We Are Exiles. We Are To Be Different.

The Bible is filled with stories of people who lived as exiles. They found themselves as followers of God in lands ruled by people who didn't desire to be faithful to God. Joseph in Egypt. Esther in Persia. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylon. Jesus in Judea. These people weren't as concerned with organizing the State and public spaces into what they wanted. Instead, they were focused on remaining faithful no matter what the cost to themselves.

So it was through this lens that I have seen the hot button issue of the last few weeks: Transgenders and public restrooms. And as I was working through the stories of the exiles, I would read people's comments on Facebook and hear them in conversations. Collectively, we're trying to figure our response out. Yet, in the midst of it, I'm seeing Christians full of hate. I'm seeing people in the world full of permissiveness. And it got me thinking.

When we, as Christians, argue about bathrooms, we join in on the issue at hand being a political and social issue rather than a moral and biblical one.

Let's say that our whole public bathroom system is reshaped. Men are allowed into women's restrooms and vice versa. If that happens, I will then be able to go into the bathroom with my daughters and protect them if that is the fear. I just need to do what is best for my family under the laws we have. I don't have to enter into the social and political argument. I don't have to try and force my ethics on others. I don't have to behave in a way that is viewed as oppressive. I am an exile in Babylon, I can take a stance morally on the issue and understand that Babylon is going to be Babylon. I can love and stand up for truth at the same time.

In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they refused to cave to society and were thrown into the fiery furnace. They stood up for truth, literally and figuratively, when they refused to bow to the idol. Yet in standing up for truth, they still allowed Babylon to be Babylon. We don't see them trying to change Babylon.

The world can do what they want out there. There are way more immoral things in our society than people struggling with gender identity who want to use a bathroom different than their biological gender. And my favorite musicians, like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, no matter how much I appreciate their music, don't dictate my morals to me. That's up to God and the Bible. What Babylon does out there doesn't change what I'm going to teach my children. It doesn't change the teachings I will share in the pulpit. We, as exiles and followers of Jesus, won't let it control the views we have and the way we actually live.

But if there is something that we should learn from all the exile stories, it's that it's not our job to tell the world how to live. It's our job to show them how to live. It's our job to remain faithful even in the face of being unpopular or being punished for our views. We don't oppress others. We sacrifice ourselves.

History shows us that the approach of trying to capture power and control, of decreeing laws and trying to win political battles, hasn't done the church any favors. It also wasn't the approach that any of the exiles in the Bible took. The reality behind any political battle is force. We want to use the power of the state to get our way. When we push for laws, we are pushing for punishments to be enacted on those who don't live the way that we want them to live. And that doesn't seem to Christlike to me. It influences us to focus on politics rather than just being the most loving people in our community. It causes us to focus on the social issue of the moment rather than the totally transformative message, grace, and love of Jesus that changes everything.

This idea of being an exile changes the way we live. And if we truly apply it to the issues of our times, it will change our approach there too. It should empower us to be more compassionate, more faithful, and more focused on the mission of Jesus. We can't choose to fight the battles of this world and the mission of God. We must choose one.

Frederick Buechner wrote in the Faces of Jesus:
"If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own - and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."
We are exiles. We are to be different than this world. We are to be crazy in a way. So we're going to be different than those around us. We're going to be different in our public life. Are we? 

It's NOT Time to Boycott the Worship Industry; It's Just Time to Worship

Recently, an article by Jonathan Aigner is popping up regularly on my Facebook thread: It's Time to Boycott the Worship Industry. In it, he gives five points attacking modern church music and the way it is done. If you want to get to my point by point rebuttal, you can scroll to the bottom, but I thought I would lay some groundwork first.

There is no biblical mandate about singing a certain style of songs in church, especially songs that were written in the 1800s, early 1900s, or the 1950s.  These were not written during the time of Christ, and they are not the hymns referred to in Ephesians 5:18b-19.  "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" (Ephesians 5:18-19 ESV). So it may say hymns in the Bible, but let's not pretend these are the hymns referred to by Paul in his letter to the Christian in Ephesus.

The words of many of the hymns are beautiful, inspiring, and are definitely worth singing, but a church is not right or wrong with God because they choose to sing hymns or choose to sing some more modern style. Some modern songs also have great words, and I'm cynically confident there will be people arguing to sing them in fifty years, long after they are out of style.

If a church could be more relevant to the culture around them by using a certain music style that is in the specific language of the people, then they should do that whether that music style is their personal preference or not. Because when it comes down to it, we should be willing to discard any tradition that is not based on Scripture if it will help us be more effective ambassadors of God's kingdom. Clinging to traditions that we like at the cost of alienating those outside of the church is exactly what all of the great reformers rebelled against.

Martin Luther was one such great reformer. He fought for the language used in translations of the Bible and the language spoken from the pulpit to be in the language of the people.  He considered it folly that the church attempted to instruct the masses in a language that they did not understand.  There was nothing productive that would come from people participating in an empty ritual of listening to a message they could not understand and connect with. Needless to say, the ritual would not be empty if they knew the Latin, but church isn't designed just for those who were educated enough to know Latin. The gathering should be done in a way to connect with everyone.

The same is true with the style of music. An outdated style, no matter how wonderfully and beautifully crafted, can be as great of a "language barrier" as a foreign language.  If the church is not using a style that can be found on the non-Christian radio dial, then we expect a person seeking God to crash through a specific and unnecessary cultural barrier in our church. I remember being a seeker in a worship service and being touched by God during the culturally relevant worship service; music that really is no longer culturally relevant. I would be wrong to say that those songs that touched my heart should be the ones we use today because they should still be able to touch hearts just the same. And the song that really touched my heart wouldn't even be the same songs that the crowd celebrating the boycott worship article want to go back to singing; it was Audio Adrenaline's Big House. I know I should be embarrassed about that. The purpose of worship in church is to instruct and bring people into the presence of God. Those missions are hampered if the music is not culturally relevant.

We are not in the kingdom of God to please ourselves. It is all about God: Glorifying Him, bringing about His will, and bringing people to Him. If there are any obstacles to the Gospel, let it not be some tradition that we enjoy. Let us make sure that it is Jesus' radical demands on people's lives and never allow any tradition to get between that message of Jesus and the seeker. The traditions we personally enjoy should be quickly and lovingly tossed aside when necessary for the greater good of the reaching others.

But we still have a serious dilemma. We are a nation fragmented into a plethora of subcultures. Some like one style of music. Others like another. While others like another. You could probably go down a block from house to house and every house has a different style of music that they like.

Can the church exist like it is and thrive in a society of various subcultures? Should the culture of one's audience matter when deciding what activities to do at the Sunday gathering and other activities the church participates in?

I'll take a shot at the last question first. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our Sunday gathering and other church activities are influenced by our culture or the culture of the group that planted the church we attend. Often, the things of our culture are a cultural blind spot to us; we don't view them as cultural. Many things, from the music style and songs to the style of preaching, are purely a choice of culture. Other activities can be cultural too. We don't realize how much culture influences our setting because we have always resided in our culture. The way we do things seems to us to be the unquestionable right way to do these things.

That is what a common culture provides. Everyone in the culture agrees with the right way to do things. However, once the culture fragments like our culture has, what used to be the common way to do things is no longer common to everyone.

There are some essential elements to being the church. These should never be strayed from. Sadly, most groups of Christians try to say that what makes them different is an essential when it is actually just a cultural opinion. Then they hold onto that cultural opinion and refuse to change it. It would be a glorious day if Christians could come to an agreement on what are the essentials.

Can the church exist like it is and thrive in a society of various cultures? To answer this question, I think it would be fair to ask if an American missionary to Africa would thrive if they cared less about the African culture. Can we just transplant "American" churches around the world without changing for the culture and expect them to be effective? Because a lot of people are in a cultural time warp, doing things in a style that was relevant to culture twenty, thirty, fifty, or a hundred years ago. They are like the American in my little illustration, seeking to do church in a foreign culture without understanding that foreign culture and adapting what they can without compromising the Gospel to that foreign culture.

All cultural things of the church can change except for where they cross the line into sin or prevent us from being the loving people we are to be (the other side of sin that seems to be ignored). We are not servants to or ambassadors of any culture; we are solely servants and priests of the kingdom of God. If our cultural practices must change in order for us to be the servant that God wants us to be, then we should gladly change.

Tradition can be detrimental to us fulfilling our mission.. There is nothing inherently wrong with tradition until the love of doing things in a traditional way prevents us from effectively reaching the culture around us.

Likewise, change can be detrimental to us fulfilling our mission. There is nothing inherently wrong with change until we like change so much that we morph into a church that is foreign to the culture around us.

The future of the church depends upon us being sensitive to what God wants the church to be. We must not hold on to any sacred cows but the essentials. It is our calling to be priests to the culture around us. And in so doing, the church will change, yet still remain, at its core, the same.

With that said, I now come to the point of dealing with the five points in the article.

1. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because money shouldn’t drive what churches sing."

Money doesn't drive what churches sing. Churches sing what they want to sing. However, artists do get compensated for what churches sing. Just yesterday, we received our bill for our CCLI license. It's fair for people who create what we sing to be compensated for their work.

2. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because it creates its own idols."
Maybe worship creates idols among some. I have no idea who the image is of in the article. He doesn't use a caption to tell me. I guess she is an idol to a few. I think church culture has a much larger problem of idolizing preachers (Tim Keller, Joel Osteen, John Piper, Francis Chan, and Rob Bell at one time) than it does with idolizing musicians. And did someone mention money? If we're talking about boycotting anyone because of point one, maybe it should be these authors. These authors rake in the money. But how much money the creator of something makes is not a good criteria to evaluate whether something is useful or not.

3. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because the congregation’s voice should be primary." 
I don't care whose voice is primary. In our church, the congregation's voice is. But I just had a comment the other day after a person went to Winter Jam that they sang better to louder music. One of the not so great things about being a pastor is that everyone has an opinion on worship, and we can't make them all happy despite wanting to. To me, the issue is ultimately people worshiping. If louder music helps, then good for loud music. If quiet music and candlelight help, hurrah for quiet music and candlelight. The volume of the music is a tool. Nothing more. Nothing less.

4. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because emotionalism is not worship."
God made us with emotions. Some of us are wired differently. Personally, I don't even enjoy singing along or dancing. You can take me to a concert of my favorite band. I won't clap. I know all the lyrics, yet I won't sing. I will just stand there. I will appreciate it all thoroughly. We are all wired differently. Some people want the emotion. I don't think that's wrong unless they begin to worship the emotion. Others, like me, could care less about the emotion. But let us not make our emotional preference a criteria to attack others.

5. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because simply being a silently dissatisfied customer won’t fix anything."

The worship wars are back. I hate this. It's been a good fifteen years in the Christian world without the worship wars. I understand that people want to worship in a way that they enjoy with the music they appreciate (or maybe think is sacred and the only kind appropriate to use). But I'm not going to enjoy the pushback that I may get as a pastor to use a different style than the one that our musicians choose to use. My personal view is that the music style should be in the language of the people.

And one more thing. You aren't a customer. That's where this whole argument goes astray. Customers want what they want, and they view things in a cost/benefit equation. It steers the whole conversation in a wrong direction. You are not a customer; you're an ambassador for God's kingdom. A good ambassador in a foreign land gets to know the culture around them. They try to influence that culture for their homeland. We have a same mission. We are not customers. We are ambassadors of the kingdom of the most high God.

From the Trash Can to the MGM Grand

I pressed the up button on the elevator to get on the walkway that extended over Tropicana Avenue to get into the MGM Grand. We needed a bite to eat. The elevator arrived and I stepped in. The lights of the casino were green and mesmerizing. The skyline was the best that man could make. I was impressed. And then I stepped out of the elevator. There, twenty feet from me, was a man digging through the trash. Looking to get his next meal from something thrown away by the wealthy partygoers. Reality shocked me. All the pretty lights, beautiful art, groundbreaking architecture and design couldn’t keep the plight of humanity in the darkness.

The shock to my system was real. We want to have a magical pill to fix these things. We want to develop a government program to eliminate these problems, but those aren’t the solution to our problems. So what is the solution?

Oh, I wasn’t thinking about a solution for the homeless man digging through the trash. I care about that, but I think it will be solved if we actually solve another problem. I got ahead of myself.

If we actually fix the problem of the thousands of people just one thousand feet away from this homeless man – people waiting in line, extravagantly decked out in their finest to go clubbing. And who could really blame them? Steve Aoki was doing the mixing that night at the Hakkasan, a state of the art night club that the MGM Grand spent $200 million to build. A place where, if you’re feeling really extravagant, you can spend $500,000 on a bottle of Aces of SpadeGold Brut. The best that the world can offer. Anyone has the chance to mingle with the celebrities of our culture. But underneath that shiny veneer, all I could see were people desperately seeking to satisfy something missing in their souls. In the end, being decked out in the cutting edge of style wouldn’t cover that hole forever. The alcohol may numb it for a while. The beats and dancing may keep it at bay for a moment. Finding a person to sleep with for the night will just bring physical pleasure for a brief time. All the money spent will not fill the void. It can’t be filled by the material things of this world.

And yet we, the church, hold the solution. There’s a vibrant church here on the strip, yet it seems to barely even be putting a dent into the materialism, hedonism, and desperation of our culture. It seems to be the same even if we remove ourselves from the best society can provide, which slapped me in the face after seeing the man digging trash, and think about our communities in our normal lives.

The change must start with us. Jesus wants us to change. And when we change, things start getting better around us. God wants to transform us and transform those around us. That's really the core of the story of Jesus. God took on flesh and lived among us. To show us a better way to live. To provide us with the ability to live that better way. And to show us that even in the most dire situations, God can bring life and claim victory. These aren’t just things that God was in the process of doing two thousand years ago when Jesus dwelt on the earth. God continues to do these things through us living for Him today. Letting God guide our lives where we are, wherever we are. When we do this, our lives are changed. The lives of those around us are eventually changed. And our communities are changed.

The problem we have with this in practice is that it is a long game and not a short one. We like one step, quick, tangible actions that will change everything for the better. We would love to go back home and into our community and workplaces, do one great thing, and have everything changed for the better. I would love to do that here on the Vegas strip. That would be nice. We would like to master a convincing argument that would change those around us. But it doesn't work that way.

This is about total conversion. Our total conversion. The long game. This is about us really giving our lives to Jesus. Our whole heart. Every part of who we are. And I understand that it is very hard to commit to doing that and regularly do that in a society that tells us to just compromise a little here and a little there. It’s tough to do that when we feel that we are doing it alone.

But when we take that step, when we begin to live trying to bring God’s will into our world, things begin to change. We begin to change. And things around us begin to change. Not instantaneously as we would like. Instead, it’s about every day, bringing Jesus into our world, building His reputation, sharing His words, confronting people for Him when necessary, and then, being part of the transformation.

It’s not so much that we transform the world. Jesus does that. We really also shouldn’t make converting the world our goal. The idea of the gospel is much more about us living in community with each other in such a way that we minister to the world and others want to join in on the Incarnational life that we are exhibiting together. We don’t have to do this alone.

But in the end, if we have lived faithfully and the world still isn’t transformed, that’s out of our hands. We can’t control whether others are transformed by Jesus, but we can make sure that those around us encounter Jesus. The question is whether we have been a light in the world. They have free will just like us.

It's a lot like buttoning a shirt. You have to get the first button right on the shirt. When you do that, all the other buttons will then fall into place. Transformation is about getting our lives right with Jesus first. When we do that, everything else will just fall into place.

Jesus comes to town. He doesn’t come in a $200 million dollar extravaganza. He comes miraculously and beautifully. He once came in a manger. Another time, on a donkey. Today he comes through people like you and me, living for Jesus. It’s tough to see the something so unassuming as Jesus in a world that can amaze us with things like the Vegas Strip. But that’s just one example. Our distraction can be something else. Whatever it is, in the midst of lights and noise, Jesus wants us to see Him. He wants us to hear him. He wants to be the center of our lives. Will we let him? For the lights and the noise aren’t the solution. Jesus is. May we live in such a way that those around us experience the blessing of Jesus through us. We can't control whether they see Jesus or not, but we can control whether we show them Him.