching and harmful doctrine. The Pastoral Epistles ring the notes of holding to the one true faith.

Perhaps that is the origin of this short, hymnic verse. It has an almost creedal tone as it defines the movements of Christ’s incarnation:

  • God was revealed in human flesh as Jesus (John 1:1)
  • Jesus was justified by the Spirit (another way of translating that phrase); the Holy Spirit was present in Jesus’ ministry, most notably alighting on Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, John 1:33)
  • Jesus was seen by angels; perhaps a reference to the temptation (Mark 1:13), or the resurrection (Mark 16:5, Matthew 28:2), or his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11)
  • The good news of Jesus was shared not only with the people of Israel, but with the whole world (Acts 2:1-47)
  • The message continued to spread ever wider, and was taken up in glory; this could refer to Jesus’ ascension, or Jesus’ glorification at the crucifixion (John 12:32-33), or could be relating to the suffering of the Christian community amidst persecution (following Jesus in the same manner of death)

If this verse is a hymn or creed fragment, perhaps it was used in the catechetical instruction of new believers.[4] The term mystagogy is used to describe the final period of training that catechumens receive in their preparation for baptism. Indeed, the mystery of our faith is still being unveiled even as we sing and pray today.

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

[1] Walter F. Taylor, Jr. Paul: Apostle to the Nations: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 297.

[2] Deborah Krause. “1 Timothy,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Kittredge, David A. Sanchez, eds., Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 596.

[3] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 412.

[4] Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “1 Timothy,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 386.

Hymns in the New Testament – Colossians 1:15-20

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

This hymn to Christ paints a vivid portrait of the divine nature of Jesus. The first half of the hymn (vs. 15-17) recounts Christ’s role in creation. Jesus is with God the Father before creation began. Although he is the firstborn of all creation, Jesus is more than a mere creature. Jesus’ activity in the creation of the world is in equal part with the Father’s activity. All other creatures come into existence through Jesus. Jesus is the divine substance holding all creation in union, keeping the cosmos from tipping out of balance toward destruction.

The second half of the hymn (vs. 18-20) describes Christ’s role in redemption. Jesus is the head of the church. He is not only the firstborn of all creation, but in the resurrection Jesus becomes the firstborn of the dead. The fullness of who God is dwells in Jesus. The last phrase echoes the words of 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….”

The origins of this hymn are unclear. One commentator suggests that the hymn original was broken up into different strophes, perhaps something like this:

Strophe I
who is the image of the invisible God
the firstborn of all creation,
for in him were created all things
in heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible
[whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers]—addition (i)

Transitional Strophe II
all things were created through him and for him
and he himself is before all things
and all things hold together in him
and he himself is the head of the body [the church]—addition (ii)

Strophe III
who is the beginning
the firstborn from the dead
[so that he himself might have preeminence in all things]—addition (iii)
for in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace through him
[through the blood of his cross]—addition (iv) after “making peace”
whether things on earth or things in heaven[1]

This possible configuration of the hymn makes the case that there were additions made to the original material. These additions elaborated ideas that the author of the letter wanted to emphasize and gave it the Christological identity that it has.

Several possible sources for the hymn have been suggested. One suggestion is that it is a composition produced from the Gnostic community, in light of the fact that if the additional statements are removed there is no reference to any Christian content. Another suggestion is that it is a reference to Jewish interpretation of Genesis 1:1. A third suggestion is that is comes from the Wisdom tradition in Hellenistic Judaism, using the personification of Wisdom found in Proverbs 8 as the model for Jesus’ role in creation.[2]

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Lincoln, Andrew T. “Colossians.” In Leander E. Keck (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

[2] Lincoln, Andrew T. “Colossians.” In Leander E. Keck (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.