Archive for the 'Church stuff' Category

Rob Bell, Heaven and Hell

Evangelicals who pay attention are all abuzz about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, and particularly Rob’s rejection of the traditional view of hell.  He’s catching a lot of flak from evangelical heavy-hitters like Al Mohler and John Piper for his stance (see Brian McLaren’s defense of Bell here), and a lot of people I know and care for are lining up to get their licks in.

This post isn’t about Rob Bell and the controversy.  This post is a lament on why we’re all so upset about all this.

First of all, let me declare myself:  I am an evangelical with fundamentalist roots who isn’t nearly as sure about what he believes about heaven and hell as he once was.  What was certain and unassailable for me at one time no longer is so.  The older I get, the less I seem to know about these things and the more open I am to the idea that what I believe might be flat-out wrong.

But, at the end of the day, I just wish the whole heaven/hell thing would go away.

I’m not saying that I don’t believe in heaven and hell, even in the traditional sense of the words.  I’m not saying that the doctrine of heaven and hell has no place at the table.  I’m not saying that I’m going to stop picking out hymns that talk about heaven for our worship services at church.

I am saying that I wish the heaven/hell doctrine didn’t hold onto our imagination so, that it didn’t occupy so much of our energy and communication bandwidth.  I am saying that it grieves me to see the gospel so closely tied to and marketed alongside the heaven/hell doctrine.  I am saying that I wish the church would “sell” the gospel on its own merits, not having to rely on ultimate and cosmic benefits and punishments to make the case.

Here’s why I think everyone’s so upset:  sometime ago the gospel stopped being about the invitation to follow Jesus and join with his followers as they incarnate Christ in the world for the redemption of the world, and it started being about appeasing God and securing one’s place in heaven.  Hell-avoidance became the main selling point in the gospel presentation for many reasons, the chief one being its effectiveness in producing converts.

So now, any questioning of or deviation from the traditional view of hell is seen as a questioning of the gospel itself.  And that’s tragic.

Playing the heaven/hell card in the gospel presentation is  prima facie evidence that the temporal benefits of conversion are not sufficient to overcome skepticism about the church.  The presentation devolves from an invitation into an insurance pitch.  How I wish we could present the church to unbelievers and say, “Come join us where you will be loved and known, and where your life will be spent and poured out in God’s plan to redeem the world.”


Teaching, Preaching

Pastor Tim allowed me the privilege of teaching today at PUMC‘s traditional service while he’s taking a much deserved vacation with the family.  You can hear a recording of the message here.

I love Powell Church, period.  In so many ways the Lord has used these dear people to heal my heart and restore my hope in and for the church, but one of the chief ways by which the Lord is doing this is through Tim.  Pastors who will share their pulpits with the choir director are few, and even fewer when the choir director doesn’t have a seminary degree.  Thank you, Tim, for believing in me and for giving me room to grow and learn!  I am humbled by the trust you put in me.

Where the Lord is surprising me in all this is in how much I enjoy teaching when given the opportunity.  It feeds my soul in new and fresh ways to sift through a bible passage and craft a message around it.  I don’t know what it all means (if anything!), but I’m learning that this is a much-neglected plot of ground in my heart, ready for plowing and planting.  Who knows what God has in store?

Family Visit at Fellowship Church

I’m one of those kids who grew up far removed from extended family–we lived in East Tennessee while my Mom’s family was in West Tennessee and my Dad’s family was in Louisiana.  We’d see the cousins, aunts, and uncles on annual trips, and it always amused me to know exactly what each aunt and uncle would say when they saw me:  “Oh, my goodness!  Look at how you’ve grown!”  

One year it was less amusing than others and I started complaining to Mom about the “look how you’ve grown” chorus.  “What’s the big deal?  Nobody else ever makes a fuss over me growing.”  

Mom wisely explained that, while I was growing all along, it wasn’t as obvious to people who saw me every week, because the changes were more subtle.  It’s the people who didn’t sit through the process who most easily notice and appreciate the change from one year to the next.

Today I worshiped at Fellowship Church for the first time since July of last year.  Fellowship is my home church, but I don’t get to attend because of my duties at Powell Church on Sunday mornings.  Today I had the morning off from Powell and went with my family to Fellowship.

And today I got a taste of what Aunt Mae felt when she saw me at Thanksgiving.  “Oh my goodness….”

When I was on staff at Fellowship there wasn’t a lot of growth to be seen.  Change came hard and at a high cost, and every inch gained by those of us who wanted to see Fellowship grow and progress in ministry effectiveness was matched by an inch lost to those who wanted to see Fellowship retreat to its glory days.  Proposed improvements to worship center technology were shot down as “extravagant” and “self-indulgent.”  When we added an audition to our worship-volunteer selection process we were dismissed as “shallow” and “all about the show.”  Concerns about aesthetics in worship and production values were derided as “fleshly,” “frustrating the Spirit,” and “immature.”

I don’t know much about the “how” behind the changes that have taken place–for all I know it may still be a battle of inches, but I doubt it because 1) the differences can be measured in feet and yards now, and 2) the rate of change appears to be accelerating.  The “how” is not for me to know, anyway.  I can sure see and discern the “what,” though!

Here are the markers of growth I saw just in the service today:

  1. Rick Dunn referred to The Pastor of Children’s Ministry as “Pastor Gwen” from the stage.  Back in the day her predecessor (also a woman and for all practical purposes also a pastor) had the title “Director of Children’s Ministry” simply because the church leadership couldn’t abide a woman having the “pastor” title.  Fellowship’s ability to call things by their real names is remarkable and commendable.
  2. There’s been a noticeable bump in the quality of in-house video production.  The interview with the college student about serving in Children’s Ministry was spot-on, not only in its writing and content, but also in its videography and editing.  Nicely done!
  3. Someone’s paying attention to aesthetics and design in the graphic arts.  The onscreen packaging of the sermon topic was fantastic.  I don’t know, but I suspect the message-planning horizon at Fellowship is approaching or even exceeding 3 months now.
  4. Someone’s paying attention to onstage lighting.  The color of the scrim wash now coordinates with the palette of the screen graphic behind the song lyrics.
  5. The speaker can now advance his onscreen slides from the stage with a handheld remote without having to give cues to the production booth!  Sweetness.
  6. There’s a lot of new technology on the stage in general, which means there’s money being spent on making things work well.
  7. The band not only plays together really well, but the playing is very musical.  Noticeable variety in dynamics and energy levels makes this artist very happy.

Kudos to the staff and volunteers who are putting together Sunday mornings at Fellowship.  You’ve come far, and at least one person has noticed.

Easter at Powell Church, or “The Right Tool for the Job”

Yesterday was my first Easter since coming on board at Powell Church to lead the music for their traditional service.  Great crowd, enthusiastic singing, and several lessons learned:

  1. The folks who attend the traditional service will embrace new things if presented well.  We led out with my up-tempo, power-chord-driven arrangement of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and though there were some raised eyebrows at the first chords, by the modulation on the last verse everyone was into it.  No clapping, but real singing.  They also sang out on the Getty hymn “See What a Morning,” but we had prepared them well by presenting it as an anthem a month ago, a call to worship 3 weeks ago, and finally a congregational song 2 weeks ago.  It’ll stay in the rotation now!
  2. The 16-voice choir I have can sound like 32 or more voices if given the right song to sing.  We did a choral arrangement of the Southern Gospel classic “Hallelujah!  We Will Rise” (click here for a YouTube video of the Chuck Wagon gang’s version) and wow, did they sing out.  I don’t know yet if they just liked it more than what I’ve been programming or if there’s something in the arrangement that just made it easier to open up and sing.  I suspect it’s the former reason rather than the latter.
  3. The congregation’s value of reserve and reverence in worship doesn’t extend to Southern Gospel singing.  Heart-felt, enthusiastic, extended applause after the anthem rather than the polite kind just poured from them!
  4. I can program Southern Gospel music in a church service and it won’t kill  me.  At least I’m still alive right now.
  5. Peer review is a wonderful thing.  A retired music teacher/music minister in his late sixties visited us for the first time yesterday and made it a point to compliment us on the service.  I love compliments from the congregation, but compliments from fellow musicians/ministers who understand what it takes to pull things off are golden indeed.

I hate it, but it looks like I’m going to have to put Thomas Tallis and Lloyd Pfautsch back on the shelf and go shopping for choral arrangements of the classics from Southern Gospel’s heyday.  It’s not that Tallis and Pfautsch aren’t good, valuable, and worthy, but they just don’t grab this congregation emotionally.

And here’s the good news–this congregation wants to be grabbed by the emotions and stirred up!  As my dad always taught me–“you have to get the right tool for the job.”

Back in the Saddle Again (again)

I’d forgotten to mention that Powell Church streams video of the contemporary services on its site, including last Sunday when I led the worship.  You can watch it by clicking here.


  • 13:00–I break my D string and have to lay down the guitar for the rest of the set
  • 15:20–during my setup for the offering, I say to the visitors “This service is not for you” in an attempt to excuse them from the offering.  Brilliant.

Other than those two wee issues, I think it came off well!

Back in the saddle again, if only for one Sunday

I didn’t mention it at the time (or since), but Greg asked me back in Novemberish to fill in for him in Powell Church’s contemporary service.  He needed to be in Taiwan (check the link for details on his blog) and would need coverage Dec 28 and Jan 4.  I took the Jan 4 slot.

And it went well (discounting a broken string, but that’s how it goes).  I had dreaded the experience because it would 1) mean a tough morning doing the contemporary and traditional services, and 2) I hadn’t led worship with a band doing contemporary-style music in a long time, and wasn’t sure if I was up to it.

The surprise came on Saturday night as we were working through the opener “Seasons of Love” and I looked at my long-time friend Amy at the piano and said, “Dang, it–I miss this.”  There’s something about running a band rehearsal, feeling our way through a worship set that just thrills and energizes me, and I’d forgotten how that felt.  It was a good experience, and I’m sure to miss it.

Here’s the set (I’m covering for Greg, so I ought to follow through Greg-style, no?):

  • Opener:  “Seasons of Love” (from Rent)
  • All Creatures of Our God and King (Davis arrangement)
  • Everyday (Hillsong)
  • Love the Lord (Lincoln Brewster)
  • Enough (Tomlin)
  • Closer/Communion:  Take My Life and Let It Be

I especially loved having folks who attend both services come up after the contemporary service with puzzled looks on their faces, saying, “I had no idea you could do both!”  

Who knew?

Catholics and Beauty

Last Thursday at the beach The Climber and I took a walk while the rest of the crew went to a museum.  Here we are at the end of the walk:

Me and The Climber

Me and The Climber

There’s a church down the road from our condo, and we headed over there to walk through and see what we could see.  It’s a Catholic church (Holy Family Catholic) that sits between an Episcopal church and a Methodist church.  It was a great visit.

I never noticed it before, but when I want to be in a beautiful worship space, it’s Catholic churches that draw me.  The Catholics may have some things wrong and sideways, but they get the beauty thing better than anyone else.  They sure can make a place feel set apart and holy.  I was surprised at how it moved me.

Why is that?  What happened when Protestants walked away from Catholicism that left us with a stunted appreciation for and commitment to beauty and art?  Is it our love of text, of letters and words?  Is it simply that we needed to differentiate ourselves from them?

It occurred to me that I might eventually end up–get ready–catholic.  I don’t agree with all the stuff Catholics believe, but that’s becoming more and more true about my current church, too.  And if you follow my taking-the-upstream-path-through-history logic in Staying Put to its ultimate conclusion, it makes sense…

Funny note–the Catholics also have a sense of humor.  Here’s what the sign by the sanctuary door said:

Please do not leave until the end of the Mass.  –God.

I can so work with that!

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