If we took the microphones away

  1. If we took the microphones and the electronic effects away from half the vocal “artists” in the world, we would hear something far less impressive.  (This assertion begs questions around artistry.)
  2. If we took the microphones away from those with the gift of gab who are in leadership positions, they might talk less, and the rest of us would waste less time.  I regularly observe a lack of audio-consciousness on the part of those who would probably do better if they were only made aware.  Conference calls with poor microphone placement and paper shuffling and people muttering….  Processes are sometimes hindered, and the experience can be frustrating.  I digress.
  3. If we took the microphones away from half the men who pray aloud and read scripture publicly in many churches, we would hear little to nothing, although many of us have probably heard such machismatic mumbo-jumbo as “Hey, I don’t need a microphone.  Heh-heh.”

Did you notice that I referred to “men” who pray aloud and read scripture publicly?  What about women?  If we took the microphones away from church venues altogether, much of the “official” sense would fade from the minds of those who have concerns about women’s roles “in church.”  I myself care about such things, but not necessarily with the same level of concern, or for the same reasons, as many of my historically closest siblings.  Today, I’m wanting to pay attention to only a side aspect of this age-old struggle:  the physical setting.  I would put it this way:  The more informal the setting, i.e., the less official and pulpit-like (with microphone), the less present the women’s-role issues.  Of course, the size of the venue can be an issue; if it’s a large hall or other acoustical factors are present, amplification is necessary.

Thoughts of pulpits and microphones are surface-level thoughts, and people’s actual concerns are not necessarily so shallow.  Or are they?  If such physical items are removed from the scenario, and if a guy’s concerns then fade a little, I’d say he wasn’t sure what really mattered to him in the first place.  Did the bare fact that a woman spoke create the issue for him, or was it the setting in which she spoke?  Is it her voice when there are men present that disturbs, or is it the audible voice amid pulpits and microphones and pews?  Perhaps a conservative or narrow-minded person doesn’t need to ignore his conscience but to ponder why he feels the way he feels.  If the issues seem to fade when the surroundings are less official-looking, less institutional . . . then I’d suggest that the woman’s voice wasn’t the only concern in the first place.

A particularly traditionally minded person once spoke for many of his mindset while on a youth retreat.  He noted a few nontraditional elements in what we were doing in that setting and commented setting, we could “get away with” more where we were (in a big cabin in the woods).  The praise team didn’t bother him there, for instance.  See what I mean?

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Many years ago: sermons

This is from a church bulletin quite some time ago:

While I hope my friends through the years of my church history would be glad to know I had presented on that topic, the same ones might be mildly amused to find that I’d requested a change in the format/sequence at this early point.  I would do that kind of thing steadily for the next couple of decades.  Not falling prey to assembly patterns became sort of a theme in my earlier, public-leadership life; I espoused the notion that habits get in the way of meaning, so it is better to do things purposefully than ritually.  I myself am amused that, after the mention that I had requested a change in the order, the congregation was encouraged to pray for the return of the regular preacher.  Of course the folks at St. Elmo, Tennessee didn’t mean anything by that, but I suppose I was a thorn in the side of some preachers, elders, and church administrations in later years.  I have a tough time leaving things alone when they are broken or just need shaking up a little!

Now to the content . . . I have delivered fewer than ten sermons per se in my life.  (I am better at, and more interested in, “class” types of settings and general assembly planning and leadership.)  The topics of the sermons for which I have records are as follows:

  1. So What? (about human response to God’s grace)
  2. What For? (about the Christian assembly’s purposes)
  3. Remembering the Lord
  4. Hearing and Doing
  5. The Sectarianism Within Us
  6. What Are We Waiting For?
  7. John 9:  the Blind Man, the Jewish Establishment, and Jesus
  8. Philemon

Looking back, I’d say that at least five of the eight (#2, #3, #4, #6, and #7) have a distinct focus on the Father and/or the Son.  I’m proud of that.  A couple of them (#2, #5) challenge rutted, traditional thinking.  I got in a mess of hot water over #5, but I would preach it again today, more than 20 years later, with only a couple of sentences toned down (if I thought anyone who needed to hear it would hear it).

The last two sermons reflect my still-growing interest in textual basis (as opposed to topical or traditional, etc.). Not that I didn’t say reasonable, or reasonably provocative, things in #s 1-6, but I’d now prefer #s 7 and 8, for the most part.  Generally speaking, we will all be more solid and grounded if we stay with the text—and not mere prooftexts, either!  We must pay attention to the original documents, attempting as best we can to honor the original literary and historical settings.  That is what I tried to do with #s 7 and 8.

Youth, service, and “God time”

In connection with what gets labeled as “God time,” I think of two youth group “mission trips” to Mexico.  I was not involved, so I know only second-hand of how the lives were affected, but I suspect those who went on the trips would agree that it was an entirely positive experience in terms of relationships with each other and with God.  If you asked Bret or Mark or Matt or Holly or any number of others, I’m sure they’d echo the last sentence.

Thom Schultz’s (Group Publishing) polls show that young people tend to draw strong connecting lines between service opportunities and relationship with God.  There is a downside, though.  Schultz mentions how these “service opportunities” are typically framed:

With all this ministry firepower working for us, you’d think we’d be dialed-in to the discipleship possibilities that service trips generate.  Instead, the actual experience most-often compartmentalizes the service part of the trip away from the “spiritual” part of the trip.  I mean, the work kids do to serve is framed as simply “helping people,” while the program (morning and evening gatherings, and devotion times) is billed as “God time.”

Well, the Kingdom of God is not organized into compartments.

– Thom Schultz (Group Publishing, Holy Soup blog), “De-compartmentalizing your Disciple-Making”

Right he is.

Of course, the Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the church or the institutional church, either (heavens, no).  Not one of those should be thought of as involving pigeonholes.  Even the institutional church is better conceived as having a reach outside the walls of a building.

Despite the influence and good intent of songs such as “Take Time To Be Holy,” it should be understood that no devotional or church assembly is inherently more holy or more “God timey” than helping people.  This reality does not downgrade the assembly or prayer or listening to Christian radio or studying the Bible.  It does, however, allow a higher berth for other Kingdom activities.

More meditations: membership, ministry, & making connections

I am more committed to Christian togetherness than might be assumed by a casual observer—in part, because I don’t actually talk about it much.  To consider aligning with, regularly assembling with, and working alongside others is no light or inconsequential undertaking!  It can be wearisome to explain the mental, spiritual, and physical toil involved in searching for a group of Christians to which to belong.  This enterprise runs deep, requiring thoroughgoing thought and enduring energy.  The very idea of passively allowing geography, denominational history, or the availability of “programs” to make a choice for me is not really an option.  I shared prior thoughts in these two posts:

The crisis of ministry

Musings on ministry and membership

Reactions to those have been mixed, and I’ve wished at times that I had quashed the inner drive to speak “prophetically” and the desire to be understood in this sphere.  I didn’t have to make this so publicly explicit by blogging about it, but it is not out of character, given my “earnestly speaking” modus operandi, to attempt to say something that I believe is (a) important and (b) on the right track.  Words like these can be misread—or perfectly read and sincerely criticized.  Critical attention is never any fun, although it can be helpful.  Something in me craves new or renewed connections with various souls, so the effort is worth it to me.  It might at times be that two will talk past one another or simply turn away, coming from vastly different vantage points.  Perhaps simpatico and/or a potential for synergy might be revealed.  In a rare case, could someone actually be taught or influenced for good through a blog?

Sarah, a friend of nearly ten years with whom our family has shared a great deal, wrote something I want to spotlight:

“Struggling with similar things lately too. I think there is so much to be said about attending the church in one’s neighborhood regardless of minor differences to be connected to those who are literally one’s neighbors and to be serving in one’s physical community, but I don’t know if that’s enough for me. I think I feel guilty about that. The churches in my physical neighborhood feel uncomfortable…preaching that is shallow at best, congregation lacking young families, significant theological differences, and worship style and preferences that leave me bored and/or cringing. We have been attending a church 45 minutes away that just instantly felt like home in every aspect, but it’s hard to be involved and active while living at a distance. Tough. Do I sacrifice the potential for far greater spiritual growth and vibrant fellowship for the sake of what I think I’m “supposed” to do (plug in to The Church as it exists in my neighborhood)? How will that choice affect my daughter as she grows?”

Probably no surprise to anyone who read the first posting, Sarah’s response reverberated in me at a forte dynamic level.  Poignantly and succinctly, she has touched on concerns such as standards and traditions, geography and distance, guilt feelings, service/ministry, preferences/styles, and the intersection of church choice with parenting.  Here, I’d like to echo her good thoughts (con forza e con espressione!) and say a little more before putting these topics to rest for a while.

Communities and neighborhoods.  I know something about Sarah’s locale, but I don’t know her family’s neighborhood intimately.  I can really only speak to my own area, also drawing from past experience in other regions.  I perceive, sometimes to my shame, that my neighbors (in the most obvious sense) are not often the types of people to whom I readily, naturally gravitate.  The lifestyles of some appear to be undesirable or overtly sinful, or their families are broken because of criminal drug use, or their properties are not cared for, or their children are unkempt.  Of course they need friends and they need Jesus, but it’s not always the easiest proposition to deal with that need.  Children that behave poorly require too much of the attention in school, and it’s not exactly easy to put one’s child (or oneself) in the middle of more bad-behavior examples in the neighborhood.

Further complicating these critical feelings in me, I sometimes detect a “boot straps” self-sufficiency and a leave-me-alone quality in many residents of my area.  I don’t know whether it’s the Germanic heritage, the effects of windy or stormy weather, the legacy of a historically agricultural setting, or what, but I find many people unapproachable.  Put another way:  it’s at least as difficult as it is in East Coast Suburbia to get to know my neighbors.  One more thing: where we are, the preponderance of Roman Catholic and Lutheran heritage appears to breed a steely unwillingness to consider anything else.

“Feeling uncomfortable.”  Beyond the neighborhood, there can be a palpable sense of discomfort in a sanctuary or church hall—or, on the other hand, one can just as easily experience an inviting, energized vibe.  I think that some personalities tend to minimize these factors.  It is not insignificant for others of us.  This is not really the type of discomfort that Sarah referenced, but If I feel like a fifth wheel or an alien within a given group, I feel a tremendous inertia when considering either serving/ministering or being ministered to.  Such discomfort is just a part of the picture, and it’s partly mental, but it’s no less real, and sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t there.  Sometimes one just gets a feeling upon walking into a place. We’ve had instantly positive ones (at least one each in Sheridan, Searcy, and Atchison areas) but also instantly negative ones, some of which led to hasty exits.

A lack of families.  A family that moved away was one of three with a child roughly Jedd’s age.  We haven’t been back since, and I feel that we could be viewed as shallow ourselves since we were ostensibly going there partly for that relationship.  How childish of us.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s more about the “vibrancy” to which Sarah referred—and the deep desire for connection.  It is not necessary to have organized youth groups or children’s Bible school programs or senior citizens’ programs, but it’s generally a sign of health if a congregation has a range of ages and a balanced demographic.  Families with young children should be careful not to regale middle-aged or single folks with constant talk about their children, thinking it’s all about them, but it should be acknowledged that, for young families themselves, the likelihood of connection is increased if there are multiple young families in a group.

Shallow preaching.  Shallowness has sometimes played a role in narrowing our choices.  It would be unthinkable for us to align in any sense with a church that regularly featured shallow teaching; the churches that stand out positively in our minds do have fairly strong public teachers/preachers.  I fully recognize that many churches are not blessed with gifted communicators, and I lament with Sarah the prospect of having to try to gain nutrients from the tripe or high fructose corn syrup offered from some pulpits.

It might seem a strange question to some, but I nonetheless feel the need to probe. . . .  Because of preaching’s ubiquity and the proportion of time it typically receives, it typically garners a lot of attention when a family is trying to decide on a church.  Notably, the church groups spawned after the Protestant Reformation are distinguished from Roman and Eastern churches by an emphasis on public teaching as opposed to liturgical ritual.  Luther, Calvin, and others therefore played significant roles in the rise and eventual enshrinement of preaching and preachers.  I judge that preaching as a method is greatly exaggerated and has itself become an institution within the institutional church.  It is what it is, but the reality continues to warrant reconsideration.

Theological differences.  Within some churches of my heritage (not necessarily those I’ve been a part of myself), “theological differences” might be reduced to “worship style” wars or other puddle-depth considerations such as whether to have a kitchen in the building or whether to support para-church agencies.  But Sarah is one who knows well that there really are significant theological differences that tend to affect many things.  For instance, I experience sea-depth differences with a person who is interested in starting Bible study opportunities at one of the five churches I wrote about, and I know that there would not be room enough for the two of us in such an enterprise.  I could not even sit in a class with him.  Everything this person says smacks of a bent I cannot accept, and vice versa.  This fact does not damn either of us, but it makes it nearly impossible to work together in the same place.

Distance.  In our case, a couple of churches, including one I didn’t mention, are 25 or more miles away.  There are additional options at that distance—larger groups that would offer us more spiritual food and, in one case, more opportunity for corporate worship output.  We have traveled 40 miles one-way for more than year, and 65 miles for the better part of four years in another location.  Now, one church under current consideration is a 10-minute family walk away.  What are we “supposed” to do with that?

Cringing.  I was initially surprised when I read that Sarah sometimes cringes, because I know her enthusiastically positive demeanor.  But I know she is a thinker and a devoted disciple who also has some opinions once in a while . . . so my “hmmm” reaction turns out not to be paradoxical after all.  It’s rare in my experience that someone uses the term “cringe” to describe feelings and inner reactions to church, but I myself so immediately get this that I want to stand up and shout, “Amen!  There are others of us out here who cringe inwardly and sometimes outwardly when your churches do weird, meaningless, or adulterated things in the name of God!”

Thus ends this series of membership and ministry.  Perhaps in the future I’ll document some experiences from gatherings in Kenya and at camps, in rec rooms and at retreats—or perhaps I’ll point longingly to the open-fellowship chapel groups in Jefferson City, MO or Alfred, NY.  Even more likely, I’ll continue to move in the direction of simple/organic church.  Those who don’t really share the feelings and longings shared in this three-part series are in a large majority, and I don’t even mind if you pity me from afar!  If you don’t “get” or can’t support our struggles, that’s okay.  Perhaps you could consider it an illuminating experience in someone else’s sandals.

Simple/organic church ideas and ideals: a collection

A couple of lives ago, I would sometimes wonder about individuals who looked comatose during assemblies, and I would try my best to be an energizing force as a public leader.  At the outset on a given Sunday, my hopes and efforts might have been expressed in “Again the Lord of Life and Light Awakes the Kindling Ray” or “We Shall Assemble on the Mountain” or “This is the Day,” or in prayer words or public readings—and the intentional, typically selective choice of others to lead with me.  It might have been specifically chosen words of welcome, or songs designed to “get you going” or to speak to one another, or a reading (scripture or otherwise) purposed to center the congregation in deep worship before a hymn such as “Lord of All Being” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.”  Most of what I planned and did had the aim getting everyone to feel engaged and energized and purposeful during our corporate time. 

I’ve known for decades that the way my particular group (in Wilmington or Rochester or Greeley or wherever) “did church” wasn’t obligatory; furthermore, I’ve known down deep for at least one decade that it wasn’t working well for me and probably for others.  I can’t know exactly why John or Sally looked disinterested and didn’t seem to participate, but I do know now that “doing church” can dull the senses and stupefy the soul.  It doesn’t have to, but it can.

These days, most assemblies at regular, established churches leave me discouraged and robbed of most of the energy I’d had when I walked in.  I have become one who appears lifeless most of the time during a gathering.  And so I long for something else, something to quicken the spirit. . . .

There is another way.  I read about it and think about it often, but I’ve only experienced it in short bursts so far.  In this post, I’m sharing a collection of others’ thoughts on simple/organic church.  Whether you are a “done” or are edging toward “almost done,” or well sensitized to those tho fit those labels, you and other thoughtful people can find rejuvenated purpose here.  I led this piece with reflections on assemblies in a relatively traditional pattern, but not all these ideas are related to gatherings.  They describe realities and dynamics that are more or less distinct from established church patterns, focusing more attention on discipleship.  As Roger Thoman says in one essay, it is about “no longer thinking of the church as an event or place to go, but realizing that we, his people, really are the church everywhere and every place that we go.”  This is no great revelation; most with any degree of biblically based upbringing will find that last sentence eminently palatable.  For my part, I continue to think Christian gatherings are of great importance, but how they appear in my life is shifting.  However they appear in all our lives, the challenge is to promote the “be the church” ideal to the higher level.


Here are some words of someone who once didn’t get why anyone would want to keep meeting with a house church “when larger churches with exciting youth programs, riveting preachers and spectacular worship music” are available:

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2016/08/house-church-not-real-church.html


This post deals with the intended reality that every person is a minister/servant.  It’s not just a Monday-through-Saturday concept; it works at Sunday gatherings, too!  

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2017/05/every-person-a-minister-when-we-gather.html


Here’s a piece by Thom Schultz of Group Publishing, in which he refers to author Doug Pollock encouraging us to be comfortable asking “wondering” questions (and not depending on the “sage on the stage” or  “master fisherman” on Sundays):  

https://holysoup.com/talking-about-god-without-being-a-jerk/


“The Church as Industrial Complex is a resource-driven form of church that has a gravitational pull that unintentionally turns spirituality into a product, church growth into a race, leadership into a business and attendees into consumers.”  – JR Woodward and Dan White, Jr.

20 Truths from The Church as Movement (Christianity Today)


  1. Love God. Love People. Make Disciples
  2. Disciples Make Disciples Who Make Disciples
  3. Embody the Gospel Where You Live
  4. Church Isn’t a Destination, It’s People

http://www.6wordlessons.com/six-word-lessons-to-discover-missional-living.html


“It is interesting to note that simple is reproducible. Simple is able to be passed along. Simple can become viral. Keeping things simple can reduce the temptation toward creating religious structures and church institutions by encouraging a simple, basic listening/surrendering relationship to Jesus whom we love and follow.”  – Roger Thoman

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2016/10/keeping-it-simple-beautiful-reproducible.html


This quotation puts the emphasis on daily discipleship:

“For me, the paradigm of simple/house/organic church is not about a way to do church but a calling to continue to find Jesus in the stuff of life, follow Him, and pursue His adventurous calling while refusing to get boxed in by anything that wants to pull me back into the lazy boxes of yesteryear.”  – Roger Thoman

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2016/12/toward-his-highest-and-best.html


“It is a vision of no longer thinking of the church as an event or place to go, but realizing that we, his people, really are the church everywhere and every place that we go.”   – Roger Thoman

“[I dream of a] church, which does not need huge amounts of money, or rhetoric, control and manipulation . . .”  Wolfgang Simson

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2017/04/catching-the-vision-of-church-as-it-can-be.html

Brief debriefs

Here are three reactions for posterity after various church visits.

After the middle-aged “Bible” class at “Athens” Church:

If that was text study, I can see why the younger people wanted something different and started their own discussion group.  I wish I’d found a different class upon walking in the door.  But then there was the assembly proper (beginning with the third of the three triple whammies described here) and that would’ve put me into a spiritual fit, anyway.

After “Bible” class at “Western Farms” Church

If some people weren’t so insistent on continuing to talk in order to prove they know something they don’t know after all, God might be able to speak through the text.  (But, boy, was I pleasantly surprised and gratified when the sort-of-teacher’s-helper came to me as I left the room and thanked me for bringing him “back to the Bible” in my 2-minute comment toward the end of class.  [Sorry if that comes off as boastful. I mean mostly to call attention to a little oasis in this particular desert.  Once in a while I need to remind myself of a tad bit of personal worth.])

After Creektown Church’s “singing”:

Most churches fall somewhere between mildly disappointing and stultifying in many activities.  The singing aspect of this church’s gathering, experienced for a grand total of five minutes this very morning, didn’t come anywhere close to either of those.  It wasn’t even embarrassing.  It was an utter travesty, and doubly so because no one seemed to be aware of how bad it was.

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Did that make any sense?  Didn’t think so.  The singing at this place was like that:  nonsense.  The reasonable-quality gospel song sung from a poor-quality hymnal should have been familiar to at least half the people in the room, but the “leader” had not a fraction of a clue.  This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader.  This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country.  “Face to Face” ended up sung to a mixed-up, bad-form version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and believe me, no one intended that—or registered a quizzical look when it happened.  It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic.  The next song, the Gaither favorite “He Lives,” began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion.  And no one even seemed aware.  And that in itself should be embarrassing.  Maybe I should have left out the 2nd half of this paragraph.  Nah.


I have purposefully avoided identifying any of the three churches with its actual name; no human soul will be able to figure out the actual name of more than one of them, and I can think of only one person at one of these churches that has even a remote chance of seeing this post.  The point is certainly not to make anyone feel bad.  I mean mostly to blow off steam, I suppose . . . although it would probably be advisable for a good number of my readers to stand back at their churches to measure the purposefulness, effectiveness, and quality of various aspects.

Maybe you have some influence where you are?

B. Casey, 12/11/16

A few minutes with some Mennonites

A few Sunday mornings ago, I took an hour-long ride to visit a conservative Mennonite group.  I had met a nice, bonneted woman selling baked goods at the Farmer’s Market, and she told me where to find them.  It was way in the middle of nowhere, as they say, but it was a nice, 10-year-old, spacious, well-kept building.  Here are a few observations.

Some things are the same but different. . . .

I heard some issues with vocal pitch, but they were more along the lines of crooning and slip-sliding whereas flatting and flat-out singing-out-of-key are the prevalent intonation “sins” in a cappella Church of Christ groups.  In this 100-person Mennonite church, intra-congregational intonation was the best I’ve ever heard.

The Bible is certainly emphasized in both groups, both in Bible classes and in the assembly proper.  In the former setting, the Mennonites traveled along similarly out-of-context tangents and loops, although the specific commentary had a distinct, other-worldly flavor.  That is to say:  (1) these Mennonites were other-worldly themselves, and (2) their dialogue compellingly emphasized the over-arching, compelling Kingdom of God and their place in it, and their interest in bringing others into the Reign.  I take #1 as something between neutral and mildly undesirable, whereas I take #2 as convicting and absolutely to be desired.

Both groups have a plurality of teacher-pastors.  Both seem to use relational terms such as “brother,” “sister,” and “Christian”  frequently.

And some things are more different than same. . . .

One notable difference in a conservative Mennonite church is the seating:  men are all on one side, and women, on the other.  (I shouldn’t make a deal out of which side was which, because, assuming the leader’s lectern represents God’s vantage point, the women were on the “goat” side.  I once had a similar communication issue with hanging “I Am” and “Jesus the Messiah” banners.  I digress.)  In thinking that anyone would actually have men and women separate in this day and age, most “modern” (and I use that term advisedly) people, Christian or not, will shake their heads in disbelief or disapproval, but the idea of sitting that way merits some consideration.  Think of the better teen focus when no one is holding hands with the girlfriend of the month.  Think of  the “divide and conquer” that can occur in terms of parenting when men have their little sons and women have the daughters.  And think of the solidarity in terms of vocal range and voice parts.  The sound is surely enhanced by a sense of strength in numbers.

There were more coats and ties on the Mennonite men, but not all.  (In any CofC building in my last 15 years, groups are down to something between 0 and 15% wearing a coat and/or a tie.  Baptists are probably about the same.)  Pants were mostly black or navy, but a couple had tan pants on.  I saw only black shoes.  All the women were in dresses, as expected.  Children behaved better and still had great personalities.  I would be naturally drawn to some of the families as I observed them.

Only the KJV Bible was used, but I couldn’t help feeling that that practice was more a subconscious, old-world habit than a conscious translation choice.

I believe all three pastors were on the stage, and I didn’t know what to make of that, because not all of them were really active per se.  It was as though they were collectively “watching over the flock.”  I would like to think they did that through the week in more meaningful ways.

A more subtle yet deeper difference was in what I would call a “thoughtful waiting” that characterized so many aspects and events.  In Bible class, at least seven or eight different men spoke up at one time or another, and I noticed that there was some silence after each comment, as though everyone habitually considered everything that was said.  Also, a couple of seconds transpired between stanzas of songs and hymns.  I’ve heard that this is the habit in British churches of various stripes.  It was almost awkward for me, but I think it would be worth getting used to.  The quality of the sung thoughts was, not incidentally, much higher than the aggregate in any Church of Christ I’ve experienced in a long time—and at least on par with other church groups in my experience.

As indicated above, the Mennonites emphasize being in the world but not of it.  They are pilgrims.  (And that is an eminently biblical view, of course.)  They pray more, and most prayers included kneeling.

They have their pet phrases, just as people of other denominations.  One that I heard at least a dozen times, in conjunction with handshakes, was a hearty “Welcome here!”  I believe they meant it.  And I did feel welcome.  I plan to return for singing one evening this winter.

For a few observations from a Mennonite pamphlet, please see my other blog here.

Packaging

Many jokes have been made about Ivory™ soap’s being (only) 99.44% pure, but I think that’s probably a better stat than that of most other soaps, my wife’s homemade Little Goat’s Natural Soaps excepted.  (Ahem.  That was a cue for a few of you readers who’ve used her soap to say, “Yeah, Karly’s soaps are great.”)

I have been an Ivory soap user for as long as I can remember.  Once in a while, I try another soap but always return to Ivory.  I used Irish Spring as a teenager, and that use might have contributed to a few more zits than I would have had otherwise.  Coast, Lifebuoy, Dial, Safeguard . . . I’ve tried those and more, but my staple bar of soap has always been Ivory.

For all Ivory’s merits, I absolutely hate the packaging.  The wrapping is horribly hard to handle.  About 49 of 50 times, unwrapping the bar takes at least a solid minute and results in something like this:img_20160915_064445_706.jpgI didn’t even mention the outer, clear plastic layer that wraps the whole 8-bar pack.  That in itself can require a knife or a set of fingernail clippers or at least a key to remove.  But the damp, white-paper inner wrapping comes off only with greater effort, and a lot of mess, pretty much every time.  You’d think that a soap that’s been around for 125 years could do better than that with its wrapping.  But I keep coming back to it, because what’s inside is what I’m after.


I have been a Christian since I was 9.  (The definition of “Christian” is significant but is beside my point here.)  And I’ve been an active participant with a number of churches.  What I have inside and what the churches have inside can be as difficult to get to as Ivory soap is, given the packaging!  Since it’s less comfortable to talk about my individual heart than the “inside” of church groups, I’ll opt to spend a few words on the latter.

The packaging or wrapping of a church might include, but not be limited to, these elements:

  • Signage
  • Condition of the parking lot and ease of driving in and out
  • Attractiveness, condition, and cleanliness of the building (if there is one)
  • Manner of activities in the assembly (including perceived “style”)
  • Denominational overlay (whether acknowledged or not)

I prefer my parking lots to be paved, but that’s not too big a deal.  I do actually reject some churches as potential “homes” based on such surface-level elements as signage.

A recognized denominational name on the sign?  Although I try to be un-denominational, some signs can lead me instantly to reject a church as a possibility for me.

A narrow-minded message?  If a sign advertises “fundamental” or “KJV only” (or some such), I can know I wouldn’t be accepted there and would end up either being miserable or causing disunity.

I can leave some churches on the shelf, as it were, never needing to “purchase” or unwrap the “product,” although others might find value in what they’re selling.  It takes a little more time and effort to unwrap some other churches.  One church we’ve visited twice has a kind of packaging that we think might end up being deceptive, not revealing all that’s inside.  (If I’m fair, I suppose that’s true about most groups.)  We’re still not sure, but when you tear a couple corners off, the product doesn’t seem to be worth the money, so to speak.

Another church seems to have less wrapping that obscures the product.  (I wonder if “truth in advertising” laws could apply to churches?  Not really.)  This one has some nicely conceived outer packaging but also some inner wrapping that might present some problems for me.  (Oh, how I hate finally getting that first layer off the product, only to find that I have to struggle with yet another layer of wrapping.)

Yet another church, visited once recently on a special occasion, is from a brand I have “trusted” (to an extent) for many years.  I suppose that, if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to admit that I keep returning to this brand in some way because I know its history—but the Ivory isn’t always as pure as the wrapping claims, if you know what I mean.  And then, come to find out, even the best bars of this particular brand were only about 77% pure to start with.  At any rate, the packaging of this one local church included some noticeably outdated communication styles—think veggie burger in a 1950s McDonald’s wrapper or maybe hip-hop on an audio cassette.  More important than the wrapping:  the product found inside was lacking, to my eyes and ears and soul.

We’ll see how the process goes.  Maybe, just maybe, the traditional wrapping in terms of church building cosmetics will ultimately reveal a pure, purposeful, viable church group “product.”

A few points

Someone has said that “residue” is what you have when you finish most of something, and then the “res I due” tomorrow.”  This post is the final residue from last fall’s worship series,¹ and I’m “due”ing it today.

~ ~ ~

Cecil Hook was one of the most gracious, gentle spirits one could ever hope to know, and was the author of at least five books.²  Toward the end of each of the later books, he would offer brief, discrete teachings in collections called “Hook’s Points.”  I’m taking that habit as my cue here, offering a few points here about worship and the assembly.

Public and Private

Worship should be both private and public.  Worshippers should participate and experience alone and in groups.

Your church might call the main gathering a “worship assembly” or “corporate worship,” and the gathering probably includes some worship, but it is almost certainly not completely filled with worship activities.  If the strong majority of the public gathering’s activities are not worship per se, it should probably be called something else.  Likewise, your private life may involve some worship, but it is not completely filled with worship.

Those who think corporate worship is overrated or even entirely misconceived may be duly reacting to an overemphasis on the assembly in the scheme of Christian life.³  They may also be inclined toward the idea of “whole-life worship” (a more private concept), which is often rooted in a misguided extrapolation/misguided interpretation of Romans 12:1.

Those who actually think everything in their weekly public gatherings is worship are equally misguided, mistaking centuries of church “worship service” tradition for biblical examples and principles.

Happy and Sad

I once bought into the idea that Sunday mornings were for celebration. I now think that notion is incomplete and inadequate.

Worship leaders, I hope many of you will hear this, if you aren’t already starkly aware of it:  not everyone comes into your assembly feeling glad and worship-filled.  If you start every assembly in a hip-hip-hooray mode and act as if everyone ought to be celebrating all the time, you’re leaving out a lot of people.

Worship is not always celebratory and actually has many faces.  At times, we worship “anyway,” because God is the worthy One.  Among contemporary songs, Fernando Ortega’s “I Will Praise Him Still” approaches worship from this determined, humble, “despite what’s going on” angle.

Music

Worship and “worship music” are not equivalent expressions.  Music doesn’t have the universal appeal that some assume.

There probably was a time when I was just that insistent and insensitive in public leadership, coming across as over-interested in worship music.  Not everyone is that interested, and that’s OK.  At this point, having lived more years, I refuse to equate the musical experience (no matter the style) with worship.  There is much more to worship than music.

Verbal action/noun sense

Worship may not, must not be reduced to any list of “acts” that supposedly fulfill a supposed checklist.  To suggest that the scriptures communicate a group of “five (or six) acts of worship” is to make up something out of thin air.

Although “worship” can be either noun or verb, both can be limiting.  To say “X church has ‘a good worship'” is too noun-ish, n’est-ce pas?  It is truth to say that worship is active in various ways, but reducing it to one or more “acts” may suggest that those actions are always observable, attaining only to a part of the reality.

When I worship, my spirit acts, and my body may act, too. But far be it from me to attempt to come up with a list of “acts” that comprise the whole of worship.  Such a list cannot be written, nor can my worshipping (how’s that for a verbal noun?) ever be sufficient.


¹ If you’re interested in that series but missed it, use this link, and then scroll back a few posts to one of the summary “What Was All That About?” posts.  Material on worship words was presented, as well as resource lists and quotations and a few other goodies.  (Or, wait for the book that will include revised versions of those studies, planned for release in 2-3 months.)

² Hook’s books were titled Free in Christ, Free To Speak, Free as Sons, Free To Change, and Free To Accept.  I was privileged to contribute editorially to the last two and to a major revision of the first.  I wish I had assumed more of Hook’s mantle of grace, not to mention his succinctness in writing!

³ It is my sense that Cecil Hook was among this group.  He did not write much about worship, and when he did, it was more of a disclaimer, a pointer-away-from the over-emphasis on supposed rectitude in assembly worship.  He was, however, very gracious and affirming toward me and my somewhat different views on the nature and place of worship in thought and life.  For more than a quarter-century now, I have emphasized that worship is not by any means bound to Christian assemblies, nor are assemblies (to be) entirely composed of worship activities.  Cecil emphasized more of the horizontal, which I also support, while I have at most points emphasized the vertical.