Tag Archives: worship

Priscilla Hammond ~ How Church Personalities Reveal Epiphany Living

January 6 marked the beginning of the season of Epiphany in the Protestant Church. This date celebrates the revelation of Christ to the wise men from the East (Matthew 2:1–12), in which Christ is revealed to the Gentiles. Of course, we also use the word epiphany to describe that moment when something suddenly becomes clear.

Christ is revealed

I grew up in a “high church” tradition. The liturgy cycled through the church year with steady reliability; Charles Wesley’s songs were as contemporary as it got; and even if the seasons weren’t readily apparent in the moderate Georgia temperatures, they were obvious in the vestments of the clergy. As an adult, I became a member of a modern megachurch, where my mother visited and whispered, “Applause is okay at a concert, but not appropriate in church.” I have been a member of a small church plant that had a five-minute greeting time during the service (and all the extroverts said “Amen!”). I have attended my siblings’ churches: Presbyterian, Baptist, and non-denominational. I have visited a Church of Christ congregation that didn’t use instruments in worship. I preached at a church in Kenya following a wonderful celebratory dance by Maasai women accompanied by a drum and tambourine. In all of these churches, I have observed that the form of worship changes, but the manifestation of Christ does not.

An epiphany during Epiphany

Over Christmas, my husband and I visited a church while on vacation. Old carols sung in contemporary arrangements preceded call and response preaching on the theme “Nothing is Impossible with God.” As I listened, I had an epiphany about Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to those outside of his Jewish lineage. Jesus’ genealogy had been presented in Matthew 1 as proof that he had a place as the leader of God’s chosen people, but Matthew 2 quickly demonstrated that he holds “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). Today’s “Gentiles” include thousands of different people groups. If people are divided by language, ethnicity, culture, behavior, education, customs, and ideology, but unified by the Gospel, then shouldn’t we expect churches to also be unique expressions in their contexts, with different worship, preaching, and organizing principles?

Gospel Personalities

Through my personal epiphany I realized that the differences in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry reflect each of the Gospel writers, each a unique expression of their context. That same unique expression is reflected in all the different forms of church structure and worship.

Matthew began his Gospel with a detailed genealogy followed by an account of Jesus’ birth and the visitation by the Magi. These facts set up a series of organized pericopes and major discourses in which Matthew’s personality shines through. This Gospel has a theme of unification, which is not surprising given Matthew was an ostracized Jew who reached out to sinners and outsiders after his conversion.

Mark’s encouraging storytelling is an exciting journey through Jesus’ ministry as told by a young follower. His loosely connected but grouped episodes resonate with those who value experience over education.

Luke was an educated man who processed through the facts to get to his faith. The theme throughout Luke’s Gospel is challenging Christians to put their faith into practice. Luke’s thoughtful study results in action.

John’s audience is the most diverse. His theme of love unfolds through miracles and signs. His desire for the diverse people of God to be the family of God is true spiritual community.

Church Personalities

Though each Gospel presents the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they are all unique in their specific presentations, and they are organized differently.

And so are our churches.

A Matthew personality church focuses on liturgy and teaching. The preaching is expository and connected to the church season or a planned annual church calendar. The education of the leadership and the congregation is important but not overly emphasized. Small groups are focused on Bible study, which will help believers “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received . . . Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 1, 3).

A Mark personality church may create short three to six week series centered around a topical, relevant theme. The preaching is inductive, beginning with stories that add up to a general conclusion of a scriptural application. The leadership of the church may not emphasize academic credentials. The congregation is drawn to experience over education. Small groups may be organized as semester-based experiences. This church may have a hard time with the “be still” command of Psalm 46:10.

A Luke personality church challenges its members to put their faith into practice. Academics are important, as we are called to study in order to correctly handle God’s word (2 Timothy 2:15). This prayerful study should instruct our faith, moving us forward on our social justice journey. Sermons may be textual (using Scripture as the starting point). Small groups are formed for Christian education and service.

A John personality church includes diverse fellowship. Signs and testimonies are emphasized. Leaders have different academic paths, but education of the congregation is not a priority unless it leads to deeper spiritual community. The purpose of small groups is fellowship, since “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Churches have personalities, expressed through their organization, Christian education processes, preaching, and worship. Each can have strengths and challenges, but the diversity is reflective of the differences we see in people, including the Apostles.

Instead of focusing on which organizational structure or form of worship we prefer, we need to ask if our church is manifesting Christ to the world. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John churches all have the opportunity to serve those who are lost and to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

Just as Christ was revealed to the wise men, we all have the opportunity to help people on their epiphany journey.

Michelle Bauer ~ Finding Joy and Peace this Christmas Week

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.  – Luke 2:21-33, 36-38

Christmas is almost here! Thinking backing over the last few weeks, when have you felt the most peaceful? When have you felt the most stress or anxiety? As you think ahead to the coming week, what are you looking forward to? What, if anything, are you dreading? Offer those things into God’s care.

Christmas Eve: The whole world waits today for God’s peace to enter the world in the form of a baby. Place yourself in the story and imagine what Mary and Joseph must have experienced as the time drew closer. What do you notice?

Christmas Day:  “The Lord is come!” Simeon and Anna were so overwhelmed by Jesus’ birth that they burst into prophetic praise to God. What would you like to express to God about his great gift?  

Wednesday: Despite the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph take great care to follow the Law. What do you learn from their example? How do you imagine this experience at the temple affected Mary and Joseph?

Thursday: In what ways does Simeon demonstrate peace in waiting? What is something that you are waiting for? In what ways have you experienced peace as you wait? In what moments has peace been hard to find?

Friday: Instead of losing hope, Anna spent her life worshiping, fasting, and praying. How do these practices affect our peace?  Consider the ways in your life in which you worship. What is fulfilling and what needs adjusting?   

Saturday: What are your hopes and expectations for the New Year? Offer these to God and ask him to sustain you. May God give you his peace in 2019!

Leave this quiet time resting in the peace that Jesus came to bring.

James Petticrew ~ Gaudete

Yesterday was the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday; “gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that joy and rejoicing are an inevitable overflow in the  lives of people who have understood and experienced God at work in their lives. Paul reminds us that rejoicing has to be a continual and ongoing part of our individual and community life as Christians. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) I love how Eugene Peterson captures what Paul is saying here: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!”

In that verse, Paul reminds us that joy isn’t just for the third Sunday in Advent. Nevertheless, it’s helpful for us to think about joy purposefully, about what genuine joy is, about whether we are experiencing it and how we promote it in our world which is so often marked by such joylessness.

Some well-known Christians have said a few things about joy and Advent.

The current Pope said that on this “Sunday of joy,” instead of fretting about “all they still haven’t” done to prepare for Christmas, believers should “think of all the good things life and God have given you.” Now you don’t need to be Roman Catholic to see that is good advice.

Mid-twentieth century German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in prison and knowing that in all likelihood he would be killed by the Nazis, wrote, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!” If Bonhoeffer, facing all he faced, could call on us to rejoice, we surely need to find reasons to obey his call.

Henri Nouwen described joy as, “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

That means that whatever is happening around us and in us, we can know joy despite those circumstances and challenges.

Matt Sigler ~ How We Really Measure Congregational Growth

Methodists are good at counting. The numerous records that have been kept over the years of “conversions,” “probationary members,” and the like, are a goldmine for historians. This penchant for noting numbers remains in our DNA today. “How many members?” and “How many in active attendance?” are the two primary questions asked when one evaluates the strength of a local church. The church growth movement did little to abate this obsession with head counting. While a growing congregation is, in fact, a sign of vitality, it’s the type of growth that we are marking that concerns me.

We Are Called to Make Disciples, Not Converts

Obviously there is a correlation between the two—one must be born again to become a disciple. And, one of the reasons I am a Methodist is because of the clear emphasis John Wesley placed on saving souls. As Wesleyans, though, we also affirm that conversion marks the beginning, and not the end of following Jesus. We should, we must, continue to celebrate each person brought to the new birth in our congregations, but we should never lose sight of the fact that baptism is just the start of life in Christ.

Our church desperately needs to shift from just asking questions like “How many members?” to also asking “How is the congregation growing in Christlikeness?”

This change in emphasis may equate with numeric growth, or it may not—calling people to come and die doesn’t always make for rapid growth in our time.

The Sunday Worship Gathering is Primarily a Gathering of, and for, the Faithful

Most Methodist churches I know of view Sunday worship as the primary doorway into the church. Worship styles are tailored to meet the perceived “need” of the surrounding community or “target” population. If a church is declining in membership the solution is most often thought to be found in a retooling of the Sunday worship service—making it more appealing. While worship in a local congregation must be contextual, I have found at least three problems with this approach.

First, it feeds into the consumerist mentality that has dominated the North American church for years, making worship often about personal preference.

When worship services are crafted primarily because of a concern for attractiveness, worship becomes a commodity. This approach does little to make disciples; oftentimes it simply makes spectators.

Second, this method is inevitably bound to the winds of change. I find it fascinating (and saddening) to see how many churches continue to launch new, “modern” styles of worship in an effort to increase attendance. Many churches that once offered “contemporary” and “traditional” options now offer a plethora of services with differing styles often defined by generational preferences.

Third, the weight of Christian worship history testifies that the Sunday service is primarily a gathering of, and for, the faithful. This is not to say that we shouldn’t consider how our worship services can best speak in the language of our local contexts. It isn’t to say that we shouldn’t consider if our gatherings are marked with radical hospitality and welcome. But we gather in continuity with the first followers of Christ who found the tomb empty on Sunday. When worship services are designed with the primary aim of increasing attendance, often the centrality of the Story of God’s salvation in Christ is obscured. “Boy scout Sundays,”  “U2charists,” and countless other services which mirror the culture, have all fallen victim to this trap.

Our Culture Needs to See Faithfulness, Not Flashiness

In an increasingly post-Christian context the viability of the Church will stand or fall on the witness of its members, not the appeal of its facilities, programs, or worship services.

For five years my wife and I were a part of a church-plant in Boston, MA. It wasn’t a perfect church— there’s no such thing—but we watched with joy as the church grew significantly during those five years. While there were plenty who joined the congregation through transfer of membership (people who had moved into the city who were already following Jesus); to a person, those who were baptized into the faith came to Christ because of a relationship outside of the Sunday service. One young man, for example, first became curious about Christianity after meeting some of our members at a gardening club. For over a year, he seldom set foot in our Sunday worship services, but came every week to a bible-study/fellowship group some of our members held in his neighborhood. He was baptized on Easter this past year in what was an incredible moment for our congregation. When it came time to give a testimony about how he came to faith, he had nothing at all to say about how good our worship band was or how attractive our space looked.

From the Top, Down

Our current ways of evaluating the health of local churches need to be reexamined. For instance, United Methodist pastors face an ever-present pressure to increase membership, grow the average Sunday attendance, and pay apportionments. I hear plenty of bishops talk about making disciples, yet in most cases head counting on Sunday morning and the paying of apportionments remain the primary criteria for evaluating local congregational health. If we are to see a new way of counting in the Methodist Church, and, I would argue, healthier congregations as a result; change must come from the top down. Our Methodists leaders – our bishops – must model a fresh approach: an approach that values making disciples, restoring worship to its roots as a gathering of the faithful, and finally, faithfulness in the form of relational evangelism. If our leaders model this new way of counting, our pastors can more faithfully lead and grow communities of disciples.

From the archives: this first ran on Wesleyan Accent as “A New Way of Counting” in 2014.

Kevin Watson ~ Embracing A More Meaningful Holy Week

There are several moments from when I attended seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C., that have stayed with me in the years since I graduated. I remember the class “Methodist History and Doctrine” when Dr. Doug Strong’s summary of the Wesleyan way of salvation brought so many things together for me and made me feel in my bones that I was a Methodist; it was a major catalyst for where I am today. I remember Dr. Amy Oden reminding us in every class of “Church History” to ask the “so what?” question when we studied the past. I remember Dr. Sondra Wheeler’s passion for clear thinking and her ability to challenge students to be consistent and carefully consider and probe unexamined ethical assumptions. I remember Dr. Scott Kisker sending us out into the streets of D.C. to ask people about what grace meant to them. And I remember Dr. Kendall Soulen saying that you could put a host of different things as descriptors of Jesus, but at a very basic level the gospel was simply, “Jesus saves.”

I learned a lot in seminary and had some amazing teachers. Perhaps the image that has stayed with me more than any other came from Dr. Laurence Hull Stookey’s “Corporate Worship” course. Dr. Stookey was discussing the Christian calendar, and he was trying to help us see that the purpose of the Christian calendar was more than a circle where you do the same things over and over again. He described the Christian calendar as being like a spiral staircase: you come to the same point in the circle each year, but you have ascended higher up the stairs each year than you were the year before, or at least that is the purpose of the Christian calendar.

Dr. Stookey’s image of the Christian year being like a spiral staircase has helped me understand why Christian time is itself a means of grace. Every year we go through seasons of repentance, self-denial, and fasting. Each year we also go through seasons of celebration, rejoicing, and exultation. And every year we go through seasons of ordinary time when we are in a season of “regular” living.

I have come to appreciate many things about the Christian calendar. I appreciate the way the Christian calendar helps you practice what real life is like. As I have ascended the spiral staircase, I have become better at rejoicing – really celebrating –what God has done for the world – and for me. I have also learned how to grieve, to lament, to say no to myself and others, and to notice the heartbreaking extent to which things in the world are not okay. Perhaps what has surprised me the most about the major rhythms of the Christian calendar is that I have come to appreciate ordinary time, the gift of un-extraordinary days, even seasons when you experience normal rhythms and routines.

This week, Holy Week, is the highlight of the Christian calendar. To speak in a way that I suspect Dr. Stookey might not approve, Holy Week is like the Super Bowl of the Christian calendar. It is packed with meaning and is like the entire Christian year packed into one week.

Observing Holy Week has had a significant impact on my life. There are many different ways I could mark my growth as a follower of Jesus Christ, but a major part of my growth as a Christian came when I started to attend Holy Week services. Attending worship on Thursday and Friday of Holy Week is a highlight of my year as a follower of Jesus. Attending these services has prepared me to celebrate – really celebrate – the news that Jesus Christ is risen.

As I have, by the grace of God, ascended the spiral staircase of the Christian calendar, I have discovered that Christians (especially including myself) have a lot of room to grow in discipline and self-denial. I have been surprised to find that Christians are often actually worse at celebration than they are at self-denial. Easter is not one Sunday, it is eight weeks. But I have yet to attend a church that has had the celebratory stamina to throw an eight-week party. I have been to some amazing Easter Sunday services, but I don’t remember a single worship service from the sixth Sunday of Easter.

It is here that Dr. Stookey would want to remind us all that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christians celebrate (but do we really celebrate?) the resurrection every single Sunday.

I urge you to do whatever you have to in order to attend Holy Week services this week. We need to prepare to celebrate this Sunday. And God, in God’s graciousness, has given us an entire week to prepare to celebrate the best news the world has ever heard.

Dr. Stookey would, I think, also want me to tell you that you can’t get to the resurrection without the crucifixion. The cross of Christ is itself a potent means of grace. But our ability to celebrate the empty tomb will always be impoverished if we show up to hear the astounding news of an empty tomb, but have not heard all that happened so that death’s power could be broken from the inside.

No matter what your previous experience of Holy Week has been, there is room to enter more fully into the amazing grace of God. We can continue walking up the staircase, growing in holiness with each step.

By the grace of God, may we each experience a more meaningful Holy Week this week than we ever have.



This article first appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2015.

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

Justus Hunter ~ Noise Without Word

“Shape without form, shade without color, 

Paralyzed force; gesture without motion.”1 

Noise without Word. 

After Solomon died, his Kingdom was split in two – the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. 

Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, reigned over Judah. He lived in Jerusalem, where Solomon built the temple of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

In the North, Jeroboam reigned over Israel. The Kings of Israel were masters of noise. 

Noise-making, then and now, has benefits. You see, Jeroboam was worried. As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of Israel, then Jeroboam’s people would travel to Jerusalem, Rehoboam’s home. Year after year they would trek to the Temple to offer sacrifices. Year after year they would trek to Rehoboam’s home. So Jeroboam was worried. 

Now the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was not like other gods. You couldn’t just build a temple anywhere for the God of Israel. This God spoke. And this God told the Israelites to build one temple, in one city. This God required one worship.  

Other gods were just the opposite; the more the merrier! A King could build temple after temple, holy site after holy site, install priest after priest for these other gods.  And though these other gods did not speak, they made a lot of noise. 

So Jeroboam gave them noise. Lots of noise. Like the Israelites before him, he fashioned his own god rather than wait for the God of Moses. Like the Israelites at Sinai, Jeroboam cast a golden calf. But not just one. He cast two, and placed them on the Northern and Southern edges of his kingdom, in Dan and Bethel. He built them Temples. He gave them priests.  

And he said to the people, “you have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”  

Just like that, Jeroboam changed their history. He exchanged the God of Exodus for cheap imitations. And unsurprisingly, the people forgot their history. They forgot the story of true Exodus; they lost the God who sets free. They exchanged truth for imitation, form for shape, color for shade, Word for noise. 

In changing their history, Jeroboam changed their worship. The gods who stole their history gave them spectacles. And so the people exchanged true worship for spectacle. They went about with spectacle in their eyes, and noise in their ears. 

So they silenced the God of David. Jeroboam built sacred sites in all the high places across Israel. He installed priests to offer sacrifices to his gods. And so, all across Israel, from Dan to Bethel, noise filled the air. No one could hear the Word of the Lord, the God of David. All was imitation, mimicry, spectacle, and noise. 

This was the way of Jeroboam. 

After Jeroboam, all the Kings of Israel followed his way. Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, all of them “walked in the way of Jeroboam and in the sins that he caused Israel to commit, provoking the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols.” More Kings made more gods. More priests made more spectacles. More prophets made more noise. And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was drowned out. No one could hear the Word of the Lord. 

Of all the Kings of Israel, Ahab was the noisiest. Like the others, he “walked in the sins of Jeroboam.” Ahab and his wife Jezebel built a temple to Baal in the heart of the land, in Samaria. They raised poles to Asherah throughout Israel. And so they filled the land with noise. 

Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the Kings of Israel before him. 

The gods of Ahab and Jezebel were happy. The God of Israel was drowned out. Noise. But no one could hear the Word of the Lord. Noise without Word. 

And then, the Word of the Lord came to Elijah. The Word of the Lord declares a drought. On Mount Carmel, the Word of the Lord silences the prophets of Baal. Baal’s worship is a spectacle; but like all spectacles, it can deliver no fire. And so the Word of the Lord comes and rains fire, and then fires rain. 

On Mount Carmel, Elijah mocks Baal’s spectacle. Elijah’s words called down signs and wonders from the sky. Consuming fire rains down. Elijah’s words condemn Baal’s noisemakers. The Word is proclaimed. And the Wordless noise is silenced by the Lord’s Word. 

Or so it seemed. 

(The next day) Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not (silence you) by this time tomorrow.” 

The noise returns. The noisy gods declare vengeance. They are not satisfied with silencing the Word through noise, or stealing Israel’s history through mimicry. Now they must parody the Law of the Lord. And so, Jezebel vows to execute the law of noise. Noise without Word enacts law without Justice. 

Elijah despairs. The day after the consuming fire on Carmel, he flees for his life. He wanders out into the wilderness, out of the kingdom of the gods of noise, and collapses under a bush. He begs the Lord to take his life. He flees the land of noise, mimicry, and parody. He flees the law without Justice, and begs for mercy from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Better to die at the Word of the Lord than at the decree of the gods of noise. So he cries out: 

Enough! Now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors. 

But the Lord withholds mercy. The Lord will not take his life away. The Lord will not let Elijah abandon his gifts, though they afflict him; though he is no better off with these gifts than his ancestors were with theirs. The Lord will not take back Elijah’s gift of life. He is harassed by the gift of life. And he is afflicted with the gift of prophecy. 

God will not take his life. Instead, God restores it. Angels bring him food. 

And Elijah got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Sinai, the mount of God. 

Elijah feasts on food from heaven, like the manna in the wilderness. And like the manna, which sustained Israel forty years, Elijah’s food sustains him forty days. 

Forty days, fasting. Forty days, trudging through wilderness. Forty days, back through the years to the site where God created Israel. Forty days, back to Mount Sinai, where God afflicted Elijah’s ancestors with gifts of Word, Worship, and Law.

Elijah retraces the journey of his ancestors. He remembers the Exodus, Moses, the encounter in the wilderness. Elijah returns. He finds a cave and collapses with exhaustion. 

Then the Word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 

For forty days, he has staggered to the edge of his life. For forty days, he has fasted to his innermost thoughts. For forty days, he has remembered his story. And there, where the Word of the Lord meets him, he pleads his case. 

I was zealous, and yet… 

And yet, your people have forsaken your covenant. They exchanged your Law for parody – a law without justice.  

And yet, your people have thrown down your altars. They exchanged your Worship for spectacle – a worship without fire. 

And yet, your people have killed your prophets. They exchanged your Word for noise. 

“Shape without form, shade without color, 

Paralyzed force; gesture without motion.” 

Noise without Word. 

Ours is an age of noise. We exchange our history for comforting lies of other gods. We exchange our worship for spectacles. We exchange true justice for parodies, imitations, mimicry. We fill our lives with noise. We silence the Word of the Lord. 

Sometimes we expect God to cut through the noise. We look for the consuming fire of Mt. Carmel. If only God would upset our slumber with force – the rushing wind, the unsteady earth, the raining fire.  

The Word said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard the silence, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” 

Much later in this story, the Word of the Lord came again.  

The Word became flesh, and made His dwelling among us. 

The Word ascended another mountain. And the Word gave another sign, feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish. The Word descended the mountain heights, and worked another wonder, walking on water and calming the depths. 

And then, he delivered a teaching. And that teaching mystified the people. People living among parody and imitation and mimicry. People with eyes full of spectacle and ears full of noise. 

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. 

Eat my flesh. It is an odd teaching. It is an unsuspected teaching. It is a difficult teaching. And so, many left the Word who came down from heaven and returned to the noise.

So The Word, the bread that came down from heaven, turned to his disciples, and asked them a question: 

“Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

“Shape without form, shade without color, 

Paralyzed force; gesture without motion.” 

Noise without Word. 

Ours is an age of noise. We exchange our history for comforting lies of other gods. We exchange our worship for spectacles. We exchange true justice for parodies, imitations, mimicry. We fill our lives with noise. We silence the Word of the Lord. 

But the Word comes nevertheless, not in an earthquake or fire or rushing wind, but in this man, Jesus the Christ. And he offers himself to us; eat from me, drink from me. 

How odd. No spectacle of noisy gods. Just this peculiar sign, this unexpected wonder. 

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

And he turns to his disciples, and he asks: “Do you also wish to go away?” 

And we, with eyes full of spectacle and ears full of noise, despairing for our lives, afflicted with our gifts and our calls, like Elijah in the wilderness, respond: 

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Philip Tallon ~ Two (More) Ways to Integrate the Arts into the Church’s Mission

A friend kindly directed my attention to a recent blog post over at Christianity Today“Seven Evangelism Environments Artists Create: How the church can leverage the arts for evangelism,” by Dr. Byron Spradlin. I give a hearty ‘amen’ to what I take is Spradlin’s main thrust, which we find in the final line: “If you are a church or mission leader, invite the artists you know to help you take a fresh look at the way you think about, plan for, and implement evangelism.”  

The bulk of the post is aimed at offering some frameworks for how artists can aid the mission of evangelism by designing environmentscreating community through shared artistic endeavor, helping to express the gospel, and so forth. All of this is offered with the modest disclaimer that these are just preliminary suggestions for getting started:

These seven environments mentioned above are simply a start in stating how artistic expression specialists (artists) bring powerful and beautiful resource to the Lord’s assignment of evangelism. In fact, when it comes to evangelism, the Church cannot do without them in the mix.

This is good. The church can’t do without artists.  

However, I do have some quibbles, though I’m reluctant to pillory a post whose main point I affirm. (Lord knows, I’m not eager for some smart aleck to nitpick all my blog posts.) In lieu of a very direct response, I want to offer two things to keep in mind as we try to thoughtfully integrate the arts into the church’s mission. 

1. The arts are already and always involved in the church’s mission.

Throughout the post, Spradlin relies on a common distinction between the message of the gospel and the mode of its expression. He rightly points out that without being able to “feel” and “imagine” the truth of the message, the news will not seem good. This is right, but could still mislead the reader into seeing the truth of the gospel as something distinct from its mode of expression.

What the study of theology and the arts reveals, however, is that our understanding of the truth is always mediated through aesthetic categories. Metaphor, the interconnection of two networks of meaning, fundamentally shapes all thinking. Encountering and explaining are inextricable. Imaginative intuition and artistic sensibility are necessary for accessing the objective truths of the gospel. Divine communication is already artistically shaped, because God himself uses artistic expression. Through parables, metaphorical language, and the medium of story, the Bible assumes that the arts matter. It is impossible to access the propositional truths of theology without relying on creative expression. Punching it a bit: God has already bound up the task of theology with the power of poetry.

With this in mind, we should approach the arts not first as powerful vehicles that amplify our expression and encounter with the truth, but as a necessary element in all theological knowing. A ministry that sees the arts as intrinsic, rather than instrumental, will already be two steps ahead in fruitfully integrating the arts in ministry.  

Perhaps this all still seems nitpicky, but many Christians hold to a reductively sharp distinction between content and expression. I once heard a famous mega-pastor exclaim that the “only thing that makes music Christian is the lyrics.” By this I assumed he meant that worship could work in all manner of musical modes, so long as it kept the same message. But this overlooks, of course, that the mode of expression mediates our understanding of the message. Transpose almost any song from a major to minor key (or vice versa) and the meaning shifts dramatically. (YouTube offers many, many examples.)

2. Artists are not special (or, at least, not in the sense we sometimes think).

Even among those who value the arts, there can be a temptation to put them in a “gilded ghetto”: a separate space of distanced admiration. The same happens with artists. They can be construed as specially gifted, yet also alien. More than one working artist I know has felt this simultaneous admiration-with-distance. Theseus’s lines in Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind:

  Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven. (5.1)

For Theseus (though probably not Shakespeare) the poet, like the lover and the madman, is a frenzied genius who mysteriously sees more than reason can comprehend. Many people in the pews will likely hold a similar view.

Much of this is come by honestly. Plato seemed to distrust the artist as an irrational-yet-inspired creator, (cf. Ion). Likewise, Kant separated aesthetic judgment from the rationality. These ideas still haunt the Western mind, even among those who have never cracked the pages of Kant or Plato.

An important step for integrating Christian artists more fully into the life of the church is to honor their talents as meaningfully connected to the larger concerns of the church. Artistic making is often closely bound up with careful reflection on big ideas and cultural context. Spradlin goes a long way to suggesting how artists can be integrated. His generalizations are broadly true, but might also be misread to propagate the idea of artists as a special class of people touched by the muses with a mysterious gift:

Artists are hardwired to be curious about culture expressions and intrigued by and interested in culture’s ways. Through their curiosity—and a wonderful product of it: looking at familiar realities in fresh ways—they always create situations and places where relationships are formed.

Again, my goal is not to correct Spradlin’s notions, but to nuance their reception. Artists come in all shapes and sizes. Artists are people, no more trustworthy or untrustworthy in their powers than any other group. (Even here, there’s a danger in grouping artists together. A broad view of the arts accounts for the ad-man and the ballerina; the game designer and the book binder.) Those who wish to shepherd artists should plan to pastor the whole person, including the expression of their craft.

If this seems intimidating, it is worth noting that pastors are artists too. They shape sermons, and they also shape souls. As Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, the most beautiful work of art is the life of the saint.


Philip Tallon (PhD, St. Andrews) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2012), and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~Nothing Sacred: Sacrilege in the Public Square

It’s happened again and again.

Do they give out Webby Awards” for“Best Social Networking Campaign Aimed at Disenfranchised Young Men Searching for Meaning and Manhood in a Post-Religious Context”?

In the 90’s, radicalization looked like bored, angry, white, oddball suburban teenagers shooting up their classmates as they latched onto whatever Nihilistic philosophy made sense of their bullied, middle-class ennui. 

Now ISIS just Tweets. And young men sit with their laptops or tablets or smartphones, drawn to the message and imagery. 

What a tragic form of religious “outreach.”

The public response to a bombing, shooting, or terror attack ranges from dismay and compassion to fear and confusion. While Muslim representatives present a memorial wreath at the British embassy in the U.S. and immigrant cab drivers give free rides to Manchester residents, social networking graphic design pops up with endless variations of hearts, ribbons, candles, and prayers for the London Bridge victims, for the northern English city of Manchester. Just like profile pictures changed for Paris, and Nice, and Orlando. There’s been less outcry over the English driver who plowed into Muslims leaving a mosque after services.

Underneath the response that ranges from depressed acceptance of the new norm to calls for blanket discrimination in an effort to control damage, there’s a pulsing anger: is nothing sacred? Can’t holidaymakers – innocent civilians – go about their leisure in peace? Can’t children and young teenagers go to a concert in peace?

Terrorism disrupts the basic social contract we have with each other in the public square: you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine, and I won’t swerve my vehicle towards yours just because the impulse hits. You sit and watch a film in a cinema without standing up and screaming in the middle of it, I’ll sit and watch a film in a cinema without standing up and screaming in the middle of it, and we’ll both function within these unspoken norms because we both want to enjoy the movie.

Globally, anxiety has grown as these basic modes of interacting together in public life break down. I may intend to stay in my lane, but I can no longer assume that you will stay in yours. I may intend to go to a crowded mall just to shop and not to take out my anger with a firearm on strangers, but I can no longer assume that you will. This is different than sacrilege: it’s a problem, but it’s not sacrilege.  

There is sometimes sacrilege in the public square, and it can be easy to confuse sacrilege with the breakdown of social mores. Yet many people would say that sacrilege isn’t even possible because – and this is important – there is no identifiable or agreed-upon sacred. Sacrilege implies profaning the holy. But it assumes the existence of the holy. For a great many people, if you ask them even rhetorically, “is nothing sacred?” they would be inclined to say, “no, nothing is.” If you cannot really know anything, then you cannot name it sacred. So at the same time that the mores that govern our public interaction together are ripping and frayed, the very notion of the sacred is also disappearing from public consciousness. (And an intellectually honest person who doubts the existence or the knowability of the sacred is not likely to attend Sunday worship, no matter how well-designed your social media graphics are, no matter what your theology is.)

In recent American politics, one of the biggest tug-of-wars has centered around whether the current U.S. president is an iconoclast or a defender of the sacred. Most arguments pivot on whether he functions in the public square as someone who rips apart unspoken social contract, publicly verbalizing lewd or rude content (iconoclast) or whether he functions as a guardian of a particular ideology, specifically, certain evangelical political interests (defender of the sacred). Is he defending the sacred or smearing it? Almost all conflict condenses down to that question.

But most Americans don’t use the word “sacrilegious,” even if they mean it. Even most fundamentalists wouldn’t describe the phrase “oh my God” as sacrilegious, even if they defined it as “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Shock-jock antics long ago ballooned to absurd lengths for ratings, so that now, this spring’s high school graduates were born years after Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope on SNL to the instant dismay of many.

In the past few years, the most famous incident related to anything touching on the word “sacrilege” was the shooting of employees at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its artistic depictions of the Prophet Muhammed. Extremely strict interpretations of Islam forbid portrayals of Muhammed and attackers targeted the magazine for its alleged blasphemy. Plenty of moderate Muslims still believe in the sacred; but extremists chose to kill non-Muslims for acts that they deemed sacrilegious. And so the extremists are willing to ignore western social contracts (iconoclasts) of communal and public safety for the good of guarding a particular religious ideology (defender of the sacred).

People of many religions face the challenge of how and what to expect in the public square. Like agnostics or atheists, within the public square, most people of faith hope for basic social mores to be upheld – you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine. The Catholic priests “live and let live” down the street from the Hasidic Jews, and the progressive Unitarian Universalists “live and let live” down the street from the Amish farmhouse. In North America, free speech is prized – but in the past, social contracts have guided how and when, as a religious person, to politely express that speech so as not to be sacrilegious in the presence of someone of another religion. Insulting another person’s religion in the public square might have fallen under freedom but it wouldn’t have fallen under good etiquette. One needn’t be a universalist to be kind. For all its political baggage, separation of church and state was a vital part of the founding of the United States, many of the inhabitants of which had come pursuing religious freedom.

It can be easy to forget that there are still places in the world where religion and state are one in the same. (Even in the Western world we have Great Britain, where the monarch is the head of the church.) But you do not need to have a fused church and state in order to have a robust approach to the reality of the sacred.  

When the average secular citizen sees the sacred defended with explosions, death, and terror, it tends to drive them harder towards deeper secularization. What Christians need to do is to present the Beauty of the sacred in self-sacrificial love. The response to violent defense of the reality of the sacred isn’t to abandon the sacred but to recalibrate our response to it and our appreciation of it.

If you are asked, “Is nothing sacred?” you may respond with a resounding, “Yes! Yes, it is!” but your response will not be filled with examples of passengers being polite to each other on a jumbo jet – that’s meeting basic social contracts, not defending the sacred. Your response will likely have little to do with putting out a flag on national holidays or keeping explicit content off television networks while children are still likely to be awake. Those may be considerate for the good of the community, but failing to do so isn’t sacrilegious.

Christians are called to witness to the Beauty of the sacred through our rituals, our service, our worship, our love. Christ, the Word Made Flesh, brought heaven and earth together, and no act of sacrilege can undo that. Christ, the great cosmic insurgent, turned the system upside-down already, and when we say we bring his Kingdom, we do not mean at gunpoint. We mean we arrive with a bowl and washcloth to clean the feet of the violent, just as Christ washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. We believe that the sacred can be experienced but not contained, and that Jesus wants us to love those who are sacrilegious, not to punish them on his behalf.

We are comfortable being neighbors with those of other religions in the public square, but we are not afraid to live out our understanding of our faith – that God is three-in-one, and that we are called to a lifestyle in which we are individually and communally transformed more and more to be like Jesus Christ. We do not expect the public square to bend to accommodate us, but we enter into public space and dialogue with the intent to witness to the Beauty of God through humility, integrity, and humor. 



Elizabeth Moyer ~ Anxiety in Worship

Note from the Editor: We’re pleased to feature this important piece on mental health, anxiety, and communal worship. It also may be helpful perspective for clergy leading Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services.

“Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” – Hebrews 11:25 (MSG).

What if worship has become so creative that 18% of the population is on the outside?

The pendulum for creative contemporary worship has swung so far in many regions across denominations that segments of the population cannot assemble with others. Many Christians gather weekly and experience a one-sided worship celebration. It is one-sided because, even though everyone is welcome, these worship gatherings are not for everyone.

Welcomed may not mean hospitable. Someone living with an anxiety disorder (or any medical condition) that makes being in loud, dark areas or separated from family  unendurable does not feel welcomed. This is not a commentary on the theology or religiosity of the “turn up the volume and dim the lights, no children allowed” movement. The concern here is how the Body of Christ meets those who would dare join in for worship.

Collectively, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population (National Institute of Mental Health). Moreover, in the name of the contemporary worship experience, the real needs of this segment of the population are disregarded.

What are anxiety disorders? Anxiety disorders are panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder, to name a few. It is not uncommon for an adult or child to receive a diagnosis at some point in their lifetime (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Still, in the name of the experience, the church turns a blind eye, and in many cases, does nothing to reasonably accommodate these individuals or their families. (Reasonable accommodation here would refer to any change that would not cause undue hardship to the house of worship.)

To ignore is not to be concerned about the “one.” When the church is not worried about the one, the church ignores Jesus, our example. Like Jesus, the Body of Christ must be concerned about the one (see Matthew 18:11-13, Luke 15:3-7). To turn a blind eye is to ignore the command to love.

The heart of the matter is that by disregarding these issues, the church may be causing many families to separate for worship or not to worship in community.

Loving the people of God, desiring to live out the mission of God, and suffering from varying degrees of anxiety disorders is a battle my family tries to navigate weekly. What does this mean for many families like mine during worship? It means a constant struggle between being part of and serving within a faith community that continually divides.  It means surviving an entire worship service, with immediate discomfort when the lights go down and the music goes up. It means feeling unsafe in a dark worship space full of strangers, Christ-followers or not. For those suffering from anxiety disorders, there is something profoundly disconcerting about the inability to truly see what is going on around.

Yes, the focus should be on the worship experience, the Word coming forth, and not the aesthetics. But families comprised of individuals who have suffered childhood or adult trauma struggle make it through the entire service. From the moment the lights go down, there is a need to escape the darkness, the loudness of the drums, the sheer uncertainty of the environment and the familiarity of the dangers of such uncertainty. Many people have a clear and distinct need to hear and especially to see what is going on in a room. Understanding or feeling as if they are in the minority and believing that there is no place for them to hear the Word is disheartening. Many followers and would-be followers of Christ forsake assembly to avoid the discomfort that may lead to a panic attack, flashback or other undesired response.

Having had countless conversations with individuals from all walks of life who love God, follow Christ, and yet forsake assembly, there is not an easy response. When children are not allowed in worship,  families may immediately find themselves on the outside of the local church. Separation anxiety is a disorder that impacts many. When music is deafening, those with any number of anxiety disorders are adversely affected as well as those with hearing impairments and those with chronic daily headaches.

So while I enjoy some elements of contemporary worship, it saddens me that the church is unashamedly leaving many on the outside. I am not naïve: I do not expect any local church to change what is working for them. However, I would offer the following points of accommodation:

*A multi-service congregation might consider offering family or traditional worship.

*Turning the lights up even slightly can make a difference for many.

*Adjusting the bass would be life-giving for some.


*Be honest and upfront and consider adding a disclaimer to the church website that simply states, “may not be suitable for those with anxiety disorders.”

To reach the one, the church must remember that one size truly does not fit all.

Wesleyan Accent ~ Why Deny the Obvious Child?

Note from the Editor: About ten years ago I was struck by the force of this painting. Its impact felt like a body blow. Recently, as I followed the news coming from Syria, often accompanied by heartbreaking photos, the painting came back to mind. I contacted the artist to ask permission for use.

There is a robust history of artistic license when it comes to portrayals of Christ. On the one hand, Jesus Christ was a Middle Eastern man whose existence is verified by historians. On the other hand, Christians affirm that Jesus was also fully divine, the Son of God. Because of the truth that God took on human flesh to enter into our existence, sometimes artists dwell in that larger thought, portraying Jesus as an African man, or a Japanese fisherman, or as a blond-haired, blue-eyed European. Other times, artists have attempted to portray the physical specificity of the Christ child who was born in Bethlehem to poor Jewish parents 2,000 years ago. 

This work marries the visual structure of classic nativity paintings with heartbreaking detail derived from current events. It shows us Middle Eastern faces – but in mourning, ravaged by violence, not lit with a celestial bliss. And after all, when it comes to nativity art, who dwells on the part of the Christmas story where Herod has infants and toddlers killed in his pursuit of his pint-sized rival? Even the Christmas story – especially the Christmas story – can’t escape the fallen world in which it takes place, the very reason it takes place. Jesus was born, and women wept for their young sons killed by Herod’s soldiers.

Meditate, then, on this work by Sandy Blass: “Why Deny the Obvious Child?” See more of her work at www.blassart.com.