Friday, July 31, 2015

Brethren, Hang Loose (Girard 1)

Re-visiting your roots from time to time is a healthy practice, I've found. And as a typical book-learnin' nerd, there have been some significant authors whose influence in my life came through their writings. (I blogged my way through one of them, Lifestyle Evangelism, awhile back.)

This one, however, probably qualifies as "ground zero" for me. The first Christian book (besides the Bible) to rock my world. And yet I first discovered Bob Girard's Brethren, Hang Loose almost by accident.

It was on a bookshelf in the basement of a friend's house. I picked it out and glanced through a few pages, and then borrowed it for a few days. I was fascinated by what I read, but of course, I had to return it. And dang... it was out of print by this time.

Two years later, Wendy & I found our own copy in a used book store (on our honeymoon -- yeah, we're nerds). Much later, it was my privilege to have a few phone conversations with Bob Girard when I was first beginning to explore the topic of Detoxing from Church. (He even sent me a signed copy of When the Vision has Vanished, another book well worth the read.)

It's fascinating to re-read this book again, over 30 years later, and discover how much it continues to impact -- and challenge -- and how instrumental it was in my early Christian life.

Here's a few quotes:
Accept people where they are. If people with any bad habit, any questionable occupation, any way-out philosophy, any political persuasion, any kind of life-style were willing to listen to me preach or associate in any way with the church, we made up our minds ahead of time that we would accept them and love them and seek to introduce them to Christ just as they are.
If changes are needed in their lives let the Holy Spirit do it. When we try to legislate and coerce people to accept certain outward standards of behavior which we think will make them "more spiritual", we are robbing them of some very precious experiences with the living Lord Himself.
Avoid the old evangelical clichés like a plague. Instead of expecting [people] to learn a new vocabulary, the Christian witness must understand his own message well enough to put it into terms even the uninitiated and completely unchurched can comprehend. (pages 24-25) 
Anyone who has ever been involved in youth or young adult ministry with me will be familiar with "Robby's Rules":
I'm guessing that the genesis of these can probably be traced to Girard's influence.

Something in the above quotes that really stood out to me was Girard's comment on "robbing people of precious experiences with the Lord", by imposing rules and regulations on them to make them conform to "spiritual" behavioral norms.

We are all pretty familiar with the reality that "Jesus + nothing" is what our faith rests on; Galatians is probably the most concise exposition on the topic of performance-based religion.

But I was intrigued by the angle that Girard came at it from: allowing the Holy Spirit to change peoples' lives, and not robbing them of the awesome experience of hearing the Spirit Himself teach them what following Jesus looks like.

And that is probably one of the most consistent themes throughout the book: the Holy Spirit can be trusted to do His job. As individual Christians explore the Scriptures, pray, worship, and serve, the Holy Spirit will shape their character to be an ever-sharpening reflection of Jesus.

There are numerous other sections of Girard's classic book that -- despite its obviously hipster-1970s title & cover artwork -- speak volumes to our current decade. I'm looking forward to unpacking more in the days to come.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Out-Witting Dreck

I've always loved writing, and I've always loved science fiction. And as an aspiring writer in junior high school, I wrote several sci-fi stories (averaging roughly 18,000 words each) which could be charitably described as dreck.

18,000 words each. And if memory serves, I wrote at least four of them.

That's a lot of dreck.

And yet, at age 13, I had the chutzpah to submit one of said dreck-lets to a notable science fiction writer/editor, the late Roger Elwood. In reply, he was kind enough to send me a Xeroxed form rejection letter (photocopied crooked), rather than point out the many glaringly obvious reasons why 13-year-olds are so rarely published.

I've learned a few things about writing since those days, mostly about how to out-wit the dreckification that can so easily creep into any genre of writing. (And since I'm currently writing my first science fiction novel in about 40 years, this is important.)

My first line of defence, always, is Wendy. She reads each chapter "hot off the press", and gives me immediate feedback. And in a house full of creatives, we have embraced the necessity of the "honest opinion" as being equal in value to the "encouraging word". (If it's sucking canal water, she'll tell me.)

Second phase:
Thanks to the magic of Microsoft Word, each and every chapter looks like this at least once. Insertions, deletions, revisions, complete rewrites -- it's not moving forward until the red is gone. 
Next phase:
Yes, I actually print out the entire manuscript. It's amazing how changing mediums from screen to paper causes the story to read differently. Entirely new insertions, deletions, and rewrites are inevitably created.

Nit-picking phase:

Kindle quotes vs. paperback
Kindle and paperback are different formats. (Meaning: you have to manually edit all the apostrophe's and quotation marks.) It's remarkable how reading the story through this editing lens will result in yet another round of insertions, deletions, and rewrites.

And after all this is said and done (at least once), then the story can be sent to a few beta-readers for their input, which invariably results in repeating at least a couple of the afore-mentioned phases. And, ultimately, to the story's release in book and e-book format.

To answer the most obvious question: YES, this is very time-consuming. But it's also a lot of creative fun, and very satisfying as each revision edges incrementally towards publication. And also so very, very necessary if I seriously want to "just say no" to dreck.

And, hopefully, also avoid badly-photocopied letters of rejection.

Did anyone catch my use of the literary tool known as "foreshadowing"?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Throwaway Worship

"Your first song is always a throw-away."

Those words have always bugged me, even though I've often seen it to be true.

If you know any worship leaders, ask them, sometime, about their struggle to bring people together to worship.

I'm currently reading Marty Boller's Wisdom of Wimber (full review at a later date), and it was an interesting reminder that -- in oldskewl Vineyardian terms -- the first song of a worship set was viewed as the "call to worship". A musical invitation to connect with the Father, Son & Holy Spirit with intentionality. (And the Christian Reformed call it the same thing, as do the Mennonite Brethren and assorted other denoms.)
"And if we'd ever stop long enough to think about it, coming into the presence of God is a holy thing." (page 55)
Sadly, I've lost track of the number of times when it felt more like trying to herd cats than inviting people to worship God. The "throw-away" song was simply our best attempt to pry people away from their conversations & coffee, and lure them into remembering that they were actually there for something -- or Someone -- else. (Note: there appears to be no denominational differences when it comes to first-song dynamics.)

Viewing the "call to worship" as little more than a musical throwaway should bother us. However, this immediately raises some significant cautions & considerations for worship leaders:

  1. You can't "make" people worship, anymore than you can "make" them love Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-31). So, don't verbally assault them in your zeal. Public shaming is a poor substitute for leadership.
  2. Don't crank up the volume in an attempt to drown out those who are talking loudly; find other ways to engage them. (Usually, they just talk even louder to compensate, and if/when they finally join in worship, the rest of the congregation is experiencing hearing loss, which does not make for a very worshipful atmosphere.)
  3. It's just a wee bit difficult to lead people into the presence of God in song if you're feeling ignored and resenting it.
Better questions:
1. How's your overflow? Or, in other words: is the weekly gathering the only time people are experiencing worship?

When the church gathers, how different would it be if their worship was an overflow from what they have been experiencing with God during the rest of the week? (Or have we created a meeting-dependent pack of lemmings?)

2. How's your infrastructure? By that, I mean: are people connecting with each other in meaningful fellowship during the week, sharing life together in small groups?
If people aren't deepening their relationships during the week, is it any surprise they are so eager to "catch up" on Sundays around the coffee?
Small groups must be far deeper than little social clubs to meet this need. Socializing is why God gave us beaches and BBQ's. Small groups are there to allow people to share life together, to use their spiritual gifts, and to both give & receive prayer.
3. How's your expectations? In plain inglés: is this just another meeting? Or is God actually present?
"More is caught than taught," they say. As leaders (including but not limited to worship leaders), what are we modelling in our worship posture? Are we checking our phones? Going over sermon notes? In some other way, communicating non-verbally that we're not really engaged in worship, either?
Don't "fake it" to look spiritual, of course. Perish the thought. But if we've lost our "first love" (Revelation 2:4-5), let's be quick to repent.
4. How's your desperation? If God doesn't show up, will anyone notice the difference?
When you gather for leadership meetings (staff, elders, small groups, worship team, or whatever), what part does worshipping God and ministering to each other play?
As others have noted: "You can't lead where you're not walking."
Getting past the "throw-away worship" mindset is a little more nuanced than simply finding more creative ways to grab people's attention at the beginning of the weekly gathering.

But I suspect we'll find ourselves with more disciples, and less consumers-of-religious-goods-and-services, if we make the effort.