Monday, March 10, 2014
Monday, March 03, 2014
My wife, Kristyn, and I recently returned from a tour where we had the privilege of sharing our music in cities across North America. As we do on our tours, we partnered with most of our concert sponsors to host a lunch and time of discussion with local pastors, worship leaders, and other church musicians.
In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”
It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often. But even if we had been discussing congregational participation, would we know what goal we’re aiming to hit each week?
I do not pretend to be qualified to write a theological treatise on this particular subject. Congregational singing is a holy act, and as I organize my thoughts, I hear my old pastor, Alistair Begg, reminding me that in our song worship, we have to be spiritually alive (dead people don’t sing), spiritually assisted (through the enabling of the Holy Spirit), and spiritually active (committed to daily walking with the Lord).
I offer here some practical advice on strengthening our congregational singing, drawn from both our experience as musicians and also what we have seen and learned in our travels.
1. Begin with the pastor.
Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.
Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. The congregation should be treated as those who have been invited to a feast at the table of the King; don’t hand them junk food! C. S. Lewis believed singing completes our faith, explaining in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” This is why I believe many of our pastoral heroes such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Philip Schaaf produced hymn books in addition to preaching and teaching. Other leaders such as Horatius Bonar, Richard Baxter, and John Calvin wrote hymns themselves.
Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.
Pastors, take up your duty in this act of worship called congregational singing. Worship leaders, pray for your pastor faithfully and do your part to develop a thriving relationship with him. The most influential worship leaders in history have almost always had close (though often tense) relationships with their pastors.
2. Sing great songs.
If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting songs. We must sing great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing.
Writing or selecting great songs is not an exercise in lyrical propaganda or marketing. It is not merely laying scriptural truth alongside any melody. It is an art form that arrests our emotions and intellect in mysterious ways. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, the selection of songs for congregational singing must excite at a number of levels.
Great songs have stood the test of time. They have been passed on to us from our fathers, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.
There are great new songs—they breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.
Recently I invited two unbelieving friends to a Christian event. The artists on stage played songs with interesting lyrics but awful melodies. I asked my friends what they thought about the concert. “These people obviously don’t take their subject matter very seriously,” one friend replied. Now, I know for a fact this is not true. But art ultimately expresses life, and low-quality songs do not reflect spirited, serious believers.
3. Cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.
From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.
Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.
Many of our common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.
4. Serve the congregation through musical excellence.
Scripture often commands us to make music that is both good and excellent. For example, Psalm 33 tells to both “shout for joy in the Lord” and also play our instruments “skillfully” (verse 3). This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). The music need not be complex or style-specific, but we must take seriously our role in such holy activity. This leadership requires people who are trained and well-prepared. As with all work that involves creativity (whether preaching, mothering, or running a business), we should constantly seek to be fresh, interesting, and connected with our congregations. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Examine our heritage of liturgies for insight to ordering the song service. Reach across the aisle, meeting with leaders from different churches and denominations to learn about their music selections.
In scoring for films, the composer and performers use all of their musical excellence in service of the story. In similar fashion, the singers and musicians should bring to bear their musical excellence in service of the congregation. There is no dichotomy between musical excellence and congregational worship provided the excellence is given in service of the congregation.
5. Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.
Having progressed in each of the areas above and putting them into regular practice in services, be intentional about what is sung and when. Don’t treat your library of congregational choices like selecting “shuffle” on you iPod. Instead, be intentional in ordering the service, heeding Eric Alexander’s caution that congregational praise begins with God and his glory, not man and his need. Ask why you are singing at a given point in the service, and be sure that the selection for that moment is appropriate. Also, learn from the rich heritage of liturgy and how it provides a pathway of ordering songs for a service.
And finally . . .
Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?” Starting here, we may find that the other questions begin to resolve themselves.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Thank you so much for writing to me and sharing your experience. Your experience is a common one.
Let me be candid with you. Mormons are experts at not getting the point. They don't understand the problem. And these days they are better than ever at apparently agreeing with Christians and explaining their viewpoint in such a way that tricks people into thinking that they are on the same page that Christians are. Brother, let me tell you what the situation is: I am convinced that the Christian Church is very sloppy with the gospel. We are comfortable in our understanding and our explanation of it, but the truth is that we are behind on our ability to explain it clearly and cogently - and we don't even know it! Until an encounter like this arises. This is the beauty of such encounters and why I'm so excited you experienced what you did. P---, you sat down with a couple of guys who do not understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, who are trusting in their own righteousness for their salvation, and you were at a loss to speak with them, and finally resorted to a non-gospel conversation. Brother, I'm not rebuking you strongly, because I know from personal experience myself how difficult this is. Satan has worked overtime to confuse the minds of believers and unbelievers alike. If we are going to tear down his strongholds of false imaginations and arguments and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ we are going to have to be like precision laser surgeons. This is what a compassionate ministry to Mormons (and all non-believers) requires. We have to scale the new fortifications that he has built; we have to keep up with his newest weapons and arsenal. The fact is it's an arms race and the Mormons are ahead of the Christians. They have been working hard to re-articulate their same false gospel so that it passes for the true gospel, and we Christians are not up to the task of checking it. I can foresee the Christian Church accepting Mormonism as just another denomination which disagrees on the minors but apparently agrees on the majors. But this would be a tragedy both for the Christians and for the Mormons. The truth is, Satan's scheme need to be exposed, and by exposing Mormonism's false gospel Mormons may see the light of the truth and be saved, and Christians will be protected from its leaven.
You did the right thing by focusing on the atonement. Excellent. That is a big deal considering many conversations with Mormons don't even get that far. Your problem was only that once you got there you weren't prepared for what they were going to say. I said in my article this was going to take time and practice, so don't be discouraged and don't abandon the more difficult theological approach for the easier apologetic strategy. It is tempting to do so, for not only do the results come faster but the apologetic issues are not unimportant. I acknowledge this. But the quick results are not necessarily good results, and as important as the apologetic issues are there is another and better time for them (of course, this depends on the person: have they heard and understood the gospel or not? Most Mormons have not and therefore need to work through the theological issues before they work through the apologetic ones).
You said: "MY claim is that we cannot forsake all our sins, which we all agreed to." Yes, Mormons will agree with that. There are very few Mormons today who would say otherwise. Mormons believe that they cannot be perfect in this life, and therefore they believe they are not expected by God to be perfect in this life. See that? Since they can't be perfect, God doesn't require them to be perfect. Thus, when they are not perfect, they are not failures. Instead of admitting that they fail, they argue that they haven't failed. They are still obedient! No need to worry! They are still obedience therefore they can still be saved (because salvation depends on one's obedience in Mormonism). However, when Christians confess that they cannot forsake all their sins nor keep all the commandments, they aren't making excuses. They aren't saying it's okay. Christians are admitting failure. Christians are admitting guiltiness. Christians are admitting they are sinners. "Oh wretched man that I am!" (Rom. 7:24) "Woe is me, I am undone!" (Is. 6:5) These are the confessions of a true believer who admits his sin. Mormons are not saying this.
God's law explicitly requires perfection. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength." "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." This is what goodness is and it is beautiful. Mormons won't debate that the commandments require perfection, but they will debate that we must be perfect in this life. God simply doesn't require people to be perfect in this life, they say, because they can't be. People have all eternity to work on it! The truth is, however, that only the people who are obedient in this life will have all eternity to perfect themselves.
Now this is interesting, isn't it? Mormons maintain the idea of obedience and disobedience in this life, but not the standard of perfection. They confess that there are good people and that there are bad people in the here and now, but that the standard at this time isn't perfection. Let's make sure we are absolutely clear: in Mormonism the reception of the atonement requires this non-perfect kind of obedience. So when Mormons say that no one is perfect and therefore we are saved by grace, they are not jettisoning the legalistic idea that forgiveness and salvation are conditioned upon one's works. To be sure, in Mormonism forgiveness and salvation are conditioned upon our works, just not our perfect works. Obedience to commandments is the condition for the blessings of the atonement. But what exactly is this obedience? What exactly is the standard if it is not perfection? How does a person know when they have succeeded or when they have failed? The truth is there is no way to articulate this standard. God's real standard is perfection and that makes cogent sense in the universe, but whenever people try to change the standard of righteousness to anything other than perfection it ceases to make any cogent sense. It is like explaining how a circle is a square. It's impossible because they are by definition exclusive to one another and cannot be equated. To explain how righteousness isn't perfection is the same as explaining how a circle is a square - for righteousness and non-perfection are exclusive to one another and cannot be equated- it is simply impossible to do so.
The same applies to obedience. Is there such a thing as non-perfect obedience? Try and explain how a person can be obedient if he isn't perfectly obedient. Can we call a person obedient who doesn't obey what he is told? If the parent tells a child to clean their whole room and the child cleans part of the room, was the child partly obedient? We sometimes think so in a colloquial kind of way, but in reality there answer is no. The child wasn't obedient because what the parent told the child to do was clean the whole room. The child didn't clean the whole room, therefore the child isn't obedient. Obedience means you listened and did what you were told to do.
Mormons seek to explain the illusive non-perfect standard in various ways, and by reflecting upon their explanations we are able to see the impossibility of what they're saying. They say: "God doesn't require you to be perfect, He just requires you to do your best." What does it mean to do your best? The best that you could do would be to do what you are able to do. It means for you to perform optimally, to the greatest degree that you are capable of, to put forth the ultimate effort that you could give. One way to respond to this explanation is to ask the Mormon if he has done his best, ie. optimally performed. The answer will of course be no (if, however, for some reason he says that he has, it is usually because he doesn't understand the question. It is common for this to happen. You could rephrase the question and ask, "So, you could not do better?" Most will then understand and say that they could do better, thus admitting that they don't do their best. If the person continues to say that he does his best and that he couldn't do better, you have a stage four spiritual cancer patient on your hands and a healthy dose of 1 John 1:8 is in order). But another way to respond to this explanation is by showing the Mormon that this explanation of the standard is no different than perfection. That is, the Mormon thinks he is lowering the standard but he actually isn't. Consider for a moment that if you do what you are able to do you have therefore done perfectly. God is not unjust to command you to do something that you are physically unable to do, and even the Book of Mormon explains that God never gives you commands that you can't keep (1 Nephi 3:7). Therefore doing your best - that is, doing just what you are able to do - would make you sinless, and sinlessness is perfection. So they haven't actually advanced a new standard away from perfection.
Let me illustrate this idea. Suppose a man is commanded by God to lift a 10,000 pound barbell over his head. Of course, no man is physically able to do that. If the man tries his best to lift the barbell and fails, did the man sin? No he hasn't, because he did not willfully disregard the commandment of God. All sin involves the will. A person only sins when his will is involved and he uses his free agency to disobey. Mormons will resonate deeply with this, for they make much of the free agency of man. Suppose, however, that God commands a man to lift a 20 pound barbell over his head. The man is physically able to do that. But what if he refuses to do so? What if he chooses not to, even though he can? That is disobedience. That is sin, because it involves the will. All sin is like that. There is no sin that is not like that, for if God told you to do something that you could not do, yet you wanted to do it, that would not be sin.
To put it another way, two things are always needed in order to keep God's commandments. One is ability and the other is willingness. If you have the ability but not the willingness to keep the commandments, you won't keep the commandments. If you have the willingness to keep the commandments but not the ability, you can't keep the commandments. The former case is sin, for you are able but unwilling. The latter case is not sin, for you are willing but unable (like the 10,000 pound barbell example). Explain this to the Mormon and then ask him if he breaks any of God's commandments. If he does, ask him if it is because he is unable or if it is because he is unwilling? If he says it is because he is unwilling then he is a sinner who isn't doing his best. Therefore if the standard is doing his best he has failed. If he says it is because he is unable but not unwilling, then explain to him that he hasn't sinned and this would mean he is perfect. He isn't a sinner, for he doesn't willfully do anything wrong. Thus the standard can be left at perfection and he claims to have passed it! Most Mormons will have a hard time admitting that they are perfect and that they don't break any commandments due to unwillingness. Hopefully you will find honest Mormons who admit their failures. They will be very interested at that point to hear the gospel of grace.
Other ways Mormons seek to explain the non-perfect standard is by saying: "God doesn't require us to be perfect, but He does require us to try." We should ask them what exactly constitutes trying? The dictionary defines trying as "an attempt or effort to do something." You can attempt to do something and succeed and you can attempt to do something and fail. This brings us back to our barbell example. The man attempted to pick up the barbell and failed. Did he fail because he was unable or unwilling? Mormons will also say, "God doesn't require us to succeed, He just judges our intentions and desires." But once again the above lesson applies equally to this as well, because if they break God's commandments due to unwillingness, then it is proof that they don't have the desires and intentions to obey. If they are willing but simply unable then they aren't sinners at all!
We need to become experts at helping Mormons see this dilemma. We especially need to help them see that their words have meaning, and that the meaning of what they are saying doesn't advance a solution to the problem of perfection. The problem can't be fixed by merely changing definitions. But this is exactly what Mormons are attempting to do.
We Christians also need to see that for all the new ways Mormons explain their religion it is still the same false gospel of works. Mormons believe that in order to be forgiven of their sins they must be obedient. They must be in the good person category and not in the bad person category in order for them to qualify for salvation. No amount of re-defining words can change this. The only thing that makes a true difference is when a Mormon realizes that he is a sinner, in the bad person category without excuse, and that he is helpless to do anything about it himself. When Mormons resort to their doctrine of repentance they are actually saying that they can fix the problem. "I messed up, I'll need to fix it." And how do they attempt to fix it? By once again trying to turn from their sin and obey the commandments. This brings us right back to square one.
When I talk with Mormons I am unflinching on this question of the standard of righteousness and what constitutes obedience. The reality is that most Mormons have not thought about it at all. They are speaking back to you what they have been taught and they desperately need to reflect on the meaning of their words. Their grasp of the situation is surface deep. We must not let them fool us.
When we begin to sharpen our swords and are able to skillfully expose the real dilemma to Mormons (and indeed to all non-believers, for these principles apply to every single religion, not just to Mormonism) we will inevitably discover many people who are openly hostile to the idea that they are actually sinful and that salvation is actually by grace (in meaning, not just in word). We will experience the hatred that Jesus talked about that we so seldom experience because our conversations remain only ankle deep. Cut to the bone and watch the lions roar. But the good news is that we will also find many people who are starving for light and righteousness and who will be amazed by this liberating message of real grace for real sinners. Making people uncomfortable and even angry is a danger we must be willing to take if we are to seek and save that which is lost.
Thank you so much, P---, for your courage in witnessing to those guys. It thrilled me to read how you applied those principles from my article. The result was what I expected. It just shows us how much we need to practice sharing the gospel and how much more we need to equip ourselves to combat the ever-improving arsenal of the enemy.
Grace and peace to you, brother,
Friday, February 14, 2014
Furthermore, Chilton fails to see the strength of the opposing view regarding the Olivet Discourse. He fails to see that there are better ways of understanding Jesus' words that are more reasonable than the far-fetched and outlandish interpretations that he sets forth. Chilton is left straining and bending the texts to fit them within the historical setting of the 1st century. His explanations are simplistic and not well thought through. A comparison of his view side by side with the opposing view would be instructive, but the reader must not expect to find such a comparison presented in this book.
In essence Chilton has flippantly disregarded the main message of the Old Testament regarding Israel, carelessly handled the clear teachings of the Lord Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament, and staked the weight of his argument upon a wholesale reinterpretation of the Book of Revelation. It is unwise to put all of your weight upon an apocalyptic book like Revelation, the symbolism of which has baffled commentators for millennia. A far wiser policy would be to interpret the less clear passages in the Bible by the clear passages in the Bible, rather than the other way around as Chilton does. But it is precisely in the clear passages of the Bible that Chilton stumbles, and he must take refuge in the apocalyptic.
Nonetheless Chilton's interpretation of Revelation is as strained as his interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, as he attempts to make every jot and tittle of John's apocalypse a vitriolic imprecation against the nation of Israel. There are two things that can be said about Preterists like Chilton: 1) they don't believe Israel is significant anymore, and 2) they still hate them. Remarkably, Chilton argues that the early Christians prayed ardently for the destruction of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel. They got on their knees and begged God for this because only when Israel was gone would "the new age of the Church" and "the New World Order" begin, when the Church can finally assert its authority and dominate the world. This is in direct opposition to the prayer and longing of Paul the apostle for Israel in Romans 9:1-3, 10:1 and 11:1-36. This is also fanciful thinking which is evidently false, for the Church did not need to wait for the destruction of Israel to be the missionary Church that she is called to be by the Lord, nor has the destruction of Israel in 70 AD seen any marked change in the world for the Church. As the years have rolled on Chilton's imagined triumph has been shown to be but a dream. And what of the establishment of Israel again in 1948? Did the sovereign God - whom Chilton rightly declares is in control of every motion in heaven and on earth - make a mistake by reversing the once and for all supposed declaration in Israel's destruction of the "the age of the New Covenant"? Such views are at odds, not only with Scripture, but with plain common sense.
The tone of this book is shockingly hateful. It reminds one of Jesus' statement to the sons of thunder who wanted to call down fire and brimstone upon those cities that rejected Christ: "You know not what manner of spirit you are of." (Luke 9:55) Chilton believes the Church has the power and responsibility, through liturgy and prayer, to cause God to destroy evildoers and evil nations. He urges passionately that the Church should be doing just that: praying imprecatory prayers for the destruction of the ungodly. The liturgical power he attributes to the Christian Church in order to curse and destroy reminds me of the Hindu spells Brahminical priests claim to have possession of and use to dispose of undesirables. According to Chilton, I wonder if the Church should be spreading the gospel of God's grace to sinners at all, or just praying for their destruction. The world might become a better place faster if we stopped trying to persuade unbelievers and just annihilated them (through prayer of course, for the glory of God). The message and tone of this book is just ugly.
David Chilton did the Body of Christ and the world a disservice by writing this book and his others that are like it. Perhaps the one redeeming thing that comes out of books like these is that it helps us sharpen our understanding and grasp more deeply what the true is in contrast to the false. False teaching has an interesting way of doing that.
Monday, February 10, 2014
However, the book disappoints in the last few chapters when Bright begins discussing the kingdom of God in New Testament. It is not that I don't agree with him in his conclusion that the kingdom of God is "already" and "not yet": his discussion of the tension between the kingdom already come and the kingdom still coming is undoubtedly excellent. But it is that Bright wholly sidesteps the issue of the land of Israel, not even mentioning it, as if it was a non-issue. This is remarkable because the entire Old Testament is building up this theme, only for Bright it falls flat in the New Testament. This is a colossal oversight (or better, error) made by many Christian scholars. We fail to see the significance of the land of Israel, as well as the kingly motif of the son of David, even though the land and the coming king are writ large all over the Scriptures!
In the latter part of the book Bright also repeatedly uses the non-Biblical and almost blasphemous (though certainly unintentional) phrase "new Israel", even though the Bible never once uses this phrase and never conceives the Church of Christ as the "new Israel". In fact Bright contradicts himself, for in the course of the book he explains how the Church saw itself as the righteous remnant within Israel (a point well made). Here was an unfortunate and sloppy oversight.
The problems with Bright's book are similar to the problems with Graeme Goldsworthy's book "Gospel and Kingdom", written on the same subject. Both authors do a masterful job of analyzing the Old Testament and tracing the concept of the kingdom of God in Israel's thinking. Their books are pure gold on this point. But then when they both get to the New Testament everything changes and they absolutely fail to connect the dynamic theme, which they had so wonderfully been following in the Old Testament, with the New Testament. Everything falls flat; concepts are redefined; and we are left with an entirely different conception in the New Testament than what we were getting so excited about in the Old Testament. In my opinion this is due to a sloppy Christian systematic way of thinking that gets forced upon the New Testament. This way of thinking doesn't know how to connect with Israel's historical hope. The result is a very Gentilish and non-Biblical idea of the kingdom which is foreign to the Biblical authors themselves. What amazes me most of all is how Christian scholars can make this jarring maneuver without hardly noticing nor even making mention of the land of Israel and the son of David, those enormous Old Testament themes they discard.
Nonetheless the book is full of priceless gems and insights and is greatly worth reading. I simply hope to help future readings of this book (and other books on the same subject) to notice the glaring omissions made by many Christian scholars, and to take special care in seeing the continuity between both Testaments. The lack that exists in Christian scholarship on this point needs serious remedy.