Tag Archives: church

Why Do We Sing in Church?

(Originally posted November 18, 2017 at malmochurch.ca.)

Tomorrow morning we will gather at Malmo again, as we have been doing faithfully for 125 years or so, to worship together through fellowship, prayer, scripture reading…and singing.

Singing has been a part of Christian worship since the first Christians gathered. In fact, some parts of the Bible are widely believed to be taken from early Christian songs of worship. For example, Philippians 2:6-11 is often referred to as the “Christ Hymn”:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

These stanzas contain not only generic praise to God, but they tell a story—the salvation story, in fact: God becomes human, dies on the cross, is raised from the dead and made Lord and Messiah.

But why do we do this? Why do we sing together in church, especially when some people don’t like singing or think they don’t have a good voice?

I can think of several reasons, and none of them have anything to do with being able to sing or carry a tune: singing brings glory to God; it helps us remember the gospel story; it is modelled and encouraged (even commanded!) in scripture; it brings believers together and encourages them (have you ever been at a concert or worship event where thousands of people sing along together? There are few things more unifying and beautiful).

(There are more reasons, I’m sure. In fact, here are a couple of further explanations for Christians singing that I have come across that you might find helpful: “The Three Rs: Why Christians Sing” and “Seven Biblical Reasons Why Singing Matters.”)

So as we gather tomorrow and in the weeks to come, consider: can I choose to participate in worship, including the singing, even if I (think I) don’t sing very well, even if I don’t fully understand why we do it?

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship.” Often we talk about worship, and especially the singing part of worship, as an expression of our feelings for God. That may be true, but there are some people who do not express their feelings for God in that way, and there are some days when my feelings for God are not great.

In a much more important way, whatever our feelings may be on a given day, our singing praise, our singing the gospel, plays a significant role in transforming us bit by bit over time, through low seasons and high seasons, as individuals and a community, into the people of God…if only we will open ourselves up—both our mouths and our hearts!

The psychology of technology.

We cancelled church this morning due to heavy snowfall and poor driving conditions. The word has gone out, but I’m in my office at the church just in case some poor soul who didn’t hear the news comes to the church. The coffee’s on.

This morning I was thinking about how technology and development has made us more cautious. I think of when Dixie and I were dating and then married and living in Regina. When we would visit her parents in Prince Albert, we preferred to take the single-lane secondary highways because they were more scenic and fun than the two-lane highway between Regina and Saskatoon. Somewhere along the line Dixie got a cell phone, mostly for when she was on the road. Then either the contract expired or the phone died and we no longer had that phone as a safety net. Now when we drove up to Prince Albert in winter there was always some concern about whether we should take that route since we didn’t have a phone. This wasn’t an issue before we had the phone, but after we’d had the phone it was a significant concern. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of that shift.

This morning there are probably elderly men saying that when they were young they would get to church even if they had to walk or drive uphill, backwards, through 5 feet of snow and zero visibility in -40 degree weather. We now have better vehicles with more powerful engines, more sophisticated traction control, and better tires than in those days of legend, yet we’re more likely to cancel events due to weather. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe it’s not that we’re more cautious but that we’re more conscious, more aware of dangers that can be avoided. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that communication is so easy these days: telephones, emails, blogs, texts, Facebook… back then fast, effective communication was not such a guarantee. Even if they wanted to cancel the service, they’d have limited means to communicate that to the church community.

We can look back and say, “There was a time when we wouldn’t dream of cancelling church, no matter what the reason.” But then how do we really know? Perhaps they were dreaming of cancelling church on a cold and snowy morning in 1932 or 1873 but couldn’t, but maybe, had they eyes to see into the future, they’d have said, “Boy, I wish we’d have that kind of communication ability now!”

Sunday thoughts on a Monday morning

Sometimes during a church service I become aware of what we are doing–the raw details of it, I mean. Usually this is during the singing time, when, depending on where I am, 50 or 100 or 120 men, women, and children stand and sing songs together, we stand reading words from a screen or from a book and sing. What a strange thing! What are we doing? Sometimes the songs are beautiful, sometimes the words seem meaningless, but always we sing. How strange!

This thought and feeling came over me again yesterday morning. I again became aware of how odd and unprecedented it and even not normal it seemed. People from 5 to 90 facing forward, singing songs.

And then it dawned on me. It’s not just the standing reading theological and worshipful words on a screen, it’s the whole package. We are singing together: people of all ages, genders, and races, singing together about and to a God they have gathered together to worship. People of different incomes, walks of life, opinions, histories, all gathered together to sing, to listen, to learn, to worship, to pray. This is remarkable, when you stop to think about it.

I realized that it’s not just the words we sing, but the act of singing together itself that is powerful and symbolic–no, even an enacting of the Kingdom of God.

 

Scripture… as we live it

I came across this series of posts by Alan Knox in which he “get us to think about what Scripture says compared to how we actually live and what our traditions teach.” Here is the original post (#1). I haven’t read all of them (there are over 180), but as I started going through them, this one particularly caught my attention:

Now as they were eatinginstead of eating a meal, Jesus tookbreadsmall pieces of bread that had already been broken, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cupseveral small cups, one for each of them, and when he had given thanks hegave it to thempassed them out, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28 re-mix)

“Several small cups, one for each of them…” Funny ’cause it’s true.

The whole series is here… 

Taking atheism to church

One of the professors at Providence Seminary (Tim Perry // his blog) is doing a lecture series at St. Margaret’s Church and the first of the lectures is available online. I had told him that I would spread the word, but put off doing so until I had listened to it myself (because how could I promote it without listening to it).  However, time is passing and I haven’t had the chance to listen yet, so I’ll mention it now.

The series is called “Taking Atheism to Church”.  I’ll simply quote my friend Joel, who has evidently listened to it already:

His first lecture focuses on the ways in which religion is increasingly permeating the public sphere. It is a good talk, very interesting and thought-provoking. It makes me look forward to the rest of his lectures. Please listen to it when you have an hour to spare.

Do have a listen to the first lecture. Throw it on your iPod to listen during your commute, or what have you.  I plan in listening to it soon.

The Lord helps those…

I’ve dived (dove? doven?) right into my reading for this semester.  The first book I started is Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (a mouthful with the subtitle).  It’s written from a sociological perspective and one of the chapters deals with the fact that, among other things, Christianity was able to mobilize a human response to epidemics in a way that pagan religion was not able to.

What was new and different about Christianity was the “notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural” and that “because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please  God unless they love one another” (86).  Emperor Julian–not a fan of Christianity–noted the benevolence of Christians and wanted pagans to at least match this activity, “but for all that he urged pagan priests to match these Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.  It was not that Romans knew nothing of charity, but that it was not based on service to the gods” (88). The pagans mostly fled the cities to save themselves from epidemics; Christians stayed in the cities and cared not only for their own but also for those sick pagans who had been left behind.

There were, in Stark’s view, a number of implications to this Christian charity which contributed to the rapid rise of the faith, but that’s another matter (though an interesting one).  However, this particular passage struck me:

I suggest reading the following passage from Matthew (25:35-40) as if for the very first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality when it was new, not centuries later in more cynical and worldly times:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

When the New Testament was new, these were the norms of the Christian communities. Tertullian [one of the church “fathers”] claimed: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (87)

This immediately put in mind of the relatively recent brouhaha over universal medicare in the U.S. Run from your church if they talk about social gospel!, says Glenn Beck (inexplicably the new spokesperson for what appears to be much of the Christian right).  What is the social gospel?  As far as I can tell, these words of Jesus in Matthew are the essence of the social gospel. And it comes from the mouth of Jesus!

How it is that the “Christian right” came to oppose the notion of universal healthcare is beyond me.  It seems to me that they ought to be the ones who most strongly support it.  I’m not suggesting that state sponsored medicare is a biblical mandate.  What is a biblical mandate is care for those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned and what have you.  The state steps in because Christians are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Somebody needs to heed Jesus’ words.

It would be one thing if the Christian right opposed universal healthcare on the grounds that they wanted to provide it instead of the Joe and Jane Taxpayer, but from what I can gather those within the church who opposed universal healthcare are not afraid of the government shuffling into their territory.  At least, not the territory of taking care of orphans and widows in their distress.  But the territory of tax dollars and the American dream?  Yes.  After all, God helps those who help themselves, it says somewhere in Hezekiah.

It scares me to think that many Christians seems to be drifting away from this “notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural”.

A book and a movie

I handed in a paper today, one which has been looming over my semester, bogging me down, for several weeks now. Contrary to what I had expected, the “loominosity” hasn’t lifted.  This might be because the paper was fairly open-ended, so I had to set boundaries to it which seemed somewhat arbitrary to me.  It feels incomplete, but it probably would feel that way no matter how long I worked on it. So I handed it in.

Maybe that looming feeling relates to something else. Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

Maybe it’s the time of year. Strangely enough, I find early spring kind of depressing and bittersweet.  The melting snow, the mud, the cool temperatures.  I went for a bit of a walk the other day which was actually uplifting.  Maybe in spring my soul longs for solitude. Maybe that’s it.

Anyway, last week I managed to watch one of the Academy Award contenders for Best Picture: A Serious Man. It’s a modern retelling of the story of Job and the film is as open-ended as that Biblical book (as well as their film, No Country for Old Men). But the lack of clarity or resolution is, I suspect, partly the point of the story, so it didn’t frustrate me as it might have.  It’s a darkly funny film and the acting is terrific.  It’s entertaining and thought-provoking and bears repeated viewing.  4/5 stars.

Also, last week I read most of James Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. It was an excellent book, which argued for what has been called “ancient-future” worship: appropriating the traditions and practices of the ancient (or even simply premodern) church into a postmodern context.  Smith is a proponent of “Radical Orthodoxy“, which is a position he argues for in the book, and he has piqued my interest in that movement.

My only critique of the book is that it focuses too much on the “emerging” church and the “postmodern” church, which, in my mind, seems to pin the movement to an “ism” rather than as an authentic form of church without strict ideological allegiances (such as “we are a postmodern church”). However, I suspect that one of the reasons he insists on doing this is because part of function of the book is a critique the so-called “postmodern church” which Smith argues is actually thoroughly modern (simply a revamped version of the “seeker sensitive” model).

I highly recommend this book, particularly for those who are skeptical of postmodern thought and its relation to the Christianity and the church.

Reflections from an untrained beginner on preparing and delivering a sermon

I’m exhausted.  I was up at 6:15 this morning and spoke in our church this morning and then we spent the afternoon with some old acquaintances/new friends.  No Sunday afternoon nap means I probably won’t do any heavy reading tonight.  Instead, maybe a little light reading and some Hebrew translation.

I’m reflecting back on my sermon this morning.  It certainly wasn’t my best sermon. Other than accidentally missing some of the stuff in my notes–useful, clarifying stuff, but not a deal-breaker–I think the presentation of it was ok (but not great).  But I did learn some lessons–and I am still a student of the sermon.

Earlier this week I was talking to a classmate about the homiletics (“preaching 101”) classes he took and what kinds of things he retained from those classes.  He noted specifically that one of the most valuable things he learned was that you need to have a clear concept or point you are trying to express–in other words, make sure your sermon is focused, much like it’s good to have a clear thesis statement when writing a paper (something which I’m pretty sure I’ve never had).  That may not seem profound, but strangely enough, lack of focus was my biggest problem this time around.  I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t say it clearly and so the message may have come across rambly and disjointed.  As I was preparing, I kept thinking I was heading towards focus, but I never really got there.

I need to learn to filter out the extraneous material.  It is sometimes tempting to cram as much material in as you can find. Even if the material may be relevant or applicable to a passage, it may not be useful to communicate a particular message.  In fact, too much material may actually obscure the message.

Also, I think early in the preparation I should not hold too tightly to what may seem at the time to be  a good idea. If an idea gets cemented in my mind as a good idea too early in the process, it may actually derail the rest of the process because I will feel compelled to force all other ideas to fit with or around the original idea.  That usually doesn’t work.  To a degree, I think that was the case this time around.

The second thing which became apparent to me is something which I’m not sure how to resolve.  I became aware this morning that I was not really “present” as I spoke, and thinking back, I’m not sure that I have ever been.  By this I mean that I am speaking but not really self-aware that I’m preaching; using my notes but not really being aware of using my notes (in fact, shortly after sitting down I wondered if I had missed a page); looking at the listeners but not really seeing them.  Does that make sense?  I don’t like getting to the end of a sermon and realizing that I wasn’t really present for 20 minutes or more of speaking.

Maybe the solution is simply to relax and try to engage the listeners.  Perhaps it would also help to be more familiar with the sermon you’ve prepared–that is, have it more or less done a day or two before it is to be spoken and then run over it several times.  And then maybe use a very rough outline of the sermon when speaking, rather than referring to a manuscript.  I tried using an outline this morning, but I went back to the manuscript fairly quickly.  That was, I think, a combination of nerves and not being familiar enough with the material.

Lessons learned. I hope I remember them next time around.

Church, the sermon and Kant.

…a church [is] a place where the Word of God “is purely preached and heard.”  The good news is that even that puny preacher of little worth can be heard as speaking God’s word; the bad news is that, no matter how good the preacher, a congregation where everyone is daydreaming or asleep is at that moment, in Calvin’s terms, not a church.  Congregations need reminding from time to time that the preaching of the Word of God is not a spectator sport.

– William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God (142)

Interesting.  It’s not unusual, particularly on Christian blogs, to read arguments against the sermon in worship (or the sermon as central in worship).  It is not, they say, a transforming activity; it is one way; it is not community-oriented, but top-down; etc.  I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but I’ve never considered Placher’s (he’s actually paraphrasing John Calvin) angle before: what role does the congregation play in all this?

By preaching Placher means, “present[ing] and interpret[ing] scripture to the assembled people” (whether or not it is entertaining, witty or intellectual).

Is preaching not transformational because preaching the Word of God can’t be transformational?  Or is it not transformational because congregations are not interested and are not listening?

How much of the opposition to the sermon or the traditional form of church worship arises out of the possibly unconscious but pervasive influence of the Enlightenment project (that is, individualism and rationalism)?  “Give me a Bible and I’ll interpret it for you”; “That church is just not meeting my needs”; “that preacher is boring”; “the church isn’t relevant to our culture”; “what’s the worship like at your church? is it good?”; etc.

There is nothing wrong with taste or preferences per se.  I’m just wondering what motivates us in church?  And what motivates those who reject or move away from traditional ways of doing church?  The right answer these days is that the church is not being the church–but why do we think that?  Is it just an excuse to cover an individualistic choice? Is the church not being the church because it corporately functions incorrectly?  Or is it because our underlying assumptions as individuals about the church are wrong?

Just thinking out loud…

Church Signs

From John Frye:

Julie and I intentionally pay attention to church signs that have sayings on them. On Saturday last we saw a church sign:

BE AN ORGAN DONOR

GIVE YOUR HEART TO JESUS

After we rolled our eyes and got over the mental jolt, we asked ourselves what purpose do these signs and sayings serve?  What goes through the minds of unsuspecting people who are far from and miss God? Did Jesus suffer a heart attack with residual damage? Maybe I am too literal, I don’t know, but it seems real bloody to me. If I give my heart to Jesus, then I die. Is that it? What if everybody gives their heart to Jesus? What will he do with all those donated hearts?

We would like to think the saying is cute, but it’s not. It’s pathetic. It is gibberish to those unskilled in evangelingo—my word for insider-speak that requires the secret dictionary.

One of the most aggravating signs is this:

C H  _  _  C H

WHAT’S MISSING?

U R

When we see this one we have an overwhelming feeling to turn into the parking lot, rush into the church crying, “We just don’t want to be missing anymore! God help us!” Do people really think that sign is doing anything at all redemptive? Or, are people who drive by suppose to think, “Why, aren’t they clever? Did you see that? U R. How so very clever.”

Why not some honest church signs:

GOSSIP SPOKEN HERE, or

WE WELCOME EVERYONE,

ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO ARE JUST LIKE US.

I think the words “Jesus Saves” painted on a rock by the highway is still one of the best signs.

(link – I’ve quoted his entire post.  Hope that’s OK.  I’m quite willing to cut some out if needed.)

My feelings exactly.  Except that perhaps I think even the “Jesus Saves” rock is ineffective and possibly pointless–but it’s certainly the better choice.