“It” and me

January 10, 2009

I went into last Sunday’s church gathering with skepticism. My skepticism went up when they said we were going to watch a prerecorded message from a Willow Creek “Leadership Summit.” The speaker said that you can compare two churches with exactly the same worship, message and programs, and find that one church “has it” but the other doesn’t. My skepticism went on full alert when the speaker said he would tell us what “it” is, especially because he has written a book about “it.”

He said, “I don’t know.”

At this, I sat up and began to take notice.

Much to my surprise, he described ways that getting caught up in church ministry can cause you to lose “it.” He spoke of not copying what you see in any other church because what you can see is not “it.” He spoke of the need for failure because if you want different results, you’ll have to do what is not being done. He spoke of focus and choosing what not to do. And he spoke of following your passions.

So I asked myself, what are the things I am passionate about in a faith community? Off the top of my head, I came up with:

Musical worship. Doesn’t sound very “organic, small church” does it? But I find there is something mystical about honestly interacting with God through music in a large group. Honest, mystical, passionate and loud. I used to hear Vineyard pastors say that most North American churches are doing “Vineyard-style” worship these days. Clearly these pastors have never been to these other churches, because they’re dead wrong. To the extent of my abilities, I bring it. And Chris Tomlin makes me gag.

Small groups as the key. The key to what? Just about everything, because I see relationships as the core operating principle of the kingdom. Evangelism? Discipling? Caring? It’s all relational, so for crying out loud, build it on relationship. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on the task, because deep relationship is born out of enduring difficulties together while pursuing a common purpose. But if you do not create a relational culture where both who you are and how you are affects what I do, your results will be shallow and short-lived.

Reaching out to those who are not interested in church. If you build it, they won’t come. So is God not at work among them? Do we just wait for them to “get it” and come to us? If we follow a God who did not wait for us to come to him, that is not a viable option. We may find our efforts to be irrelevant to God’s ongoing work — or worse, actually leading his followers away from his work. Orienting your community around mission is scary, because it forces you to wrestle with two big questions: “Are we focused on the right things?” and “What is the gospel of the kingdom, anyway?” Some church people take offense at even asking those questions. Do you have the guts to politely ask them to leave?

As I list my passions, I realize I am doing exactly NONE of them in the context of our church. I have spent two years expressing my views and trying to lead out, with nothing to show for it but frustration. I have heard powerful messages, often a whole series, and was active in a church-wide initiative to reinvent itself. These only made my frustration worse, because hope for change was declared, then either snatched away, or left to wither and be forgotten.

So I am done trying to be a prophetic voice in the Journey. I’m not throwing a passive-aggressive tantrum, just trying to be pragmatic, because my input makes no difference.

Saddest of all, the people we became close to — leaders seeking change, artists, and those with prophetic imagination — either left on their own, or if they were on staff were fired and then left. Kay & I spent years building a new network of friends. Now almost all of them are gone. Having the church announce “new, exciting” things which “we’ve never done before” and will be “huge” or “intense” only increases our loneliness by communicating that the Journey is about flashy events, not meaningful relationships.

That said, I have made it through a long season of feeling abandoned by God, and am once again able to “tune in” to his presence. I sense that God’s greatest work is not what he does through me, but what he does in me. Rather than being admired (or loathed) for the way I lead worship, I am ignored as I wrap cables and put away the audio gear, and this has been an opportunity to learn the ups & downs of humility. The “it” message helped remind me to return to the thing I first discovered about faith: God has a genuine and deep love for me. With that as a fresh starting point, the future looks beautiful.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

18 responses to “It” and me

  1. Good post on your blog! I like what you said about worship in churches. One question though – why does Chris Tomlin make you gag? I can imagine as a worship leader doing the same songs over and over again can get quite redundant. Is there another reason other than the obvious of course? Also – yeah, you do ‘bring it’!!! I really enjoyed when you lead worship.

  2. Carol, thanks for the exclamation points! I do have to acknowledge that my style is not for everyone — I’m glad you found it helpful.
    As for Chris Tomlin, well, let me restate it: Chris Tomlin songs make me gag. More often than not, anyway. They are like white bread: easy to chew and tasteless. I wrote a much more detailed critique of contemporary worship in my post, “worship porn.”

  3. it’s amazing sometimes the way that god works. your posts often remind me of things that i’ve thought and wrestled as well. we really should hang out, I miss talking with you and Kay and I think few people would appreciate what I’m learning in seminary as much as you would.
    one class i had was all about how the purpose of the church was to glorify god through meaningful relationships. we talked about the difference between being attractional and missional and how to steer a church in that direction. it was compelling.
    i’m taking a class on maximizing the church’s redemptive influence right now and i have to write a paper dealing with the questions you posed: “‘Are we focused on the right things?’ and ‘What is the gospel of the kingdom, anyway?'”
    i guess what i mean to say is, it seems like the things you’re seeing and longing for make perfect sense. i hope that you don’t become jaded and give up on change forever, but i’m genuinely encouraged to hear your introspection about all this. anything that brings us back to the place of god’s love is awesome.

  4. Jon, I just read your post “Worship Porn” and I agree with you. I have never been a worship leader so I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, but I do get a sense from some churches I have visited. One of the requirements of a church that I attend is to have honest worship. Not the ‘cookie cutter’ kind of worship that a lot of churches participate in. What I can’t stand is the way worship happens in a lot of churches. You have 15 to 20 minutes of worship – NOT A MINUTE LONGER EVEN IF THE SPIRIT LEADS, then a prayer, then announcements, then a sermon. My question is this – Who the heck says it has to be that way?
    I have been to only ONE church my entire life that has allowed God to do what He truly wants to do. The pastor was in touch with God. He allowed the Holy Spirit to have free reign. If the worship was intense on a particular given night, there would be no sermon or a really short sermon even if he had spent hours laboring over it. Why did this happen? Because the pastor knew that God is not only for an hour. We are beings created to worship the most high and have time that is personal and intimate. It is hard to achieve that when you have exactly 15 minutes to accomplish it (as a worship leader I’m sure you have experienced something along these lines). It seems like worship leaders have a certain job to do, but that job MUST follow a specific set of standards. If it does not, that worship leader will be replaced by one who is willing to ascribe to those standards, or rules and regulations if you will.
    You talked about the nature of songs. I agree. Even before I read your post, or your reply to this one, I was telling my husband about some of Chris Tomlin songs and how they are great, but slightly inappropriate (for lack of a better word) for worship. The best time I have ever had in worship that I can remember is singing the song, “Take me in”. A small group I was a part of sang that song for about a half hour over and over again. This would almost never happen in a church – why? Because of a time schedule, or the control the pastor exerts or because people want church to be cerebral, not emotional. (I hope I don’t sound too critical here).
    I think churches (even the body of Christ as a whole) really need to take a step back and think about what church really means and why we were created. Church is a community, not a building. It is something that happens everywhere, gathering with other believers, but not necessarily on Sunday mornings. We are beings created to worship, plain and simple.
    One of my favorite worship songs – as you stated:
    Lord I groan, Lord I kneel
    I’m crying out for something real
    ‘Cause I know, deep in my soul
    There must be more
    And I truly think there MUST be more. There IS more. Worship isn’t about clapping and being happy. It’s about communion with God – deep, heartfelt, stinging, longing for the one true God. True worship has a way of changing the depths of people, because you are in deep communion with God….you are doing what you were created to do.
    (I’m stepping down off of my soapbox now)

  5. Frances, it would be nice to hang out…
    Carol, you go. Preach it. Actually, you really should!
    One pastor told me that whenever the Spirit moved in worship, I should “stick with the plan” and not deviate from it because obviously the Spirit was validating the plan! (Uh, I disagreed. I thought the Vineyard way was to make a plan and hold it loosely, allowing God to change the direction if he wanted.)

  6. It figures. The day after I write, “I am ignored as I wrap cables,” I was approached by a man in church. He asked, “How are you?” with a surprising genuineness. I told him I have found peace. He told me his compelling story, and at first I was not sure why.
    He concluded by saying that people misunderstand the scripture, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” to mean that life will be smooth for believers. But look at his life — God allowed his suffering so that it could be transformed into redemption for others. Then he turned to my kids who were wrapping cables the way I have taught them. Choking back tears, he said, “Thank you for what you do. It means a lot.”

  7. Jon, I always appreciate your honesty and willingness to share what is so deep inside your heart. Thanks for making me think about some things…hope you and the family are doing well. Haven’t seen you guys in forever!

  8. Thanks, Carrie. Are you leading worship at all these days?

  9. Jon… I wish more people uderstood the “pendulum” as you do… worship large; do life “small.”
    Perhaps someday more folks will underststand “small groups as the key…”
    Sorry, but I like Chris Tomlin. I just wish he would ennunciate more clearly. It took me years to learn that the lyrics were not: “How grey is our gaah…”

  10. Hi Dave, thanks for coming by. I like what you call the “pendulum.” In traditional cell church terms, it’s the “two-winged church.”
    And don’t mind my Chris Tomlin snobbery. My problem is probably that the majority of songs done at my church are written by this one guy, and the bands tend to copy every jot and tittle of a particular recording rather than discover how to express a song as their own.
    It’s too bad churches project words, otherwise we would have a larger repertoire of misheard lyrics! 🙂

  11. Jon, you confuse me, as usual. 🙂

  12. Anything more confusing than usual, Noelle? 🙂

  13. Jon, What intense worship has done for me is miraculous. It has allowed me to break through my own inclination to conformity and be free to be with God just as I am. My soul requires the expectancy of the Holy Spirit to move and shake things up (especially my apathy). By the way, you can add me to your list of bail-lees. I wish the Journey well but I too (like you) missed the Vineyard. So much so that I am currently driving up to the Vineyard in Palo Alto. After two years I had (almost) forgotten what it was like to be in a church that wants and expects the Holy Spirit’s to invade our space with the miraculous. Peace to you, Kay and the kids. David C.

  14. David, I add you to list! Sorry to hear that — but not really. (Non-Vineyard folk: See, I’m not making this stuff up! But it’s hard not to sound bigoted about it. We want to give it away, we really do.)
    I believe worship can alter your life. Testify!

  15. I too have given up on trying to build up a local church organization. I have found real joy and peace in loving my neighbors and pursuing the poorest of the poor and helping them in whatever way I can. I love the house church where we fellowship. Nearly everyone is deeply involved in various local and international mission projects. I spent way too much time and energy supporting a church organization. The house church model frees up a lot of resources that used to be directed inward to the church.

  16. I’m glad for you, Jim.

  17. I found it interesting that I encountered rigid, political, church hierarchies in Nicaragua as well. I have had to make a decision in recent days to do an end run around these man-made reporting structures to focus on the people who really need help. It brought the wrath of someone who some considered an international apostle upon me but I don’t really care. I just want to help the poor and the needy. I don’t care what someone’s title may be, I want to personally give medical supplies, sandals, and educational supplies in Jesus name, myself (and anyone else who wants to help).

  18. The David Crowder concert at The Warfield a while ago was (to me) a wonderful worship time. Loud as a Jet. Shoulder to shoulder with many hundreds of others on a big dance floor. Lights, fog, the presence of God and a couple of my own boys. I never get tired of David Ruis or Marie Barnett. John Foreman has some good stuff too… though his is not really worship music. Most “Christian Music” just sounds so “cheesy” and trite to me any more. Worship has always been important to me. I want nothing less than the Glory of God to show up when we get together just like “it” did at the dedication of temple in Solomon’s day. I know it is a tall order but I still dream.