Friday, October 28, 2011

Visiting the Billy Graham Library, Learning Spiritual Disciplines of a God-Empowered Legacy

          I recently took milady with me to a worship leader conference in Charlotte. We enjoyed the plethora of sugar in authentic sweet tea and the good taste of grits. My stomach needed a little time to adjust to the fried chicken and hush puppies, but by far the highest recommendation was to visit the Billy Graham Library. We had some spare time after the conference, so we went on over.
          The free attraction features Billy Graham’s childhood home, moderately preserved and relocated just a few miles from its original site. It also features a large, comprehensive biographical museum, a bookstore, “Prayer Gardens” and the burial site of Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth.
          I’ve spent most of my childhood as well as my undergraduate years just a few blocks from Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, which also features a museum and many other honoring collections in their archives, but the experience of the Library gave me pause to think about, specifically, as a teachable pastor myself, how God was able to use Billy Graham to leave a legacy of love, evangelism and biblical influence that really won’t be matched for a while. 
          I took a few notes:
  1. Simple, yet creative communication. Billy Graham always spoke biblical truth into the microphone. One of his signature phrases is “The Bible says . . .” He acknowledged the biblical reality of future judgment and wrath from God, but he, rightly (unlike textbook hellfire preachers) and certainly did not let that define God’s character. Graham’s been criticized on occasion that his “packaging” of the gospel is out-of-date, but as a student of cultural exegesis, as I watched Graham interviewed by various pop culture icons of the past and present (e.g. Woody Allen, Johnny Carson), I’d have to disagree. Graham also put his work early and often in newly-created television, and that helped his ministry like the Romans‘ roads. (Unfortunately, there’s so many more options in technology now and getting people’s attention is a bit more difficult).
  2. He never took a strong political side. Christopher Hitchens, the celebrity atheist, would know if he did. Hitchens has a hobby of doing research on his opponents (who are mostly Christians with a proud political agenda) and ripping them apart in his writings. I’ve seen him do that to many, yet he had little-to-no political dirt on Graham who, for several decades, strived to follow 1 Tim. 2:1-2 and was a sincere and biblical friend to consecutive Presidents of all shades.
  3. He was for unity. Graham didn’t want theological non-essentials to keep the Church from being united in its priority mission: evangelism and outreach. He worked with many Roman Catholics and also the Baptist churches that stubbornly insisted on baptism in their facility. (He’s, therefore, been baptized many times). The simple biblical-ity of his words and mission makes our bickering look embarrassing.
  4. He was humble and prayerful. Graham’s always made strides to avoid mistakes and scandal. Every evangelistic “Crusade” was audited and shown in the local paper. Legend has it that decoy employees preceded Graham into almost every room to avoid a photo scandal. Graham has turned down opportunities and money, insisting on simple living in a smaller town in North Carolina. But when he was approached about mistakes he did make, he remorsefully acknowledged them. He doesn’t attribute his ministerial “success” to any of his felt qualifications, or even the aspects of his ministry I’m writing about right now, but only to the power of God. I’ll never forget his three steps to a successful “Crusade”: Prayer, prayer and prayer.
          I left the Library very much humbled by the life of this exemplary man. He seems to shine like a diamond among many modern Christians that are known primarily for something other than preaching God’s love to the broken. It’s my hope that I (and many others) can strive to be more Christ-like as he was. And it starts with letting God do the work through you. Without you.       

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thoughts and Some Babbling on Worship (and) Service

          In the debates over the philosophy of worship (I’ve been a part of a few), a fairly hackneyed tactic of research is to look into the etymology and history of the word “worship” itself. I say “hackneyed” because D.A. Carson, an authority on exegesis and its fallacies, has gone on such a mission and forewarned (in Worship By the Book, 14-15) that the journey will not reap an absolute and conclusive finding. 
          One of the alternate translations of the biblical terms for “worship” is, interestingly enough, “service.” It makes the term “worship service” seem a bit redundant. Of course, we may know the rightful cliche that a Christian’s worship is not limited to the musical gatherings of Sunday mornings, or even to any events under a church’s roof. 
          But how much do we really believe that? 
          Humble service to God is worship, and worship is meant to be a lifestyle. It is to flow like a fountain from our hearts in the forms of love, Truth and service to our fellow depraved man, out of celebration of the grace, love and hope we’ve received and want to share. This, in my opinion, shines the light of Christ to broken hearts and shows a more God-glorifying resolve than words sung in a private gathering of believers.
          We need more of the former. We may believe that true worship isn’t limited to Sunday mornings, but we don’t act like it. I fear that, for many in this country, we have, in James K. A. Smith’s words, “appended a domesticated Jesus to our American dream . . . something we can add to our life without disrupting the rest of it.” How so? Well, to start off, we give stingy tips at restaurants, hang up on telemarketers, and give the same ungracious respect political leaders we’re called to pray for. These are just a few examples of how we are called to be counter-cultural, striving for the biblical model of love of all God’s creation, charity to the poor/sick/neglected and submission to the government.
          Musicians also need to adapt a model of servanthood to their training and giftedness. We can’t expect to merely attach God’s name to musical prowess and expect ministerial results along with the amenities of a good musical performance. How different is such a “Christian” group, then? How about playing for a fundraiser for a hospital, charity or prison? How about giving away free food? How about attaching your relational love and care to the concert?
          True worship is not just music and a Sunday morning. It’s a lifestyle of service. Not because you have to, but because you want to.
          I recently went to a worship gathering held by one of the world’s premier worship-leading ensembles, Hillsong United. I gave them that introduction for good reason. Their songs reflect deep Scriptural Truth and poetry and professional musical execution and are played by churches worldwide. They preach the Gospel and encourage Bible-reading and church involvement. They’ve also fundraised for the diseased in Africa. In their recent tour, my wife and I were a bit disappointed they didn’t play a few of our favorite songs about salvation and heaven, but we sensed an obvious theme: service.
          The songs they did choose had the following phrases in them: “our praise and all we are today, take it all,” “we’re giving it all away, we’re giving it all to go Your way,” “take my life, take all that I have, with all that I am, I will love you,” “the rhythms of grace overcome all of my ways, realigning each step everyday, to live for Your glory,” “I don't care what it costs anymore, ‘cause you gave it all and I'm following you, I don't care what it takes anymore, all day I’ll follow you,” “shine as the nations collide with your story, Your life on display, Your strength in our weakness,” “I give my life to follow, everything I believe in, now I surrender.”
          Is more holistic service a seeming trend? If so, it’s good timing. The world is hurting. We all can talk about how worship is more than just on Sunday morning, and how we’re to “do it all for the glory of God.” Let’s start acting like it.    

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where I Stand: Let Pastors Be Pastors, Churches Be Churches

          There’s been some talk within the new phenomenon that is the Christian blogosphere about highly influential lead pastors (namely, the recent Francis Chan and Rob Bell) who leave their churches, not necessarily due to a proverbial fall from grace, but for seeming more “positive” reasons.
          Churchgoers in cyberspace have conjured many broad conclusions about the supposed biblical-ity and practicality of such a move. Some progressives seem to say it’s both a wise and tragic move, necessitated by the inability of church structure to meet the needs of the local culture. Others have strongly questioned why the priority of these more “positive” reasons are higher than that of the local church.
          I really don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all right or wrong answer to the dilemma. Every situation is different.  Bell, for example, intends to bring his teachings to a “broader audience,” according to Mars Hill’s site. More recently, it’s been reported that he’ll have a speaking tour and then co-create a TV series. Chan, however, was and has been more vague about his departure from Cornerstone.
          I think we (as the Church) need to let pastors be pastors, and churches be churches. Both cases in the biblical sense of the word.
          First, the word “pastor” comes from the Hebrew term for shepherd. Sadly, its modern connotation smacks much more of “public speaker with a religious agenda.” In the New Testament’s church, the sermon was far from the predominant role of any church leader. It was much more the wise oversight of the spiritual health and growth of a small community. This involved relationship-building, counseling, conflict resolution, and spiritual leadership amid many pressing issues in addition to doctrine and its logistics. In short, when the Bible speaks of the Lord as Shepherd that pastors are to imitate, and analogically lists His provisions (e.g. green pastures, still waters), and when the apostle Peter calls pastors, as shepherds, to be “eager to serve,” is it really just referring to teaching?
          I’ve served at churches where the senior pastor is, almost literally, a regular guest speaker. He has almost no visible friendship with the congregation, and the rest of the staff seems to scramble in preparation for his weekly sermon, as if rolling out a red carpet. I’ve also seen pastors who have a shepherd’s heart, but their church grows substantially, without branching off. More paid staff are hired to handle the logistics of a church with big numbers. It seems sometimes, that the pastor’s job description is more like that of a CEO. 
          For the sake of church health, a pastor that both teaches and shepherds should be allowed to do just that, and a qualified other can be appointed for the various other tasks, following the disciples’ call (Acts 6:2).
          Secondly, churches need to be churches. They need to be defined with the headship of Jesus Christ and constant leadership regeneration. (They also need to be different than some businesses). They exist to be Jesus’s hands and feet, too, not just His mouth. It’s a bit eerie how, in ministry and in business, the definition of success sometimes seems similar. An individual church, in essence or practice, should not be defined by its leader. Otherwise, that leader will leave a big hole, maybe even taking the church’s foundation with him.
          I think it’s obvious that, when an influential pastor leaves his church, sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad. Some are called to teach, perhaps, exclusively, but some are called to shepherd. It’s hard to argue that you can shepherd while living out of a suitcase. However, I have one colleague who (similar to Chan) stepped down from his leadership position because he feared a “him-centered” church and wanted to pass on the proverbial torch to the trained leadership.
          While the Christian blogosphere debates this (and many other things!) and likely does not come to an answer, I do believe that this issue brings into perspective our respective philosophies of leadership and ecclesiology. It’s my hope that we hold to biblical principles. Bottom line: the world needs more shepherd-like servants in the pulpit.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Five Things I Wish I’d Listened to and Learned at Wheaton College

          Tomorrow, my wife and I head back to our ol’ stomping grounds. It was where we met each other. During the impoverished and nomadic years of grad school, we occasionally visited Wheaton College and felt unsettled, like college was so recent that we didn’t feel fully graduated. Now, however, since I have a job and toddlers who have walked the halls of my alma mater, and I’m being formally invited to Homecoming (it’s my 5-year reunion), I feel like an official alumnus. For the first time.
          Dwelling on and anticipating the reunion, I know I can’t sum up the themes of my education. No doubt a lot has happened since I set foot on Wheaton’s campus as a timid and insecure music nerd, anxious to make new friends. I’d had enough relatives who had graduated from Wheaton to tell me that it isn’t perfect. I dined on a feast of musical education and my creativity blossomed. There were a few regrets and unpleasant experiences, though, where I feel Wheaton and I share the blame. 
          This post isn’t against Wheaton, however. These are important life lessons for the Christ-follower that the Wheaton experience taught (and can also be learned in many other ways), but I didn’t learn until later. This post, therefore, is a grateful thank-you to Wheaton and an encouragement to all wishing to educate and qualify themselves (in all senses of the word). 
1) Scripture first. Period. The Truths and applications of the Bible take first priority in how we live in every aspect of our lives. Not just in how we choose candidates to vote for and what we do on Sunday mornings, but also how we answer telemarketers, obey traffic laws and treat people that don’t agree with us. In college, I was falling in love with the depths of essence of the Bible, but I wasn’t quite brave enough to live and speak opposed to the cultural status quo or even the unbiblical ways of parts of the Church on Scripture’s behalf.
2) The Church should never be complacent. It should always be growing in maturity and numbers, and should never be resistant to constructive criticism. Otherwise, it’s ignoring its biblical mandates. I’ve seen students grow up in mission trips overseas only to misunderstand both cultural exegesis and spiritual need in our very own country. Our own backyard needs the work of the hands and feet of Christ, and it will take more than the suburban and seeming lethargic approach we’ve been having. I didn’t hear these facts as much as a music major, but when I did, at chapels and from more mature friends, I stubbornly denied them. 
3) You are not what you do. My journey to learn this nugget actually started at Wheaton, as I had a mildly-depressing quandary during my seeming failures in a very competitive program. I thought I was redeeming myself by trying to get better grades in grad school. I still hadn’t learned. Defining your existence and purpose on something earthly is precarious, at best. That foundation will crumble. Why not define your existence in the love and purpose of God? Many Christians today, though, have given into the temptation of defining themselves by their successes, even their work and sanctification in God’s name.
4) College is education, not a way of life. I know this applies, certainly, to many twentysomethings out there who treat life like a frathouse, but that’s not what I primarily encountered at Wheaton. There were students (myself included) who interpreted Jesus’s gift of “life to the full” as a call to make the most (practically and academically, not socially and recreationally) out of their college experience, and, for many, this turned into unhealthful and stressful over-production. Much of the strive was to counter the inevitable. There was likely never going to be another time, in my life, where I had so much resource, time and opportunity to qualify myself in so many ways. For example, I may never be able to write music like I did when I was studying at a Conservatory. But that’s okay. I’m using so many things I learned in college in my daily work and life.
5) Your college is like a family member. You aren’t perfect, and neither are any of your relatives. Despite faults, there’s gotta be the smallest degree where you’re grateful for them. How you treat them speaks a lot about you and how you emanate the grace of Jesus Christ. Myself, there were times I wanted to walk away from Wheaton and never look back, but now, as an alumnus, continually striving, by God’s grace, to be more mature and less complacent, I’m looking forward to the reunion.