Tag Archives: Church

A fond farewell

Dear friends at NCC,
After 15 years among you, we are headed out.

You haven’t seen us much on Sundays for the past several weeks, and I apologize if it felt like we “ghosted” you. It wasn’t my intention, but it’s kind of how things happened.

I deeply appreciate everything I learned when we moved to the PCA in 2001-2002 after a lifetime in Fundamentalism. I had a lot of warped thinking ground deep into my soul, and New Covenant was a place of Grace for us, especially during those early transitional years when we had to figure out what it meant to abandon the old ways.

I have rich and blessed memories of early home ministry groups, including the one at the Rountrees’ for any visitors and new members of the church. We spent many happy Sunday lunches there, talking with the retired folks (one was a retired Navy nurse!) and internalizing the excellent logistic strategy for food service, “Get in line behind someone older than you.” (Every potluck should adopt that rule.)

We met Calvary Home for Children through NCC, spending many happy Sunday lunches doing HMG at the cottage hosted by the Fastenaus. We learned a lot about what love looks like by watching John and Laura open their hearts to 7 kids after raising their own 4, and then happily seeing that set of 7 siblings adopted by 3 local families. It’s still one of my favorite stories. Thanks to CHC’s work with teens who attended NCS, we have learned so much about foster care and the incredible work CHC does for children and teens who need a forever home. We will always heartily support CHC’s ministry.

Our lives were deeply shaped by our work at New Covenant School. We were so young when we arrived, had so much to learn. I cannot fully describe how much teaching changed me. It made me who I am, and I am much better for knowing every single student who walked through my doors. I cannot separate my NCC experience from my NCS work, and I value those years so much.

For a few years late in our teaching career, we worked with the Youth Group, under Mark Wells’s leadership. I’ve always been impressed by the level of involvement of the parents in NCC Youth, especially fathers. Having dads integrally involved in leading, teaching, and mentoring youth makes such a difference in the lives of the teens who mature there.  It was during Mark’s time that the youth (unbidden by us adults) moved themselves to the very front pew for Sunday morning worship. Actually, I think that was Colt’s doing – he couldn’t pay attention otherwise. 😉 I’m so glad we decided to dive into youth work for a bit, and seeing those young’uns grow into fine adults makes my heart happy.

Since my first years at NCC, when the service was still pretty traditional, I’ve been part of the music ministry at New Covenant. It began with singing in the choir under David Wilcox (including my first-ever solo for a Christmas program, accompanied by an orchestra – never expected such a debut!), and I soon found myself behind the piano (or keyboards) supporting various styles of music as NCC sought to find its musical “voice.” Darrell Tricket warmed my heart with his pure, unadulterated joy at the power of Grace. And after he left, Brett and Kevin have continued to lead worship with patience and contentment despite the difficulty of serving week after week in an area where everyone seems to have an opinion. I don’t think any other church does what NCC does with music. I don’t think anyone but Brett can envision how to put a Led Zeppelin bassline under a 400-year-old hymn and join those so beautifully and creatively. Playing with the praise team has kept me engaged in worship in ways that sitting in the pew never could. I hope that has been a blessing to y’all as well.

So with all this good, why are we leaving? Fair question.

I think it’s simplest to say that we’ve changed, and we need to move our worship and ministry somewhere where we can live that out, and where our differences won’t undermine the leadership or ministry of NCC or the PCA. Honestly, it was a short walk from where we were in Fundamentalism to conservative Reformed Evangelicalism. And the similarities which made that transition easy then are chafing us now.

About once every decade, Coart and I go on a “walkabout” through Christianity. We visit a wide variety of churches so that we can see the breadth and depth of the body of Christ. It’s breathtaking. Sure, some churches make me uncomfortable; some theological emphases  are IMO just wrong; many pulpits suffer from weak preaching; most Christian music is pretty boring. But we are all united under the banner of the Cross, as expressed in the most historic of our creeds. That unity corrects a lot of the judgmentalism and disapproval that seeps into our opinions about our fellow believers.

So, as we leave, please be assured, friends, that we leave with a full heart and with gratitude for all that New Covenant Church folks invested in us during those early years. No hard feelings. Our door remains open to all who would be friends with us, and we hope to continue fellowshipping with you at hearths and tables here in Anderson.

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.


Empty-Nesters: Please get back Into the pool. We need you.

Why aren’t there survival support groups for parents of teenagers?

I’m serious. Hear me out.

If what I observe is even remotely accurate,  the World has decided that Toddlers and Preschoolers demand the kind of support and attention given to Three Mile Island by a nuclear engineer prone to anxiety attacks.

d42dbb727391bbeb114561bb6ae8ae78New mothers should be surrounded by a support group the size of a brigade — including grandparents, friends of grandparents, church nursery workers, the moms of older kids who miss having a baby around, the fathers of older kids who are actually really great with babies but don’t push themselves into the gaggle of chattering women to get a chance to hold the newest addition…..Basically everyone within earshot of the crying babe.

I’m all about support networks.  Good lord, if I have a kid, I’m calling on anyone within siren distance for help.  I am an idiot when it comes to little kids. Completely incompetent.

But I think this whole parent support network breaks down as kids get older.

I spent a decade teaching teens, meaning I got to know a lot of parents of teens.  As a crowd, these parents tend to share some common characteristics:

  • They’re confused and sometimes hurt or angry because their teen seems to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. It’s as if 6 children have all moved into the same body…. 4 of them are total assholes at least half the time, 1 is always asleep, 3 “can’t even,” and the only nice one emerges when the parent isn’t around.
  • They’re tired because teenagers have ridiculous expectations for social lives but restricted access to driving privileges, a car, or gas money.  So the parental taxi service runs non-stop, the management of curfew is non-stop, the litany of last-minute requests to buy something that should have been taken care of last week is non-stop, the vigilance over “what were you doing last weekend” never stops.
NOT IMPRESSED: Teenagers as a species.
NOT IMPRESSED: Teenagers as a species.
  • They’re poor because nothing tops teen expectations for transportation except their need for money, electronics, clothes, games, movie tickets, adventures with friends, and school supplies. Maybe you can resist “keeping up with the Joneses” but your kid probably can’t.
  • They’re weary of the interpersonal conflict.  Sometimes kids grow up without giving their parents hell all the time. But almost every parent  has to live through at least 12-18 months of crap. Kids know where your buttons are. They know where it hurts. Sometimes they go for the jugular…but usually they’re just cluelessly self-absorbed adolescents drowning in angst.
  • They’re scared that they’re doing it wrong. Parenting is one of those jobs where you don’t know what to do until after you’ve lived through it and gained the experience you would have given a body part to possess 3 days ago.  And every kid is different so those hard-earned lessons may not transfer to the next one.
  • PARENTS, this is you.
    PARENTS, this is you in TeenWorld….. Misspellings and all. Without RDJ’s cool factor.

    They’re wrestling with the balance between safety and freedom, with when to intervene and when to let life teach its hard lessons. A teenager’s character blossoms in exciting ways, giving glimpses of the incredible person tucked inside, a vision of stunning future potential. But they’re also old enough to really, truly screw it up….bad. With lifelong consequences.  That’ll keep anyone up at night. Which makes teenagers’ unhappiness with their parents’ involvement all the more infuriating.

  • They’re feeling guilty because social media and casual conversation make it look like everyone else, despite all their protestations, is doing it so much better. Those people’s kids seem nicer, kinder, smarter, better dressed, better fed, better educated, more involved, and readier for college. Oh yeah, college! Another thing to feel guilty about – how big is your tuition savings account? (Answer: Never big enough.)

If the teen in question is a first-born, raise the intensity of all of these by a factor of 10.

To this, I have something to say:

Empty nesters, we need you.

Where are the support groupies for the parents of teens? They’re out on the lake. They’re chasing retirement. They’re trying to keep up with a kid at college who never calls home and loses all his socks so he just doesn’t bother wearing any, ever.  They’re tired because they’re 50 years old still working 50 hours a week. They’re saving for a future wedding (fingers crossed). They’re distracted because a first grandchild is on the way.

But empty-nesters, we still need you.

266092394761f1b95c58df16df767d59YOU are the voice of reason to the parents of teens in your life (and in your church and in your extended network of people you knew when your kids were in school).

YOU are the evidence that parenting adolescents need not be a terminal illness or the #1 cause of ulcers in adults in their 40s. (I made that up; stop Googling.)

YOU possess the power to say the magic words that parents of teens need to hear again and again and again: “It’s going to be okay.” 

The Apostle Paul gave Titus a model for church relationships as Titus got started in his pastoral career in Crete. In chapter 2, Paul suggests that it’s the older and more experienced people in the church who should mentor those coming along behind in the ways of life: marriage, parenting, working, living.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve noticed this mentoring cycle  seems to break as families grow up. I can imagine many reasons:  Social circles for kids and parents harden into the natural groupings driven by school, pulling families into spending time primarily around people who have kids of similar ages. With everyone tucked neatly into these strata, who has time to break out and ask for a hand up?

So. If you’re reading this, and your kids are grown, please find a family who’s still raising their kid13441326730742762560-1368441969s, and invest in their lives. Just start with going out for coffee or beer – what parent of teens doesn’t need chemical assistance?

Get to know teens in your church or neighborhood. Volunteer to chaperon a youth group trip, or have a bunch over for cookies. (Teens still like cookies.) It won’t be weird. I promise. Teens hate only their own parents. 🙂

Hillary earned a lot of scorn in the 90s when she reminded us “It takes a village to raise a child.”  But it DOES take a village. Being part of the Body means parents aren’t supposed to be stuck doing this alone. The rest of us at different stages of life should be investing something in the people coming after us.

Get back in the pool, Empty Nesters! You’re the lifeguards.

Gender, Church, and More Questions

10 Ways Male Privilege Shows Up in the Church | The Junia ProjectThe Junia Project.

^ I appreciated this post because it sets in front of us a difficult question regarding male-female roles in the conservative Church.

I fully understand why leadership positions are reserved for men in most Evangelical churches. It’s a long discussion, so if that idea is new to you, I’ll have to refer you elsewhere rather than giving all of that context here.  This link offers a fair statement of the viewpoint I’ve heard from pulpits my entire life, though this author is more emphatic about a woman’s role in the home than most pastors I’ve sat under.

But I think there’s a failure here to consider the whole counsel of Scripture, the illustrations of women in leadership, and (especially) the negative effects of a myopic, one-gendered viewpoint when it comes to corporate decisions.

(It was Dr Mark Minnick, in one of the pinnacle churches of Fundamentalism, who hammered home the point that I Cor 11 clearly assumes a woman is involved in verbal public ministry when it takes up the question of wearing head coverings.  “If a woman prays or prophesies …..” I’ve rarely heard anyone else bring this up.)

This is a difficult question, and one that many others have tackled recently. So I’m not going to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

I guess I’m just here to wish that conservative Christians would revisit exactly what they think Scripture prohibits, not set up fences to make sure there’s no possibility of crossing a line.

Many women in our churches do the work of deacons (even wielding considerable de facto authority) but are stripped of the title, salary, recognition, or respect for their work.

And the question of whether women can be pastors is not at all the same as discussing the extent to which women should be active teachers and participants in the ministry to the Body as a whole — as adult Sunday School teachers, in worship, and in guiding the direction of the assembly.

Maybe let’s start there?

Link: The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed | Acton PowerBlog

This article provides an excellent balance to the post I just wrote. 🙂 I didn’t write it, but you should definitely read it. Because I don’t need to rewrite someone else’s excellent post:

…[M]issional, radical Christianity could easily be called “the new legalism.” A few decades ago, an entire generation of Baby Boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of “being good” but what their Millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shame-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the Baby Boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.

via The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed | Acton PowerBlog.

Denominational Distinctives should not overshadow the Gospel

More than a decade ago, Coart & I found ourselves emerging from a narrow, insular, and separatist Christianity into the light of biblical teaching about how believers relate to one another and to Grace.  It was scary, to be sure — leaving the world of Fundamentalism that I was raised in and both of us had adopted during our college & seminary years. But it was that very education which opened our eyes and hearts to what the Bible actually says (rather than what people say it said about fellowship, sin, and salvation).

We landed in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a relatively young denomination of Presbyterians who left the churches who eventually became the PCUSA.  There’s a strong difference in thinking between the two groups which has probably grown even broader.  Even the ECHO churches who anchor a “conservative insurgency” within the PCUSA would seem way too liberal for the average PCA minister.

We chose the PCA because the Presbyterian polity seemed to be a better match for the way the New Testament describes the early church organization (a plurality of elders in a local church and strong connections among the churches in a region).  We were Reformed in our soteriology — I’d say we still are — and moving away from the Dispensationalism we were raised with to adopt a more covenantal view of God’s work with people and families.   Throw in a master’s degree from Covenant College a few years later which introduced us to Kuyperian thinking.

So I was disappointed — disheartened? — to run across the following set of articles on the Facebook feed of a friend who is a PCA minister.  The first was an op-ed suggesting it might be time for good churches to leave the PCA because of a lack of conformity to certain denominational standards, including adherence to the Westminster Confession, a uniform statement regarding certain communion practices, and some issues of church discipline.

Another pastor took time to explain his 10 reasons for sticking with the PCA, offering some counterpoints to the 5 objections raised in the original op-ed.  He raises some good points but mostly just argues, “the PCA is the best we’ve got, and she’s not dead yet!” … if I may paraphrase with a little tongue-in-cheek license.

But here’s the thing that really, REALLY bothers me:

Everything they’re fighting over in these articles are points of denominational distinction important to theologically-oriented Presbyterians.  But they aren’t central points of theology.  They aren’t wrestling with how to understand the Gospel (except in the case of the Federal Vision controversy).

By definition, our denominational differences force us to spend a lot of time arguing over very fine shades of difference. The men seeking ordination study hundreds of hours to answer questions like, Can you dip your communion bread/wafer/cracker/gluten-free organic substitute in the wine/grape juice?  WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?

….not discussing how the Gospel can and should be applied to 21st century post-modernity, with a view toward seeing the Gospel take over our cities and regions, and working effective change in social structures, family structures, neighborhoods, schools, economic theories, or the arts.

I have little patience for the argument represented in the two articles — not when the topic is aligned to the divisive question of whether two PCA churches who — *gasp* — might worship using different styles of music can even remain part of the same denomination.

This is the divisive, unbiblical, sinful hyper-separatism I left Fundamentalism to get away from.

Can your PCA church be in the same denomination with another one who dips its bread in the wine instead of passing the crackers and Welch’s?    Yes.  Yes you can.

Because the mandate of the Church as the bride of Christ is to preach the Gospel, love people, and make disciples.  In the end, our denominational distinctives — if they are getting in the way of that mandate — are not worth what we say they are.

Jesus told a parable about men who each try to enter the Kingdom. One brings his allegiances as his badge of honor. “Lord! Lord!  I know you!”  But Jesus defined His Kingdom as comprising those who give cups of cold water in His name to “the least of these.”

Not to those who got all the theology defined correctly in their Book of Church Order.

*gets off soapbox*

Disclaimers:   I hate to be misunderstood.  So let me be clear.  I am NOT saying that doctrine is irrelevant or unimportant; I am not suggesting that people can believe anything they want and be ok; I’m not even suggesting that I don’t have clear opinions about how the sacraments should be administered.

But I AM suggesting that when Paul defined the core of the Gospel message as Christ’s death and Resurrection, according to the Scriptures, we should not try to come along after him and redefine the central core of the Church’s beliefs.  The ancient creeds codified all the important points.  I’m not impressed by people who think we should add new points to that list — like 6-day creationism, communion practices, or worship restrictions.

Oh, and while I’m here stirring the pot — can someone explain to me why the Regulative Principle itself isn’t an example of adding something to the Word that God Himself didn’t say?


Christians must deal justly with abuse

I don’t like the narrative that demands we live our lives in fear.  Our 24/7 news cycle promotes a creeping terror that turns parenting into jail keeping and long nights of anxious terror about the “unknown unknown” about to destroy our families.

But churches can be very resistant to implementing the kinds of “best practices” for child care which businesses in general have adopted (either because they’re “good sense” or maybe to avoid lawsuits).  Yet the continuing stream of ugly stories of abuse happening amidst Christians demands that we change.

We don’t need suspicion or blind faith; we need sensible policies and structures in place.

Boz Tchividjian wrote a great post this weekend which puts in front of our faces the reality: Church is a great place to hide abuse.  (Boz is the head of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, abbreviated G.R.A.C.E., a consulting nonprofit that assists ministries and churches in auditing their policies and practice.

Sex offenders, faith communities, and four common exploitations | Rhymes with Religion.

Take time to read his post….. I’ll wait.

In addition to developing sensible safeguards for those who work with children in churches and Christian schools, church leaders also need to move investigations of child abuse and family neglect into the realm of the God-designated authority for issues of justice:  the government.

Stop hyperventilating, conservatives.

It’s hard to cut through the “government is evil” rhetoric that swamps our political discourse these days, but it’s the Church’s job to declare what  Scripture actually SAYS.  And God designated governmental authority to handle justice, punishment, and the law.

(Clarification: I’m not saying “check your judgment at the door”; I’m not saying the government should take over vital services like caring for victims; I think there’s a lot of value in the nonprofit / private sector running ministries like Calvary Home for Children.  So don’t assume what I’m not saying.)

Government is no more or less evil than the people who comprise it, despite the current political rhetoric that demands a small government in the name of God Almighty. *coughs*

God’s commands to government officials cover a constellation of human needs.  From punishing murderers/criminals or waging war to standing up for the oppressed and poor and marginalized, the government stands responsible before the Lord to handle questions related to justice.

As evangelical Christianity has become all the more aligned with the conservative political spectrum, the “government is evil!” narrative has tainted our theology.

So when someone whispers that “Susie” claims “Pastor D—-” acted inappropriately, our church organizations turn inward, circling wagons to protect reputation and PR and brand rather than pulling these questions into the God-approved light of legal investigation.

The word “investigation” makes us nervous. We don’t trust our governmental officials because
1) politicians are creepy and self-serving and slick and feel like used-car salesmen;
2) our political process rewards attack ads and sound bites, not thoughtful discourse;
3) sometimes our laws are just absolutely stupid because laws, by nature, must deal with lowest-common-denominator behavior;
4) America isn’t really that corrupt, all things considered, but the “good ol’ boys” network and back room dealing and ALL THE MONEY that now controls the political sphere sure feels corrupt to most of us;
5) we all know cases where the legal system failed, where a victim wasn’t given justice or where an innocent person was found guilty.

I get that.

But it is the very nature of legal investigation (done rightly) to protect victims and also to protect innocent people from having their reputations destroyed due to  “he said-she said” accusations, for just as many people of power abuse that power to victimize others, accusers sometimes betray justice by lying to destroy someone.

Neither the victim nor the accused benefit when the due process of law is replaced by back room deals, sweeping things under the carpet, or trying to handle an accusation “in house.”

The very nature of abuse is insidious because in many cases, abuse is tied to the wrongful exercise of “power.”  And, as Boz discussed in his  post, our Christian assemblies often deliver power structures and ready authority to any person interested in taking advantage of children or the weak.

So, as Christians, we  need to

  • get involved in politics to the extent that we can stand it 🙂 — because we need people voting in not-corrupt politicians and judges with good bench records
  • contact our local legislators on the state and national levels to ask for better laws to protect victims and more support for victim support agencies
  • implement clear, common-sense policies in our church children’s ministries, Christian schools, and parachurch organizations to protect children from abusers, run all personnel through background checks, clarify who can be where with kids, and mandate reporting charges of abuse to legal authorities
  • ask our denominational authorities to pass resolutions asking congregations to develop better policies, and provide leadership on this issue

Again, there are many ways to misunderstand what I’m saying, so feel free to ask questions in comments rather than just assuming you know what I mean.

And really,  do read Boz’s post.