Archive for category: Ministry

On the House Remodel & the Pastoral Ministry

15 Aug Joel Busby
August 15, 2014

My wife and I bought a house about a year ago.

We embarked on this adventure with a lot of plans to refurbish and remodel.

It’s been fun. And hard. And expensive.

Because of our budget, we’ve done nearly 100% of the work ourselves. We did pay someone to do something with our gas lines, which seems reasonable enough to me. I have zero desire to blow our house up. We’re at the age where not blowing our house up is worth more to us than the pride of knowing we did it 100% ourselves — but only barely.

Here’s an invaluable something I’ve learned: House projects are significantly easier if one uses the right tools.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve busted my knuckles, wasted materials, and botched a project because I wasn’t using the right tools. I’ve worked on things and had the conscious thought, “Dang. They really should make something that does this, makes this kind of cut, fits there, etc.”

Only later do I find out that “they” have indeed made a tool for just that. “They” also have a thing called a Dremel, which does everything. I saw one of these at a friend’s house and it blew my mind. I digress.

Interestingly, in my remodel projects sometimes I had the tools. But, I didn’t feel like going to my storage to rummage around for the right one. This was almost always foolish. It caused more work and strain and time and trouble. Ironically, I didn’t go through these steps because I thought something else would do the trick. That it would work better or faster or quicker. It almost never worked out this way.

Remodeling a house is like Christian ministry.

As a pastor, there are things you are trying to accomplish, cultivate, remodel, fashion, and shape. To put is succinctly, your endeavors are to the end that Christ would be formed in people. To see them grow up into Him.

Turns out, there are tools for this.

Historically, we’ve called them “means of grace.” In the tradition from which I hail (somewhat loosely, I’m an eclectic mess), it is Word and Sacrament.

Whenever and wherever the Word is preached, declared, proclaimed, announced, read aloud, taught, heard, thought about, wrestled with, discussed, studied, struggled with, batted around, obeyed, embodied, etc., the Spirit of God is at work to form and create and re-create and shape and remodel the hearts of people.

Every time.

I honestly believe this.

Further, whenever baptism and Communion are enacted and administered and shared, God is doing something to us and for us. There is a holy participation in something grand and inexplicable. This one is, perhaps, harder to understand and explain and elaborate upon, but something is happening nonetheless. Some tools are fully functional, even though perplexing.

I certainly believe there are other aspects of the pastoral ministry. Care and counsel, spiritual direction, hospitality/table fellowship all comes to mind. I practice these passionately and believe in them sincerely.

However, Word and Sacrament — this is the core. The essential tools. The sine qua non of the work.

We have the tools. We should use them because they really help — like A LOT.

“When the world is sick, can’t no one be well. But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.” A conversation with Richard Kentopp of the Gentle Wolves

12 Mar Chris Breslin
March 12, 2014

Thousands of music fans, media connoisseurs, and cultural experts flock to Austin, TX this week to participate in South By Southwest (SXSW) a music and film festival featuring more than 2000 bands, hundreds of film premiers, and interactive sessions including a “virtual conversation with Edward Snowden.”  Perhaps most notable, a several years ago Twitter was introduced here.

Cultural centers like these always interest me in terms of the church’s engagement –missiologically, artistically, culturally, and doxologically. As a part of a series of conversations I’ve had with musicians making music in and for the church, I spoke to Richard Kentopp of Austin. He plays and leads music at both Servant Church and Mosaic and has been rolling out new Gentle Wolves songs each week since February. Richard is a UT Longhorn and went to Fuller Theological Seminary, before being ordained by Mosaic and serving at Servant Church in East Austin.

Our church has been influenced by Richard’s recording ministry with Gentle Wolves (the house band for Servant Church).  His particular skill for excavating and refreshing old (in some cases very old) hymn texts, writing new songs from and for the church, and also appropriating songs from outside that speak the language of and make sense, perhaps most sense for, the church. And he does all of this with a deft ear and keen sensibility for the people in his community. By trade he is a musician, but he is also a pastor with a heart for those on the margins of faith. His creativity and bravery in a place deemed the “live music capital of the world” is truly inspiring.

On the new set of songs (dubbed Vol. IV), perhaps the quintessential display of these sensibilities is “When the World is Sick.” This tune is originally a lamenting tag at the end of an obscure (and certainly non-Christian) song by Montreal indie collective Thee Silver Zion Memorial Orchestra. After a litany of the world’s ills including “our dead marines,” the singer repeats the hopeful realistic mantra, “When the world is sick/can’t no one be well/but I dreamt we was all beautiful and  strong.” Kentopp and co take the haunting line and repurpose it as a Taize-styled Confession. Some parables of the Kingdom are just too powerful not to be used liturgically for the Kingdom.

I was able to talk to Richard a bit about some of his thoughts on worship music, what it means to play music that makes sense to an increasingly post-Christian culture in a cultural center like Austin, and his outlook on pastoring and including musicians.

Hopeful Realism: I was checking out the blog you keep and was curious to have you elaborate on your four reasons why you don’t sing praise and worship songs?  It seems like your four reasons really boil down to two reasons: “they’re not good” & “they’re unintelligible to someone outside of that culture.”

Richard Kentopp: That post is getting commented on in a lot of ways. That was what I was thinking that day. Not every day am I thinking all of those things in those ways. I think that post came out a bit negative; I’m generally trying to be more constructive. I will say that I do think those songs work well for some people. I know people who deeply connect with God through Matt Redman’s music and through his ministry and through their church singing those songs. But what I think has been lost, and one reason why the church in general is hemorrhaging young people, is our ability to make music that makes sense both musically and lyrically to young people.

I think you’re right, that music makes sense to people who grew up listening to “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” & “Heart of Worship.” But from a very young age, a lot of Christians, myself included, don’t connect with “youth group music.” There are plenty of people that need to be given the vocabulary with which to worship God, and have a hard time singing those songs. The church has done a pretty poor job –giving outsiders a chance to connect. I always try to plan for our worship gatherings from the perspective of someone having their very first worship gathering experience. What I’ve found is that success lies in getting the people who have been coming forever to come around that.

I often say to them, “You’re a giving member, you’re a leader at this church, I don’t really care what you think of our music. But I want you to tell me if you think its not going to connect with your friends or your coworkers, then you can give me critique and I’ll listen to it.” We’re on a mission. I’m not there to provide an emotional experience on Sundays, I’m there to help connect them to God and connect them to each other.  Emotions will inevitably happen.

HR: I’m reminded of a line in Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, “If we want to care for the ‘lost souls’ of our society, the best way we can reach out to them is to offer them the richest resources of the Church.” I think that includes the really vibrant language of the church. With regards to language, what makes you look at a text and say, ‘we could really do that well, and it might connect in a new and surprising way’?

RK: The follow-up post to the one you mentioned, listed what sort of songs we do. As far as hymns go, I don’t have any problem changing hymns. I’m not a purist. I think that it makes sense to update theologically or otherwise.

For instance, one of the ones that we’re working on, “We Are Waiting Blessed Savior.” The music is really simple but the lyrics are great. So I took these several hundred year old lyrics and plopped them into new music. One of the lines was, “We are waiting blessed Savior/for a reunion heart to heart/with our dear ones over the river.” Every time we sing things like that or “Sweet By and By,” theologically, I have a hard time finding backup that we’ll see our loved ones in such a state in our resurrection bodies. It became problematic when we were doing a funeral for one of our folks. As a pastoral move, if possible I try to chance some of the lines into more Christ-focused eschatological references.

Linguistically, I try to change thous to yous and thee to you. Basic stuff to make us not feel so alienated over time and space from some of these songs.

HR: Tell me about the difference, for you, between making congregational music and other kinds of recording projects.

RK: I see a real distinction between the music I make “for art’s sake” and what I do with the Gentle Wolves. Honestly, I’m not a big country-rock fan, but because we are where we are, and because that makes sense artistically and linguistically to people in Austin, we choose to do that. When I made my record, my goal was to make something in the language I enjoy, something that expresses me…but that’s not necessarily the goal for the Gentle Wolves and what we do Sunday mornings. My goals are simply different. I want people to easily catch on to melodies and to be able to sing to God. I pray that somehow God’s Spirit will connect them to himself and to everyone around them singing.

HR: I love to ask worship leaders about how they navigate the role of non-Christians in worship. You find folks on every part of the spectrum, in terms of who is able to participate in making music on Sundays.

RK: I’ve actually come about 180 degrees on this.  When I was in college at University of Texas, I was a part of a church in Austin that required you to be a part of a small group for over a year in order to be on stage in any capacity for music. They had a very high buy-in, and I thought that that was good, since you’re leading the people, even if you’re just playing bass or drums or guitar. I’ve found since I’ve been doing this as a worship leader that incorporating people who don’t call themselves Christians into your community can happen really effectively through having them play music.  Musicians love to play.  Honestly, I’ve seen enough fruit; enough people who weren’t Christians become so involved with a Christian community that they start following Jesus before they even realize what they’re doing. And they start to realize that maybe faith is something they’ve been doing, something they’ve been given.

How I counter the previous mindset that I had, is by realizing that I’m up there –not some paragon of moral fiber- I’m a pastor. The musicians that are beside me and with me are a microcosm of the church at large. So I want there to be people investigating faith, but still sharing their gifts with the community.

Download the Gentle Wolves catalog at their bandcamp page and stay tuned as the final few tracks of Vol. IV release in the next couple weeks.

The Media Product of the Pastor-Theologian (Theological Writing, or Faithful Congregation?)

05 Feb Andrew Byers
February 5, 2014

Theologian = Writer.

That is often how we understand vocational theology. We equate theologians with academic writing. The fruit of theology is a book.

And certainly, those of us doing theology and biblical studies within academic domains are required to write.

Everyone in every job has to demonstrate some evidence of “output.” What do theologians have to show for their hard work? Books and journal articles. Academic theologians are assessed and measured by their writing output. In this model, the better theologian is the one writing the most articles and books at the highest quality.

Pastor-Theologians as Writers…?

But how well does this model work for theologians whose vocational domain is not the academy, but the local church? Are the best pastor-theologians those writing the most essays and books at the highest quality?

The hyphen in “pastor-theologian” creates quite a bit of vocational tension. To fulfill the “pastor” bit, there will be inevitably be less writing of books and articles. As Jason Byassee has commented in an interview on this blog, congregations should be allowed to beckon their pastor out of the quiet study to the hospital bed, graveside, or pulpit.

Does the “theologian” side of “pastor-theologian” therefore suffer because the “pastor” dimension limits the amount of theological writing?

The answer depends on how we define “theology.”

Congregations as Published Theology

I think we can agree that Paul could be classified as a “pastor-theologian.” As such, he did not publish theological tomes. One of the greatest Christian theologians of the early church, he did not leave us with sustained systematic reflections on the Incarnation of Christ or the Doctrine of the Church.

He left us letters. The media product of Paul the Theologian is a collection of his correspondences with localized churches.

But Paul seems to exalt another media product higher than his letters. The primary media product of a pastor-theologian may actually be a faithful congregation:

“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.” 2 Cor 3:2

The strongest attestation of Paul’s work as a pastor-theologian was not a published monograph or collection of essays but a publicly visible community of Christians. He seems content to construct his vocational reputation not on his academic feats but on his pastoral work in forming congregations.

More could be said. And of course, the media product of a pastor-theologian need not be either theological writing or faithful congregations. It could well be both. And the disciplines of theology and pastoral ministry inform and enrich the other. As a writer, I am in no way interested in diminishing the task of writing in the pastoral office.

But as it turns out, today is my day in the chaplain’s office, and pastoral appointments await….

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

14 Jan Chris Breslin
January 14, 2014

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

Should Preaching be Entertaining?

30 Sep Andrew Byers
September 30, 2013

I asked in the previous post if preaching should be entertaining.

My thinking is that preaching must ultimately be, like the Christian Scriptures, engaging. That is, preaching must arrest the mind, heart, soul, and strength (to borrow from the Shema—Dt 6:4) and compel a reimagining of reality and a reanimation of our lives.

In this act of engaging, preaching may well be entertaining.

As noted earlier, Christian critiques of entertainment media need to be more nuanced. I write in the opening of TheoMedia that all media was once religious. This is because “media” are means of communication and self-revelation, and for ancient and modern-day Christians communicative initiative begins with the Triune God. The concept of “media” goes back to this one phrase:

“Let there be…”

God spoke, and thereby employed “media”—specifically, the medium of speech. And by that medium he created the multi-media world of creation. Our God is a multi-media God.

So we need to be careful with our negative connotations of “media.”

Entertainment media, however, has rightfully earned itself a bad wrap in many respects, like when it seeks to engage an audience by appealing to our shallow fancies and our unhealthy curiosities. Sermons that merely titillate to maintain a congregation’s attention are little different from television studios who throw in gratuitous sex and stylized violence to maintain an audience.

This is not the job of Christian preaching. Entertainment is not its goal, but engagement. At the same time, it is okay (and perhaps right!) when engaging preaching entertains us.

But this is not “entertainment” that, as mentioned above, arrests our attention by appealing to base interests and shallow fancies.

What should most arrest our attention is truth. What should hold our concentration is a compelling vision of the Triune God. What should awaken our interest is the urgency of sin and injustice. What should seize our minds and hearts should be Christ crucified and the cosmic scandal of a burst open tomb.

And these realities and convictions are what Christian preaching must offer through the medium of speech.

Preaching will be entertaining at times. It will also be unnerving. And if we are plying the homiletical craft faithful to the subject matter, then it will grasp and hold the attention of those who have ears to ear.

Next Post: “Everything is Bad for You… Including Preaching.” A look at how HBO’s The Newsroom and NBC’s Parenthood model a new mode of television that informs the craft of preaching.

Pastor-Theologian: Will the Job Market Drive PhD Graduates into the Pulpit?

16 Apr Andrew Byers
April 16, 2013

While brewing a second cup of coffee to keep alert in my Greek readings this morning, I found Chris Spinks’ post “Avoid a PhD?” His reflections were stimulated by Anthony LeDonne’s most recent attempt to dissuade prospective PhD candidates from pursuing their vocational dreams (LeDonne offers such discouragement on a monthly basis).

The gist of the matter is that those of us in the throes of doctoral work are loading ourselves with ungodly gobs of debt to be qualified for jobs that simply do not exist. Universities are raising tuition and increasing enrollment, but theology and religious studies professors are among the least paid across all disciplines. More and more academic institutions are taking advantage of “adjunct” professors who teach courses for very modest stipends and for whom the institutions provide nothing in terms of healthcare or other benefits.

Spinks (aptly) summarizes the advice of one commenter on LeDonne’s post in this way: “If you are not independently wealthy, or if you don’t have the pedigree to get an advanced degree in the humanities paid for, then please leave these degrees to those who can afford them.” But Spinks is concerned about the fallout, that “advanced degrees in the humanities become attainable only by the privileged.” He goes on to suggest that “if these less fortunate folks avoid all of this [financial/vocational] mess (not an unwise decision, I’ll grant), we will end up with privileged people educating other privileged people. That would be a shame.”

I am certainly among the (partially insane) unprivileged who are taking on hordes of debt to study the Bible at the doctoral level (though, admittedly, just the fact that I qualify for a student loan plan and can even dream about a PhD evidences a hefty degree of privilege). To be honest, I would issue the same advice as LeDonne, while hoping with Spinks that some less-than-privileged folks will end up teaching Scripture and theology in our seminaries and Religion Departments. I could never recommend this vocational path to anyone without massive financial backing—my regrets are rather acute right now; but again, theology should not be the domain only of the financially backed.

Though I see no solution to the debt-problem, here is one silver lining that may well be at play: not finding a job in the academy, some Christians may be redirected from the academic lectern to the ecclesial pulpit. Perhaps the job market and the wider culture’s disinterest in theology will have the effect of proliferating pastor-theologians throughout the church.

Obviously there are drawbacks here. For one, ministry is a calling and the pastoral office is not well-served if filled by a disgruntled academic whose dreams in the academy have been dashed by an economic recession. Secondly, the sort of training one gets as a PhD candidate is not necessarily conducive for promoting the sort of theological and biblical acuity required in ministerial labors.

But “calling” is often a matter of redirection, isn’t it? What some people might retrospectively call “divine calling,” might be understood at first as a “divine cornering or redirecting!” Saul of Tarsus, for instance, never envisioned how God would put his intensive academic training to use. His vocation as an apostle arose out of the ashes of a Christ-exploded vocational dream.

As for the sort of academic training involved in the PhD… well, a lot of it is simply unhelpful in a church context, sadly. But the greatest benefit of doctoral work in theology and Bible may well be the skill of reading hard texts and the discipline of thinking about them with nuance and care. And we could certainly use the fruit of those skills and disciplines in our pulpits today.

Theoretically, Christians working on PhDs are already plying their craft to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church. When the doors of the ivory towers are barred shut during the job hunt, will they turn to pulpits and pews?

That begs another question: will the pews and chapel doors be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars?

Hmmm…

 

 

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 2, ft “By His Wounds”)

14 Feb Chris Breslin
February 14, 2013

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  What inspired the topic of the conference in April “The Cry of the Poor?”  And how does it grow out of last year’s theme and content?

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Isaac Wardell:  This is really a “Part 2” from our last conference.  I hope that the Liturgy, Music and Space (LMS) curriculum and conference will act as a framework for some of the future content that we’re generating.  Some people came and used that curriculum and experienced it as being really revolutionary. It’s a pretty basic framework for trying to understand what the bible has to say about a way of approaching worship.  But it’s not incredibly pragmatic, it’s the groundwork for churches to work out in their own congregations.  We worked pretty hard when we edited to make it accessible and beneficial for a wide variety of churches.  Out of that, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had about the particular challenges of our time in worship.  I hope over the next five to ten years that we will produce materials that are about all kinds of more specific worship questions.  I’d love for us to have an entire conference and curriculum about children in worship, bilingual worship, church music programs fostering innovation in a Christian-cultural context where that’s been gone for so long…

The reason we decided on this particular one is because it was one of the most common and pronounced questions that emerged from our last conference.  LMS just pricked the surface of this major worship question: obedience in worship.  We opened the scriptures and talked about the relationship of our obedience and how God responds.  Throughout the Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms, where God laments or is angry with his people… “because of the fact that you have not cared for the poor my wrath is on the people” [Ezekiel 22:29-31].  God says that he’s on the side of the poor.  God says that he will deliver the poor from all kinds of oppression.

In the New Testament, you see the same convictions continuing.  You hear Jesus saying, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to break the bonds of oppression…” [Luke 4:18].  You see Jesus’s brother James when asked the question about what true religion is, he answers, “True religion is caring for widows and orphans and the distressed” [1:27].  You hear Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” [Luke 6:20].  You hear Jesus answer consistently, “How can I be faithful?  How can I follow you?”  He says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor’ [Matthew 19:21].

Bifrost Arts- Liturgy, Music & Space from josh franer on Vimeo.

We look for all kinds of ways to make it into a metaphor, but these are the words coming out of Jesus’s mouth.  People under forty have a category for that, but often dispel it: “Sure, God wants us to care for the poor, but I’m not sure what that has to do with worship.”

I have a lot of friends that are excited about justice and mercy and community action, and they think that people just don’t get it…what the bible’s really about.  Because I’m a musician I also have this whole other set of friends that are excited about liturgy, hymnody, and aesthetics.  There’s a whole different sort of self-righteousness going on there; “the purpose of missions is worship.”  This topic is a place where we’ve put an incredibly unrighteous rift through what the bible actually has to say about things.  We put these emphases in tension with one each other, but when you open up scripture you see that God talks about them together.

HR:  How did you personally come to some of these conclusions?

IW:  I took a personal challenge about a year ago to open up the Proverbs.  I was seeking wisdom from this Wisdom literature.  You open up the Proverbs and it’s just all of this stuff about economic injustice, the way you use your money, taking care of the poor.  There are passages like Proverbs 21 where God says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will call out to God and will not be answered.”  You open Isaiah 58 and God is being sarcastic, ‘You’re all excited about your worship and your prayers and your fasts, but I’m not interested in all that.  The fast that I’m interested in is your obedience.  The worship that I want is your being obedient to break bonds of oppression and care for those in need.’  You actually see God receiving people’s worship based on their actions.  It’s a really scary thing for evangelicals.  We get really excited about this merciful God.  And it’s true.  But we don’t have a category for this God that says, ‘I’m not interested in your liturgy or worship practices because you’ve failed to be obedient to me.’

This is the can of worms that we opened at the previous conference.  We began to ask: “What does that mean for the way we think about grace?”  Within about 24 hours of the last conference we knew this would be the subject of this event.  People were asking questions and I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.

HR:  Tell us about the format of this year conference in Philly?

IW:  This event will be two parts.  This first is deeply theological, wrestling in our plenary sessions with Isaiah 58-61 (which takes us into the New Testament because Jesus began his public ministry by quoting and fulfilling Isaiah).  We’ll ask this theological question: “what is the relationship between the way God receives our worship and our obedience to him?”

The second is very practical.  Right now we have nine workshops about how to meet the needs of particular areas of poverty in our worship.  The bible defines the poor as not just economically poor, but aliens, prisoners, widows and orphans, people with diseases and disabilities…  We’ll have a workshop on serving families with disabilities and special needs in worship.  One about not just the theological necessity but also actually the aesthetic possibilities of bilingual worship.  There’s a workshop on prisoners and worship.  One by a group in New Jersey that’s been facilitating an afterschool program for at-risk and abused children and teaching them to memorize the Psalms to voice their emotional experiences.  And a workshop on appropriating these musical concepts into multicultural settings.

HR:  You’ve put together a wonderful list of presenters.  Who are you most excited about?

IW:  We’re always so excited to have Greg Thompson with us.  Greg’s here in Charlottesville.  He’s a fellow with James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and he’s also a minister.  He delivered the summary plenary at the last conference: “The Order of Worship and the Order of Love.”

We’re really excited about John Witvliet.  He’s the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  John’s an amazing scholar on liturgics in general, having studied at Notre Dame, but his particular field of interest is the use of the Psalms in worship.  He’ll be talking to us about the core convictions of the Psalms and what they shape us into being.

(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)

(Photo courtesy of makotofujimura.com)

Makoto Fujimura, who’s a Nihonga painter and founder of the International Arts Movement, will present on creativity as a way of building communities.

Personally, I’m excited about Frère Emmanuel from Taizé community.  I have a romantic association with the community of Taizé having spent time there studying and praying.  One of the core convictions of Taizé is the idea that God calls us to bring worship into the most broken political and social places of the world.  Part of how Taizé was founded is that they had political refugees, prisoners, Jews, orphans, French people, and German soldiers who were being beaten and mocked as they made their way back home through the French countryside.  They wanted to make a place of refuge where they could all worship together and develop a multilingual way of do it.

At times they’ve been controversial.  They’re the only non-Catholic worship site to be worshiped at by a Catholic pope, and not only one but two different popes.  They have an emphasis on quietness and meditative prayer.  I’m excited about some of the amazing things they have to teach us about worship.  Brother Emmanuel is coming over to do a workshop on what it means to bring prayer, silence and song into places of real social and political brokenness.

You can go online to see some of the other workshops.

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 1, ft “Psalm 46″)

12 Feb Chris Breslin
February 12, 2013

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! & Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.

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Hopeful Realism:  Tell us about the genesis of Bifrost Arts.

Isaac Wardell:  While I had been living up in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) [serving at Resurrection Presbyterian with Vito Aiuto], I had been quietly developing an ethos for approaching church music.  I had been studying music in college, studying hymnody, had a strong classical music background, and had been living in an urban, post-Christian community.  Incidentally, for about ten years, I had zero exposure to the “Christian culture industry.”  I was working in church plants which meant that I was deciding what we were listening to.  I wasn’t listening to Christian radio, but was going through hymnals and psalters finding ways for us to worship.  In the summer of 2007, we started doing a series of events we called “Sacred Music Festivals” where in small spaces we would  invite people to come and talk about sacred music and about this crazy novelty of people singing together- probably 75% Christians or religious people, but 25% or so just interested in esoteria.  Those events led to a partnership with Rev. Joseph Pensak, ministering locally to college students, as well as connections with other local churches and pastors who helped.

I was in my twenties at the time and probably felt a stronger burden about church music needing to be more excellent, more beautiful, more soulful…rather than reactive, creative.  That’s what I really excited about, especially because of my context.  I was working in a cultural context where those were the real values.  And much Christian music had such a reputation for being facsimile, consumer-driven and draconian.

HR:  Was there a major shift moving from Brooklyn to Charlottesville?

IW:  Bifrost has changed a lot.  As you said, now I work in Charlottesville, VA, essentially in a megachurch.  There are suburban evangelicals, brilliant minds like James Hunter and Nicholas Wolterstorff, college town culture and an evermore diversifying racial complexion.  When I think about how Bifrost can help the church, the idea of being aesthetically innovative and challenging the church to think about the arts in a much more deeply theological way is more of just one sliver of what we’re doing now.  We do much more education and thinking about how we can educate congregations, worship committees, and people involved in planning worship services to think about their way of approaching worship services.

While I’m really excited about releasing this record in the coming months, I’m actually starting to feel more and more that these church curricula that we’re putting out and these conferences and small events are the most helpful thing that we do.  It’s not so much just modeling this sort of ethos but really unwrapping it and showing some biblical concepts that you can bring into your congregation that can really give your congregation a new vocabulary for worship.

When I first came to Trinity it became obvious that our worship vocabulary was so impoverished.  People have “traditional-contemporary,” “high church-low church,” people talk about being relevant…all these things that are really not very descriptive about what the bible has to say about worship.

HR:  Tell me a little bit about a tension you might feel in your work between tradition and innovation.  Singing hymns in new contexts seems to have gained a lot of momentum and quite a following over the last decade or so.  I’ve noticed that the times when the Bifrost records do cover hymnody there isn’t an automatic impulse to necessarily “re-tune” the setting.

The hymn conversation is a fascinating one.  My personal thinking has evolved a lot in the last ten years.  The last thing I want to do is offend anybody, especially my friends who are involved in setting old hymns to new music.  A lot of people who grew up in evangelical churches didn’t grow up singing hymns.  I grew up singing popular Christian music.  When I got to college, I discovered hymns- the depth, beauty, poetry…all these things that were clearly missing from my previous worship experience.  A lot of people have that experience through RUF and others setting those hymns to new music.  That wasn’t exactly my experience because I went to school on a music scholarship, and was involved in a really traditional music program.  My discovery was in the classroom.  My falling in love with them wasn’t in a context of innovation, but rather just falling in love with them for what they were.  I have a more romantic relationship with the organ and the hymnal.  I don’t have a personal history of thinking of “old, dead hymns.”  When I first heard “Be Thou My Vision” it was a new beautiful, adult experience for me.

Part of what I did in my twenties when I was working at these church plants was just opening up the hymnal.  We didn’t have an organ.  It wasn’t some kind of evangelistic decision.  We were just trying to interpret these hymns in a faithful way.  If you listen to the Bifrost records, to a song like “Just A Closer Walk With Me” that’s just me playing the song.  There’s strings and a particular musical perspective that I’m bringing to it, but we certainly weren’t trying to turn anything upside down on its head and we weren’t trying to indict anything.

HR:  Inevitably every artist makes some sort of aesthetic decision.

IW:  Sure.  And I’ve spent the last four or five years digging even more deeply into the way I feel.  At this point I think I’ve come full-circle in thinking that the problem that hymns address is obvious.  Everyone can agree that in turning on [Christian] radio, the music doesn’t address real theological questions, all the facets of the human heart.  And you open up hymnals and they address that problem.  We can agree on that.  Beyond that, to say that hymns are the answer to all of our modern worship problems is problematic.  If you bring discernment and a historical ear to your hymnal you’re going to find some beautiful things in there, some things that were beautiful because of their context, and some things that are not beautiful because of the failures of their times.

Our children’s choir came in yesterday singing “Jesus Loves me This I Know.”  In this and a plethora of other hymns written between 1825 and 1925, that great 19th century British period of hymnody, there are a lot of references to dying.   “And when you die Jesus will hold or cradle you.”  It’s alarmingly consistent.  “If I love him when I die/He will take me home on high.”  You look into it historically and you find that during that period of time in the Industrial Revolution is the highest rate of childhood and infant mortality in world history.  In all these Sunday School classes, you have these kids showing up to worship and having to deal with their peers dying.  So you have people in ministry answering those questions.  You can picture those conversations and their attempts at answers that make their way into their music.  Some of these answers seem odd or perhaps even questionable, but for the moment they were appropriate responses in their contexts.  Likewise, you open up the hymnal and you see people answering questions in hymns.  Addressing questions about war, inexplicable suffering and death, globalization and mission; in the best-case scenarios you see these hymns answering the real questions that people are wrestling with in their times.

I don’t think that hymns answer those questions for our time.  What we can learn is to be inspired by our hymnal to actually look at the questions people are asking in our times.  You read James Hunter’s book: central questions about identity, sexuality, what does it mean to be a person, how do we know that life has any value?  Questions about money, human relationships…these are the questions that are on the news every night.  I don’t know that I can turn on the radio and hear Christian music answering these questions.  But I also don’t necessarily know that you open your hymnal and find answers to these questions.

I’d like to issue a call to songwriters not to stop writing songs and just use your hymnal, but to write new things.  The new Bifrost record, and probably any subsequent records, will be all original hymns and worship songs.  It’s important for us to start modeling that.  In some way there’s something incredibly faithless about resigning yourself to saying that “they wrote all this great stuff back there and we’re not capable of writing stuff like that now.”  I’d like to suggest that the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaac Watts is the Holy Spirit that can inspire us to write something as beautiful as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

HR:  Beyond answering specific questions for a specific place and time, how do you see worship music working within a framework of a ‘theology of desire?’  Your last conference’s curriculum began to explore some of these themes, seeing a human person as primarily affective or liturgical, how do you design worship with music that takes that whole person seriously?  Hymns don’t let you necessarily range the whole spectrum of emotions in the way that perhaps even the most simple praise chorus, that you could pick on all day, may be able.

I’m assuming you’re probably familiar with Jamie Smith and Desiring the Kingdom?  I love Jamie and his writing and teaching, and his new book, Imagining the Kingdom is explicitly about applying that question in a worship context.

For my Presbyterian, Reformed context, one of the main areas of poverty in the PCA’s collective understanding about worship is this understanding of worship as being just a transmission of information.  Presbyterians get really excited about hymns being good theology set to music.  And there’s something to that.  But this fundamental understanding of worship being information and a system of understanding imparted to you so that music is just a vehicle- that’s a terribly small way of understanding what worship is.

In the Liturgy, Music, and Space (LMS) curriculum, we try to give the reader two handles.  On the one hand, worship has a formative aspect; worship forms us to think a certain way.  And worship has an expressive aspect; in worship our love for God is expressed.  Worship is the expression of a whole relationship with God and its also the formation of a whole relationship with God.

That’s what we’re trying to offer, not contemporary-traditional, not high-low, but formative-expressive as the most scriptural worship categorization.  These two qualities are manifest in scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that you see God telling the people, ‘when you worship I want you to do it in the very formative way.’  Even Deuteronomy, he says, ‘I want you to write these truths and hang them in front of your eyes on little leaflets and I want you to write it on your doorposts.’  And even when God is telling the Israelites how to celebrate Passover, he says ‘I want you to set your table, sit down, and you’ll say this prayer, and the oldest son is going to ask the dad this question and the dad will answer in this way…’  This is a very formative prescription for worship.

At the same time, you have all these instances in the scriptures, from the prophets right through the New Testament, where God tells his people, ‘I’m not interested in you just going through the motions of worship, not interested in your feasts and festivals, if your heart is not right and your not being obedient to my word.’  And that’s the expressive part.  There are times throughout the bible that you read of these exuberant expressions, things much more expressive than we’re comfortable with: banging cymbals, beating drums, David’s dancing in the street.  Even in the New Testament where in Peter’s worship services people are accused of being drunk.  There is a very descriptive element of expressive worship in the scriptures.

Isaac Wardell

Isaac Wardell (Photo by Adam Clark)

I don’t think that delineating between praise choruses and hymns is always necessarily helpful or accurate.  The category that we use around here is ‘scripture songs,’ a subcategory being ‘psalms.’  I think those are really important categories to have in this conversation, because the Psalms are a best-case scenario due to the fact that they are super-expressive.  They’re very raw.  They’re more expressive than any Chris Tomlin song.  The Psalms are the psalmists bringing all their whole hearts to God.  But the Psalms are also deeply formative.  The Psalms are really challenging.  They don’t just give you words for what you already feel.  They give you words to grow into.  I think the Psalms have to be our model…you see that from Jesus.  When he went to worship God, he learned how to worship using the Psalms, he sung the Psalms, and in his hour of need, Jesus quoted the Psalms.  When he’s hanging on the cross, he’s not extemporizing.  He’s not just expressing, but he quotes something he would have sung.  You see the Psalms even forming Jesus’s heart and giving him language for how to talk to God.

The Psalms are the starting place and then out of the Psalms you have a criterion from which you can judge how good a praise song is and how good a hymn is.  If you start to see a great disconnect between our hymnody and our psalter or praise chorus catalog and our psalter, it should be clear to us where the poverty is.

But that’s not the way we operate.  We’ve gotten so upside-down in our understanding.  You have both traditional people that would hate it if you brought the emotion of the Psalms into worship, and then there are those who are all about expression, who have made an idol out of emotive expression – so that when you try to make a case that the bible just doesn’t want us to express things we feel but to learn to express things that we ought to feel – they’d react really poorly as well.  I think the psalms are indicting on the state of our worship wars.  The one thing we can agree on is that nobody wants to worship that way.

HR:  I recently interviewed Sarah DeShields from Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  They’re really trying to hold this in tension and use the handles “the liturgy and the shout” to speak of that dialectic of formation and expression.  Interestingly, they’ve wound up doing a few psalm-based texts to do this on a congregational level.

Advent with the Gathering Church

13 Dec Chris Breslin
December 13, 2012

Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.

1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional.  Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me.  Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting.  By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired.  Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download).  Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.

2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity.  To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision.  This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent.  I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.

© 2012 Nathan Hood

© 2012 Nathan Hood

Here are some of Nate’s words on his process:

When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.

First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?”  “What would he be up to?”

Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.

What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?

Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.

3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away.  In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion.  At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us).  The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.

I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:

Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season.  May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er.  May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.

-Chris Breslin

Making an Announcement: A New Ministry Assignment

27 Nov Andrew Byers
November 27, 2012

St Mary’s College, Durham

On January 2 I begin working as the Chaplain at St Mary’s College here in Durham. It is a real pleasure to be able to make that announcement. Everyone I have interacted with at the College have been so helpful and enjoyable.

For over a year now I have had the distinct delight of being a “layperson.” For the previous 11 years or so before moving to England, I had been serving as a minister in some official capacity. Since my vocational path has thus far tried to resist forking into Academics or Pastoral Ministry, the role of chaplain at a university college seems quite fitting.

My post will be part-time, with the bulk of my day-job energies still going to the PhD work. But I will now get to ply the crafts of academic biblical studies and pastoral ministry simultaneously. I have been in these waters before (Duke Div School/Mt Hermon Baptist Church), so the territory is not unfamiliar. What will be rather excitingly unfamiliar is that I will get to help lead Anglican-styled worship services every fortnight. This Baptist-ordained theology student has much to learn; but I am keen to soak up the wisdom of the students and staff I will get to work with.

Your prayers will be appreciated!

 

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