Contemporary Christian Worship Music – More Than 7-11.

At our church we are in the process of creating a new worship service that begins in March.  A huge part of most worship experiences is the music, and we have determined that our service will have, for lack of a better term, “contemporary” worship music.

Wait…Did you feel that?  I felt a great disturbance in the Mainline Protestant Force, as if millions of seminary-trained ministers suddenly rolled their eyes at once.

Let’s face it.  Contemporary Christian Music – especially worship music has a bad reputation in our corner of church world.  In the last couple weeks this comic has appeared on my Facebook feed several times:

Or maybe you’ve heard or even shared the “7-11” joke: “contemporary music is just the same 7 words sung 11 times” (keep in mind this same thing applies to Taize music which is a darling of many “proper” church-goers).

Then there’s the stereotypical content of this type of music. Of course, we all know that it’s “Jesus is my boyfriend” stuff that is devoid of theology, or worse filled with “bad” theology.

Well, as someone who has been on the periphery of contemporary Christian music for decades, since Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Amy Grant, Petra, Stryper, I will admit that these stereotypes ring true for a number of songs and artists.  But to reduce all contemporary Christian music to these stereotypes really demonstrates how little someone knows about the breadth and depth of Christian worship music today.

I’ve been doing a lot of listening to Christian music as we design our new service.  My current Spotify “Worship Brainstorming” list has over 600 songs on it.  And I’ve come across a number of songs that engage and move me in meaningful ways.

Today I was driving to work listening to a song by Matthew West called “Do Something” and the lyrics really struck me in a way that no hymn ever has:

“Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you” 

I’m so tired of talking
About how we are God’s hands and feet
But it’s easier to say than to be
Live like angels of apathy who tell ourselves
It’s alright, “somebody else will do something”

And there are many more songs out there like this.

Right now I have close to fifty songs on my list of possibilities for our new worship service.  They vary in musical style from loud and fast to simple and quiet, they cover a wide variety of themes and subjects, and the theology presented in the lyrics would fit into any hymnal published by the mainline denominations today*.

So can we please retire the 7-11 jokes? And while were at, can we stop referring to multimedia in worship as using PowerPoint?  Both of those reveal just how out of touch we might be with worship possibilities today.

Instead of making fun of different worship mediums, maybe we could live into the open-mindedness and education that we say are hallmarks of our tradition, and actually be willing to learn from what others are doing.

*Speaking of hymnals, I don’t need any more reminders to buy the new Presbyterian hymnal. I’ve been getting these reminders for over a year – the 37th one isn’t going to change my mind.

40 Resources for Changing Your Church

If you and I have ever talked for more than five minutes about the future of “mainline” Protestant churches, then you know that I think the vast majority of them need to experience significant transformation in order to have a future as part of God’s work in the world.

Keep Calm and Change NowBut in most parts of “church world” that I have inhabited the urgency and magnitude of the changes necessary have been downplayed or ignored.

Currently, my wife and I are serving a church where they have decided to wrestle directly with the need for change. We have a congregation that is not ready to “go quietly into the night,” our Session (governing board) has begun a lot of hard work in this area, and over the next 6-18 months we will be seeing some bold ideas turn into reality.

But here is my confession: I was never trained for this. 

In seminary we were taught how to do things in ways that used to serve the church very well, but no one instructed us how to help create the church of the present and future.  So over my twelve years of ministry I have had to educate myself, and have tried to do so in a variety of ways.

I thought it might be of interest to some people to see a collection of the resources I have found helpful.  Some come from the mainline Protestant world, some from business circles, and still others from a more evangelical mega-church context. While I may not embrace all of the theology found in every book I have found that there are things to be learned in unsuspected places.

I plan on updating this list as I come across new resources and would love to hear from others what they have found helpful.





The Myth of the Monster

The latest Rolling Stone cover has generated a lot of controversy.  Critics are saying that it glamorizes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and gives him “rock star treatment.”  Whether it does or not, I think something else is also at work here.  Let’s call it “The Myth of the Monster.”

It goes something like this. There are monsters in the world today. Monsters are those people who cause pain and suffering to such a degree that we can’t imagine them having anything in common with normal people like us. It’s helpful for us to imagine the Monsters as different in every possible way. Monsters are pure evil and if they are completely foreign to us (it helps if this is literal as well as figurative) then we can imagine ourselves as pretty much blameless concerning the problems of the world today.

So when this happens:

Rolling Stone Boston Marathon Bombing

It’s a little discomforting.

When a young man who looks like the friend of our teenage son, or one of the kids at our church youth group turns out to be responsible for terror, pain, and killing on a mass scale then The Myth of the Monster begins to crumble.  When friends and classmates, including the nephew of NPR’s Robin Young of Tsarnaev are shocked that he could do something like this, then we start to wonder if the world is so easily divided into normal and good on one side, and different and depraved on the other.

One of the reasons I am a Christian and a Presbyterian is because those traditions teach me that The Myth of the Monster is a lie.  I am not entirely good. There are hurtful and destructive things that I have done in the past and will do in the future.  The same can be said for every person on the planet.  This isn’t to say the we are all bombers just waiting to happen, but we need to acknowledge that our actions (and inaction) are often not as pure and good as we’d like to believe.

The flip side of this is what the Rolling Stone cover confronts us with: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not entirely evil.  There were people in his life who he loved and who loved him. He had friends who thought he was fun to be around, a good listener and a caring person. He did things and acted in ways that would look perfectly normal from most of our teenage children.

In the big picture the cover of Rolling Stone doesn’t really matter, although I do understand why it upsets some people. But maybe for a moment it can help us realize that labeling and/or dismissing Tsarnaev as an incomprehensible monster also conveniently frees us from confronting the good and the bad in our own lives.

Hospitality Lessons from Mr. Rogers

mrrogersFrom Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood: Letters to Mr. Rogers:

“Dear Mister Rogers, Please say when you are feeding your fish, because I worry about them. I can’t see if you are feeding them, so please say you are feeding them out loud.
Katie, age 5 (Father’s note, Katie is blind, and she does cry if you don’t say you have fed the fish.)”

Mr. Rogers: “Since hearing from Katie, I’ve tried to remember to mention out loud those times that I’m feeding the fish. Over the years, I’ve learned so much from children and their families. I like to think that we’ve all grown together.”

Children who are blind probably did not make up a large number of Mr. Rogers’ viewers, but he changed a small part of his show just for them, just for Katie.

Most of the churches in my tradition are filled with people who know church-world. We don’t get a lot of visitors and people unfamiliar with how we do things, and so we forget that Katie is sitting in the pews some Sundays and doesn’t experience the morning the same way we do.  Katie:

  • doesn’t know what a “narthex” is or where to find it.
  • has never met Sally so isn’t sure how to “talk to Sally for more information about the Thursday morning Bible study.”
  • isn’t sure where coffee hour is and finds it easier just to walk out the front door
  • doesn’t know the Bible story that the pastor just said “everyone heard as a child.”
  • has never heard of “Children’s Church” and got a little nervous when after the children’s sermon all the kids (including her son) went with an unknown adult to a mystery location.
  • feels like an outsider listening to a prayer request that begins with “you all know that our family has been through a lot.”

We don’t do these things to purposely exclude people, but at times that’s what happens.  I pray that we can learn from Mr. Rogers who was willing to learn from Katie.

“Over the years, I’ve learned so much from children and their families. I like to think that we’ve all grown together.”

The gift of knowing what your job isn’t

kenny-rogers-gamblerFor the first time in 600 years, the pope is resigning.

I’m not really familiar with the work of Pope Benedict, but I admire this decision.  He has chosen to break tradition and step out of the spotlight in order to seek what he feels is best for his church and his faith.  This is a gift, an act of sacrifice and graciousness, and it’s something that more of us in the church should seek to emulate.

It’s biblical teaching (as well as common sense) that everybody has different skills and gifts, which means that we aren’t all suited for every job in the church.  Wouldn’t it  make everyone’s life easier if each of us could currently look at what we are doing (or being asked to do) and discern if we are suited for that role?  If we aren’t, then we should follow Pope Benedict’s lead and say, “I can’t do this like I should, someone else should be doing it instead.”

This applies to the member who wants to be a ruling elder because it’s an honored authority position even though he has no gifts for leadership.  And then there’s the wonderful saint of the church who has been teaching 3rd grade Sunday School for 30 years even though her love for it gave out ten years ago, but she’s worried that no one else will step up if she doesn’t volunteer.

Let’s not forget those ministers straight out of seminary who feel they have to prove their worth ten times over, and so they say ‘yes’ to everything that’s asked of them and every opportunity that presents itself.  And how about the ministers at the end of their careers who are afraid to admit to themselves that they don’t have the drive for transformation or the connection with members (especially younger) that they used to, but they figure hanging on in their current position until retirement isn’t really hurting the church that much.

Everybody is talented and gifted, but each in our own way, so we need to be discerning where, and where not to, best use our gifts.

God bless you Pope Benedict.

Judged by our children

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of this speech. The words of it are shocking, outrageous and, to use a theological word, sinful.

There’s a question that came into my mind when I first heard this clip on NPR yesterday morning. It’s still haunting me today, and so I share it with you.

What words are we in the church saying today that fifty years from now will be viewed as shocking, outrageous and sinful?

Does being a Christian change you?

AckermanFrom the NY Post:

“Ping-pong prodigy Estee Ackerman, an 11-year-old from Long Island, was disqualified from her final event at the 2012 US National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas last Dec. 21 when her match fell on the Jewish holy day of rest and she chose not to play.”



It’s not ‘Chariots of Fire,’ but Ackerman made a sacrifice for her faith.  The Bible is full of stories, examples, directives, and teachings that call Christians to sacrifice, to give beyond what is comfortable, to refrain from conduct or speech that could harm ourselves or others.

I believe that being a follower of Jesus should cause me to make choices that I wouldn’t make otherwise, but I wonder how true this is for most Christians, myself included.  If my faith doesn’t cause me to live my life differently beyond going to church, then am I really following the Christian faith, or a religion of my own making that I’ve wrapped in a Christian label?

I’ve read one study that states that conservative and liberal Christians have more in common with their non-religious political counterparts than they do with each other.

What do you think? Does Christianity shape who we are and what we do? Or do we use it to confirm the lifestyle choices we would have made anyway? What choices or decisions in your life would be different if you weren’t a Christian?

Where in the world is Shawn on Wednesdays?

This is my office on Wednesdays:

View Larger Map

I’m writing this as I sit in a Barnes and Noble in north Indianapolis. This is my office for the afternoon as I work on my sermon, answer emails, do some reflective and creative thinking, and catch up on some reading. I’m also observing a group of four college students looking at a total of eight screens (four laptops and four smart phones). At the same time I’m eavesdropping on a couple of loud talkers who have been conversing for the last two hours about cancer, the Mayan calendar, apocalypse, work, and what does it mean to be selfish. I also had a fun conversation about Halloween with Robert the barista (who is on a first name basis with many of the customers here).

Other places that I have been on my day out include: The public library, walking the business and retail streets downtown as well as the blocks that are populated by people who can’t afford to shop at the downtown stores, Butler University, Christian Theological Seminary, downtown Carmel (a fast growing, designer suburb), and Broad Ripple (a trendy/artsy district). Our office administrator suggested that I spend a day riding the city bus system, which is a great idea and high on my list to do.

Part of my extroversion mean that I love to be around people. It stimulates my thinking to work in an environment where I get to observe and talk to all sorts of folks.  It also serves a very important purpose in my ministry.

I’ve developed this ritual that I do when I go to lunch.  After ordering I don’t get out my phone, my netbook, or my e-book reader. Instead, I purposely sit there and glance around at the other people in the restaurant and I ask myself, “What does our church have to offer you?”  Week after week I come up with different answers, based on my imprecise assessment of who they are and what may be going on in their life.

While the answers differ for each person, they fall into one general category. What does our church have to offer you? A lot…but we probably need to do a better job of offering it.

Our church has a lot to offer:

  • Hope – the message that ultimately love and life is stronger than pain and suffering.
  • Care – a community that bakes meals for each other, and lifts up those in need
  • A way of life that makes a better world
  • A nurturing environment where children can learn to be loving and compassionate

But I don’t think that these are the first things that come to many people’s minds when they think of church. And I want to do my part to change that.

So on Wednesdays you will find me out and about. I’ll be exploring, listening, talking, thinking, writing, observing, and asking “What does our church have to offer you?”



Daniel Cui and Why the Church Exists

A reminder for the church:

Three things happened in this video:

  1. One person noticed someone struggling and decided to do something.
  2. They asked people that they knew to help.
  3. Their community saw something good and joined in.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again in the churches I’ve served. The struggles are different, but the care and support has been the same. It may be divorce, death of a loved one, addiction, sickness, or job loss, but each time there’s been one person who has taken the first step to notice someone struggling and decided that they needed to be the one who would do something to help.  Unfortunately, I’ve also seen times in the church where someone’s struggles go unnoticed, or if they are noticed no one is quite sure what to do, so they don’t do anything.

As I’m beginning as Co-Pastor of my new church, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about why the church exists. I’m currently resonating with three purposes articulated well by Bill Easum.

  • Show and share with others the way of life that Jesus modeled (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • Equip congregation members to be developed in their faith and active in service to the church and the world (Ephesians 4:12)
  • Support and care for one another in a Christ-like way (John 21:15-17)

The last purpose is what the video above illustrates. The church should be a community where members take direct responsibility for the well-being and care of other members. Easum uses Jesus’ directive to Peter in John 21 as a model. In response to Peter’s declaration of love for Jesus, Jesus tells him three times to, “Feed my sheep.” Easum points out that it wasn’t the shepherd’s job to directly feed the sheep in 1st century Israel, instead the shepherd guided them in such a way that the flock could feed and take care of themselves.

If any church is to live into our call to care and support one another, it’s going to take the whole flock. Each member needs to be responsible for noticing the struggles of others and doing something about it. The Pastor cannot be the only person, or even the primary person, who can offer care and support to members in need. Members need to be making hospital visits, bringing communion to those who are homebound, asking others to become involved in caring, and making contact (in and outside of church) with visitors.

If you are part of a church I encourage you to be responsible for the care of those you around you, and create (or continue) a community like the one that Daniel Cui had.