MANUEL LUZ

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The Myth of Inspiration

474076_rastr(312).jpgAt the recent Intersections: Faith & the Arts Conference, we ended the final session with a panel discussion where the main speakers were invited on stage to dialogue with the other attendees. Derek Martin, moderator and William Jessup University host, kicked us off with an easy question: “Where does your inspiration come from?”

Of course, this isn’t an easy question at all. So it was no surprise when we responded with awkward silence. As the other speakers hesitantly weighed in, it gave me a chance to think about my own wells of inspiration. Yes, I listen to music, watch movies, read books (though not as many as I should), and experience art when I can. Yes, I try to hang out with creatives as much as possible, both in an unstructured, “let’s do coffee” kind of way and also in a structured “let’s make art” kind of way. And yes, I try to remain attentive to the still small voice that keeps me Kingdom-focused and other-centric. But when it came my turn to speak, these were not the answers I gave.

Instead, I told them the truth: my inspiration comes mainly from deadlines.

Most of my deadlines are fixed. Sunday comes once a week. Christmas and Easter come once a year. I write a blog post every two weeks or so. I release a CD project every three years. These deadlines—both fixed and self-imposed—are really what drive my creativity.

There’s a bit of a myth associated with the creative process, that inspiration happens in moments of Spirit-filled, ethereal enlightenment. We have these lofty notions that artistic inspiration happens when clouds part and rays of heavenly serendipity shower down on our blank pages and canvases and stages. Like the ancient Greeks, we await the muses to descend from Mount Olympus and stir us up. And though Spirit-filled inspiration definitely does strike the artist of faith, the truth is that most inspiration happens in the midst of hard work and slog-filled drudgery.

Ernest Hemingway was famously known for his strict spartan approach, writing deliberately early in the mornings and working while standing for long periods with only a pencil or typewriter.  Johann Sebastian Bach is not only known for the intellectual and artistic beauty of his music, but also for the prolific discipline which produced a dizzying body of work including a full 300 cantatas. And Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky once wrote, “We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

There’s an internal tension at work in the artist—a tension that pits our hard-won mastery of technique with the need for imagination and inventiveness. Art is born from such tensions. I think this is one of the things that differentiates the professional artist from the hobbyist. We create in the midst of this internal tension of expertise and inspiration, and thankfully, we can lean on our hard work and expertise when inspiration does not come. Deadlines become our inspiration because we have attained a level of excellence that allows inspiration to flow more easily. And when inspiration does not come, we can still perform at a high level.

In the midst of this tension, there is another dynamic at work. We must apply the very difficult discipline of releasing our artwork, even when it may not have turned out the way we wished. For we must make peace with our creations, allow it to exist outside of our preconceptions of it, in order to let it truly be what it is. As creators, we release our art to the Creator, who can use it quite apart from and beyond our limited imaginations.

Intersections Panel 2014

Madeleine L’Engle reminds us to listen and to be a servant of our artwork. It is the only way our art can become greater than ourselves. She quotes Jean Rhys, who reminds us:

“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Interestingly, when I revealed that deadlines were my muse, all the other speakers chimed in heartily in agreement. For all of us—as authors, musicians, painters, actors, directors, dancers, and all our ilk—are merely small streams and creeks which feed the lake.

[Lower photo (R to L): Derek Martin, me, Shane Grammer, and Lyn Lasneski respond to a humorous remark by Rondall Reynoso (not pictured).]

Philippines 2014: Another Opportunity

IMG_0190Some of my longer-term blog readers may remember that I traveled to the Philippines in 2012 to teach worship and the arts at a Bible training center associated with the the North American Baptist Conference (NAB). Specifically, I made a personal long-term commitment to provide teaching and support to the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL), which provides theological, Biblical and pastoral training for pastors, evangelists and church planters in the least-churched, non-Muslim region of the Philippines. My personal commitment to them extends every other year, so I am excited that I get to go back again during the first half of June to minister with my BCCL friends in Bicol.

Here is what Director Gregg Evans has to say about it:

“The students are a mix of full-time Christian workers, active church members and college students from a dozen different churches, most getting their first systematic instruction in theology and Biblical studies.   With a growing reputation for solid Bible teaching, the Center is quickly becoming the hub of Evangelical Christianity in Albay Province, and what it is doing in Albay is spreading to other provinces.  BCCL has the potential to become the single most influential Christian institution in the region in the years ahead, impacting hundreds, and eventually thousands, of pastors, evangelists, church planters and rank-and-file members.”

IMG_0285During my last trip, I discovered that the Filipinos of the Albay Province are passionate and talented, but are under-resourced and generally need training. Also, worship is one of the ways in which we can bring together the many different churches in the area in a spirit of mutuality and cooperation. It is my hope to continue the work of providing theologically-based teaching and musical training to the dozens of churches in that area.  Specifically, they have asked me to do the following this summer:

• Provide a series of music/worship workshops with different church worship teams. This will include vocal and musical training, as well as worship leader training and teaching on worship and the arts. We may also do a weekend worship workshop as well.

• Lead worship and/or speak at various churches during their Sunday services, as requested.

• Provide more focused songwriter training for those interested in writing original songs.

• In addition, I hope to bring a “care package” of strings, drumsticks, tuners, cords, mics, etc. to help the different under-resourced churches there, depending on the amount of support raised.

• All this will culminate in an Inter-Church Worship Concert that I will lead and speak at, scheduled for June 12, Philippine Independence Day, which is a national holiday.

IMG_3505From a personal standpoint, I feel uniquely qualified to answer this calling. While I am fully American (born and raised in California), I am a full-blooded Filipino, and the people there seem to relate to me at some deep and unspoken level. While I am a working musician, songwriter, and studio artist, I am also a theologically-trained worship pastor and book author. Although I have been affiliated with NAB for decades (i.e., I’m a Baptist), I am very comfortable in many faith traditions, from my background in Catholicism to charismatic to traditional to emergent. Finally, my professional background as a former aerospace engineer gives me a bit of a mythical credibility with the many university students that hang out and take classes at BCCL. (I suspect that I may be a walking, talking enigma for some of the Filipinos there!)

My home fellowship,  Oak Hills Church, is firmly behind this trip and is the sending organization. But I will need to raise financial and prayer support, including air fare and other travel, meals, and musical instrument resources. If you’re interested in helping me, please contact me at manuel@manuelluz.com. Thanks!

[Top Photo: Leading an all-day Worship Workshop with about a dozen churches in 2012. Middle Photo: BCCL sits in the shadow of the Mayon Volcano, an overwhelmingly beautiful sight. Bottom Photo: Teaching a class on Worship and the Arts at BCCL.]

Tension and Truth

sp_fallen20x20An artist I know recently mentioned to me how he hated going into Christian bookstores. Without mentioning why, I could understand his unstated acrimony. (It may be for some of the same reasons why I would feel uncomfortable watching a Biblically-based movie where Jesus appears as a European-descent white male with brown hair and blonde highlights.)

Simply put, much of the Christian kitsch which passes for art in these bookstores falls short of reality. Whitwashed and tidied, the baubles and figurines and fridge magnets and lithographs which line these establishments seem to represent a view a bit removed and revisioned from the real world we actually live in. Inspirational posters, “how to” books on spirituality, and pastoral landscapes seem a bit out of touch with a world where young girls are trafficked, where children go to bed hungry, where innocent people are persecuted and executed, where airplanes seemingly disappear from the sky. But beyond the pithy sentimentalities of the bookstore, there really is a truth trying to poke out of these works, which is this: God has won the victory, and our sure and steadfast hope is in Him.

It’s like a children’s book of Bible stories. The story of Jericho is filled with cute soldiers marching, shiny trumpets blaring, stone-faced walls tumbling down. It’s a fun story. But the Biblical account also states that the city was razed, and every man, woman, child and animal was killed. That part doesn’t seem to make it into the children’s books, and one can argue, for good reason.

There is an uncomfortable tension between two realities, separated by a broad and hazy line. The truth of God’s love is mysterious and beautiful and full of grace. And the truth of the world we live in is brutally stark and often ugly and full of uncertainty. How can we, as artists of faith, be honest and authentic to both of these seemingly dichotomous truths?

N. T. Wright, Bishop and New Testament scholar, may have something to offer. In his sermon to the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival Eucharist, he says this:

“The whole world is already filled with God’s glory; that is precisely why we feel the present horror and shame of creation the way we do. But the whole world will ultimately be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, on the day when God makes all things new, and binds up every wound, and wipes away all tears from all eyes. The Christian contribution to the worlds of the arts, not least music, is therefore neither to collapse into sentimentality, to murmur the easy half-truths which comfort for a while but wither in the face of the horror of the world, nor to connive at that brutalism which, under the guise of ‘telling it like it is’, denies the very possibility of hope. The Christian contribution to the arts must lie along the line of listening to the longing and groaning of creation, a longing which is itself multi-dimensional because it is the evidence of the Spirit’s groaning and longing within the world, and expressing and portraying that longing both in its present agony and in its certain hope.”

This is where we, as artists of faith, must stand firmly and boldly, to declare the present-tense reality of God through our works and through our lives. It is true that this world is broken. It is simultaneously true that this world is filled with God’s glory. It is true that bad things happen—a lot. It is simultaneously true that we are offered a hope that is certain and secure. We artists must admit that we have not always done a good job of telling these simultaneous truths. We can slide into either end of the spectrum, either to “murmur the easy half-truths” or “connive at brutalism.” But darkness gives testimony to the light. And thankfully, the arts allow us a breadth and depth of expression which allows us to declare the tension of these two truths—through our choreography, our canvases, our musical instruments, our pens, our cameras.

To be an Artist of Faith is to be a prophet, a teller of truth. May we live out this reality in what we do, and with who we are. [Note: For more dialogue on this, please see The Artist as Prophet.]

[Artist Credit: Mixed-media piece by Judith Monroe.  Please check out her website. Here is her artist statement about the piece:  "This piece is titled “Fallen” and has many layers of meaning, starting with the scripture in Matthew that speaks to how God knows when even a sparrow falls, and then points to how believers are called to die to self, how the wages of sin are death, the sacrifice necessary to atone for sin and wherever else the Spirit leads you to contemplate..."]

Why Paint During Worship?

Randy Blasquez Oct Arts MonthMany churches are beginning to incorporate live painting into their worship services. For those who haven’t experienced this, a painter(s) will begin with a large, blank canvas at the beginning of a service and paint throughout the worship time, sometimes through the sermon and even through multiple services. The painter (or other visual artist) is considered a worship leader, and often stands alongside the other members of the worship team. The content of the painting is often related to the theme of the worship or message, and the painting is characterized by some sense of spontaneity, experimentation, discovery, and artistic virtuosity.

Oak Hills Church has been incorporating performance artists into our services for a number of years now, an extension of the Art & Soul Gallery which hangs in our church lobby. Beyond the superficial “cool factor,” there really is a theological and philosophical rationale undergirding this trend.

So I thought it would be helpful for those who have or are contemplating live painting to know the reasoning behind live painting. In other words: Why paint during a worship service?

05 P1010845 CBsmLive painting is an act of creativity. And the act of creativity reminds us that we worship and are made in the image of an Eternally Creative God. Watching a painting take shape evokes a Bob Ross sense of wonderment and curiosity, two necessary characteristics of the growing worshiper.

Live painting is a non-verbal expression of the sermon. The Church has a long-established history of displaying paintings and sculpture and other visual means as aids to worship, but unfortunately some of our faith traditions walked away from much of this during the Reformation. Stained glass, as an example, was an art form that brilliantly and boldly preached the story of God to an illiterate laity. And although we generally have a literate population in this day and age, the visual arts still speaks boldly to the visual learner. At our church, a performance artist recently painted the Biblical figure, Abagail, in support of a message preached from 1 Samuel 25. It was quite effective.

God meets us in the act of creation. The Holy Spirit is our Inspirer. He works not only through the artist to express each brush stroke, but also works through the audience to ascribe meaning to that colored canvas. If we truly believe that God speaks to us, then performance art gives us the opportunity to open the eyes of our hearts to Him. This is just as true with works of abstraction as well as of realism or metaphor.

Art can be Prophetic. The artist of faith has the ability to tell the story of God, and share the heart of God, through means beyond mere words. Prophetic art has been defined as, “revealing by divine inspiration, to reveal the will or message of God, to illuminate or bring revelation to a situation.” When we let artists of faith express themselves in a service, we release a prophetic stream often untapped in many of our churches.

Live painting is an expression of faith. Live painting gives the visual artists in our church a venue for publicly expressing their faith through non-musical worship. We strongly believe that the non-verbal testimony of those who paint is as important as the verbal testimonies we share in our services.

DSC07327 Paint Kent CBsmNow that I’ve shared with you five reasons to incorporate live painting into your services, let me give you three quick reasons why you shouldn’t:

Because it sounds like it would be something cool. Please don’t do this because you saw something like it on “America’s Got Talent.” It is crucially important that expressions of the arts in your local church be premised by a foundational theology of the arts. In other words, what you do should spring from your beliefs, not from simple stylistic preferences.

Because you’re trying to create a spectacle of some sort. Don’t use artists like so many side shows in a circus. Art is not the show before the sermon. The arts are, for artists of faith, an expression of life lived in Christ. Respect the arts and your artists—for who they are and not simply for what they do.

• Because Aunt Betty took a class in painting at the community college. As I’ve preached before, medium and message are inextricably entwined. And as such, we cannot settle for art that is simplistic, derivative, superficial, propaganda-driven, or mediocre, for it reflects on the message. And our message is that of God’s love through Jesus Christ. If the story of God is to shine from our work, and we must be diligent and committed to pursue excellence, originality, and honesty as we express it.

Do you have other thoughts? Is your church incorporating performance artists, and if so, do you have substantive reasons why? Let me know your thoughts.

[Photo Credits: [Top] Randy Blasquez interprets a view of the Lord’s Supper; [Middle] Anna Agundez sculpts two people in embrace (the flat screen to the right allows the audience to see her work in more detail); [Bottom] Melinda Word paints during the message given by Pastor Kent Carlson. Photos taken by Dave Kilborn.]

Intersections Conference 2014

Intersection_art_faithBIG NEWS! This year’s Intersections: Faith & the Arts Conference will be hosted by William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.  The newly formed Creative Arts Program, led by Department Head Derek Martin, will be taking over this conference and hosting it on the William Jessup University Campus on March 14-15, 2014.

The Intersections Conference is a two day event that celebrates the crossroads of faith and artistry. Artists and people of faith from the San Francisco Bay area to Lake Tahoe will descend on the Campus of William Jessup University to discuss cultural creation, engage the challenges of integrating faith and art, consume new works in various media, and to network with fellow artists and patrons of the arts. The Intersections Conference is guaranteed to lift your spirits, challenge your perspective, stimulate your imagination, and deepen your walk with the Lord.

This is a great opportunity for those artists of faith in the northern California area—actors, writers, dancers, visual artists, filmmakers, sculptors, painters, poets, musicians, technical artists, and all artists of faith. In particular, this is a great opportunity for young artists who are considering a career in the very wide field of the arts. It should be an inspiring time for all! Please join us this March for an incredible time.

This year’s conference speakers include:

Shane Grammer,  3D themed environmental artist and activist
Lyn Lasneski, painter and deep thinker
Rondall Reynoso, artist and art scholar
Manuel Luz, songwriter, author, creative arts pastor (that would be me!)
Derek Martin, actor, director, department chair of Creative Arts program
• As well as a host of breakout sessions led by local artist leaders, performances, and an amazing lunch!

One other thing. I am personally excited for the quality of speaker this year, and I know you will be too. This year, I will be speaking specifically to pastors and other arts leaders who are trying to figure out how to allow the arts to be a greater expression in their churches, so if you are an artist, consider bringing your worship director and/or senior pastor to this event.

For registration and a schedule of events, please see the Intersections 2014 Eventbrite Link.

Behind the Artist Persona

Behind the MaskMuch is said these days about being “authentic.”  We want authentic worship, authentic leadership, authentic community.  But the reality is that authenticity can be a scary, daunting, and difficult virtue to live out.  We are all walking wounded—carrying the baggage of our dysfunctional backgrounds, the consequences of our sins, the lies we’ve chosen to believe about ourselves.  None of us are whole in and of ourselves.

I think it may be harder still for those of us who have a public persona—such as a musical artist, actor, speaker, worship leader, or church pastor—those of us who have an identity on the stage.

Ever thought about the nature of what a worship leader does?  We stand in front of a group of people, painfully aware of how audaciously center stage we are during worship—and our job is to give God the glory.  The lights are on us, the focus is on us, the music is driven by us.  We sing songs in our key to highlight our voices and showcase our playing.  We strut and we pose and we stir up the people, trying to generate a positive response from the crowd.  And afterwards, those very same people come up to us and tell us how great we are.  It’s got to be one of the weirdest things in the world.

Go to a pastor’s conference and you’ll see this happen.  There is some unspoken but inevitable posturing, as those with large churches secretly measure themselves against those who do not, while those loyal leaders of the very small congregations try to maintain some semblance of self-respect in light of their apparent shortcomings.  Everyone generally tries very hard to ignore the measuring stick of attendance figures at these gatherings, but it’s difficult because the worship is accompanied by dazzling multimedia, smoke machines, and laser lights, and the keynote speaker is usually a visionary mega-church pastor.  Certainly everyone is trying to be “authentic,” but the reality is that everyone’s public persona is on full display.  You might think this unholy, and maybe it is.  But it is also very human, and inside us all.

The deadly sin here is pride. Pride is thinking and acting about yourself before others.  It is more than just being conceited or big-headed.  Even people with low self-esteem have issues with pride, because it is rooted in a self-centeredness that comes from the same place—We don’t have a proper understanding of our true identity in Christ and our true worth from Christ.  And this is a shame, because it is only in truly understanding our place before God that we fully see Him for the good and great God that He is.

We as artists seem to be greatly motivated by our neediness for acceptance and approval.  And even though we are Christ followers, the unspoken truth is that we are also driven by our egos in dark and complex ways.

At the root of all of this is the issue of identity. And while I caveat the remainder of this article on identity by stating that I’m not a psychologist (I’m really just a knuckle-head musician), I have found this understanding helpful to myself and to others I’ve counseled. What I tell you comes from personal experience, not from an academic understanding.

THE NATURE OF IDENTITY

One can argue that there are four aspects to your identity, four personas, if you will: Who you think you are, Who you try to portray yourself to be, Who people actually experience when they encounter you, and Who God sees.

Persona 1: Who You Think You Are

We all have a sense of self that defines us, and our actions spring from this sense of self.  But all of us think things about ourselves that aren’t true, or at least are skewed from the truth.  We have defense mechanisms, identity issues, wrong self-image, family-of-origin issues, all sorts of stuff.  And these things lead to the dysfunctions that keep us from becoming like Christ.

For example, someone may grow up having heard over and over that they are stupid.  And so, while they might never verbalize it, they constantly hear a voice in their head that tells them so.  When they do something wrong, it confirms this wrong self-identity, and this confirmation becomes the trigger to continue the cycle of subconscious self-deprecation.  It takes a great deal of self-awareness to break the cycle.

As another example, we might believe, at some deeply fundamental level, that our identity comes from our accomplishments.  So we spend our lives trying to earn awards, trophies, and other achievements to earn the approval of others.  But somehow, it never seems to be enough. I’ve found this to be very true of many musicians and other artists, who seek approval and acceptance through their art.  And this seems to work okay as long as people like what you do. However, the problem is that if you believe that your identity comes from your artistic expressions (instead of the other way around), then if someone doesn’t like your song or painting or poem, then you believe that they must not like you.  And this thinking is not only skewed, but damaging to the soul.

Persona 2: Who You Try to Portray Yourself to Be

Who you think you are leads to image management, which is trying to control the way that people see you.  If we like who we think we are, we will do things to try to represent that to others.  If we don’t like who we think we are, we will do things to hide that from others.  The reality for most of us is that we end up doing both.  Examples of this include trying to wear a wardrobe to give off a particular image, name dropping (By the way, Bono told me once never to drop names), writing your webpage in the third person, or one of the artists’ favorite image management tools, false humility.  One of the Facebook trends I see a lot is when artists use spiritual posts that are really just thinly veiled bragging, e.g., “Please pray for me as I’m about to take the stage at mega-huge convention’s main stage!”

There is an irony here.  As performers who act, sing, or play on-stage, we have a public persona that is different than our personal persona. We talk about stage presence which is a necessary part of being a performer.  But if you are a performing artist of any renown, your stage presence follows you off the stage.  So by trade, we are trained to manage our images. It is, to some degree, a necessary thing.  But often what happens is that our “fans” end up having a relationship with who they think we are, not who we really are.  (By the way, here’s a good image management exercise to try: Write a completely honest press release about yourself.  It’s harder than it seems.)

There are a lot of reasons why we image manage.  Maybe we learned how to protect ourselves from criticism by pretending to be something else.  Maybe we feel the need to prove ourselves, so we’ve learned how to subtly drop off our verbal resumes in conversation.  Maybe we feel that advertising our accomplishments is a necessary part of moving up the ladder of success.  And as I said, a certain amount of image management is necessary for public figures to maintain a sense of privacy in our personal lives.

Image management is no stranger to the church.  Many of us have experienced church subcultures where, in an effort toward authenticity, holiness was replaced by religiosity.  Our churches want us to be authentic, but not that authentic. They don’t want pastors who drink beer, elders who smoke cigars, or worship leaders who listen to Lady Gaga. They would rather we act, perform, and be good “Christians” instead be seen as the imperfectly saved sinners we really are.  There is more pretending going on in the church than any of us care to admit.

So all of us—in conscious and subconscious ways—manage our images to others.  But that’s not necessarily how people see us.

Persona 3: Who People Actually See When They Experience You

Have you ever known someone for whom it is obvious that they’re trying to image manage, but it’s not working?  And they don’t have a clue that they are coming off that way?  There’s a distinct disconnect between who they want to appear to be and who they actually come off as.  (For example, the Steve Carell character in the TV series, “The Office”.)  Well, yeah, actually that happens to everyone to some degree.

The actual result of image management is that no one really sees the image we want them to see.  Instead, they see some skewed version of that image, which is some combination of what they experience and who we are when no one else is looking.  Granted, some of us are better at pretending than others, and some of us are better at discerning people than others, but the result is still the same.  Like a middle-aged man combing over his bald spot, we all walk around with some small degree of discernable inauthenticity.

All of this begs the question: Are any of these three identities valid or right?  Well, to answer that question, we need to examine the fourth persona.

Persona 4: Who God Sees

Beyond all of those other personae is the person that God sees in us.  He knows us through and through.  He has seen every bit of us—good, bad, and ugly. He’s seen every embarrassing moment, every mistake and failure, every soul wound, every concealed sin.  And here’s the most amazing part: He loves us anyway.

God not only sees the bad stuff. He sees the Imago Dei, the image of God designed into us.  And as such, we have infinite and eternal worth in His eyes. So here is the crux of what I’m trying to say:  This persona, Who God Sees, is the only one that really matters.

Because this is the only persona that is True.

So what does God see in you?  What is your real identity in Christ? You are a child of God, whom He dearly loves (John 1:12).  You are a member of a chosen race, a people for God’s own possession (1 Peter 2:9-10).  You are an heir of God (Galatians 4:6).  You are a joint heir with Christ, sharing in His inheritance (Romans 8:17).  You are righteous and holy, set apart for God’s purposes and for His glory (Ephesians 4:24).  You are an expression of the very life of Christ (Colossians 3:4).  You are His workmanship, perfected through the blood of Christ, and brought to perfection through the Holy Spirit.  You are God’s dearly beloved.

This is the person God sees in you.  This is the persona that is eternally real.  This is our True Identity. So why hold on to the false identities, when true humility in God gives us an identity that is so much better, richer, deeper, truer?

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

The reality is that authenticity is not that easy.  I’ve met many people who—because of their baggage and complex systems of self-deception—have a hard time breaking through to the real self.  If the soul were a garden, there are parts of it that are overgrown, swampy and dark.  It takes a lot of courage to walk into these darkly deformed parts of our soul and start pulling weeds.

Here is a definition of authenticity.  Authenticity is the act of aligning the first three personas with the true persona, so that they are all the same.  So that the person you think you are is the person you project to others, which is the person people actually see, which is the person God sees, the True Self.

In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus began preaching to the towns of Galilee.  He reveals His role as the Son of God, and He offers them an invitation to a better way.  Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)

What I believe Jesus is saying is, in part, that you can let go of all of those false systems of religiosity and self-deception, the false devices of approval and acceptance, the false belief in earning one’s worth and salvation.  All of those things that oppress and deceive and wound the soul.  And instead, you can know the Father through a living and vibrant relationship with the Son (Matthew 11:27).

It’s my opinion that these issues of identity are as fundamental to the Christian walk as worship or evangelism or community.  It is central to our growth as followers of Christ and artists of faith.  For to be true to yourself, to your audience, and to God, you must be who God made you to be.

[Note: This is a repost of one of my blogs from August 2011. Image by Peggy Bonnett Begnaud, available at Bonnett Gallery.]

Age in Modern Worship: Further Reflections

Worship HandsIt was a blog post I’ve tried to avoid writing for years. But at some point, I knew I couldn’t not write it. The result was “The Issue of Age in Modern Worship,” which discusses the issue of how some churches are replacing their older worship teams and leaders with younger, more hip equivalents, and surprisingly it went viral. I was surprised not only by the overwhelming response, but also by the amount of pain and frustration experienced by a huge number of worship musicians, vocalists, leaders, and pastors in the modern church. Certainly, this phenomenon is much more widespread and heartfelt than I had even realized.

A COMPLICATED PROBLEM

As I stated in my previous blog, the issues are complex and nuanced. On one hand, there are a large number of older worship leaders who feel abandoned and/or marginalized in their churches, and a number of churches who are—with various degrees of premeditation—quietly retiring these worshipers from public ministry. Many of these churches are driven by marketing strategies, while at the same time many have well-intentioned “Great Commission” reasons behind their culture shifting. Regardless, the pain is felt, just the same.

On the other hand, there are older worship leaders who may not know how to “age” well—they are unwilling to learn new styles or understandably unable to (try being a horn player in a land filled with dotted eighth note delays), or they might disagree with evolving philosophies of ministry or changes of leadership. These latter issues are sometimes too enmeshed to simply say it is about “being too old for the team.” And then there are the next-generation worship leaders themselves, eager for their rightful place on the platform. They want to serve, yet can’t fully relate to the pain and frustration of the older generation they are replacing. But their time will come just the same.

Somewhere in the pews, there are a large number of people watching this happen. Some are oblivious to the superficial nature of much of modern worship—in fact, a good majority quite like the “show,” as some describe it. Some disagree with their churches, yet stick with them, desiring to honor God through their circumstances. Some are driven by their own felt needs, and simply want their choir and organ back. Many are church hopping. And some have just become bitter and mean-spirited about it (I deleted those comments). There’s a lot of emotion out there, to say the least. Without pointing blame, it’s safe to say that it’s just a mess.

ASCENT AND DESCENT: THE CASE FOR MUTUALITY

Writer and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr proposes that one can look at one’s spiritual life in two halves—a season of ascent and a season of descent. The season of ascent is the first half, marked by goal-setting, striving, discovery, and achievement. This is the season where we create the trajectory of our lives—job, career, marriage, family, ambition, and even defining who we are. It is the job of all young people to ascend. The second season is descent. This is the period where one doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. It is a season of internal spiritual deepening, of coming to peace with one’s inadequacies, and of maturity and wisdom. Hopefully, through God’s grace, we learn the very advanced art of surrender. Now, the latter season doesn’t mean you aren’t productive; it may indeed be the most productive season of your life. But life is less about striving and more about leaving a legacy, less about taking a hill and more about mentoring others up that hill.

You see where I am going here? There is a time when we are Timothy and a time when we are Paul. It is the way God designed it. And through God’s gracious wisdom, He used both Timothy and Paul together to further His Kingdom in the world. The Church, for all it’s imperfections, is intended to be a place of simultaneous ascent and descent, where generations come together to grow, serve, and further the Kingdom. And this includes those in worship ministry (1 Chronicles 23, etc.).

Here’s the problem.We live in a society that doesn’t value age. Instead, youth, virility, good looks, sex appeal and stage presence mark the successful.  [Side note: Why are there so many worship leaders trying to make it on American Idol? Don't they realize that idols are bad things?]  History, legacy, experience, and wisdom are seen as woefully passé. And we, as the church, have inadvertently adopted this worldly supposition in the name of evangelism. There is no room for a mutuality of generations, for ascent and descent. In an effort to appeal to the world, we have stopped looking like the Church.

DIALING IT BACK: THE CASE FOR DIVERSITY

Back in the “old days,” there was this thing called Top 40. You could switch on the radio and listen to Santana, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, the Doobies, Steely Dan. Imagine all these genres—latin, folk, soul, rock, jazz—all strung together on the same station on the dial. It was a wonderful explosion of musical ideas and emotions and expressions. But these days, radio is so genre-specific, that there’s a whole generation of people out there that haven’t heard these styles of music. The same has happened to worship. Consider the trend toward menu-driven services; different styled services (like traditional, contemporary, emergent) are offered like so many Pandora stations on your iPhone. Everyone wants it their way. And as a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for different generations to worship together, and equally difficult for different generations to exist on the same worship team.

Such trends not only separate, but they feed an increasingly consumeristic Christianity. Medium and message collide: Creating a consumer-driven church designed to appeal to everyone’s felt needs is in direct opposition to teaching people that being a disciple of Jesus means that you have to die to yourself.

I’m not necessarily advocating a blended style of service. (Indeed, the term “blended” itself has really been misused, not at all what theologian Robert E. Webber intended when he first coined the term.) I’m advocating that we teach people that God is glorified in a diversity of worship styles, and insisting that we worship only in our preferences keeps us from growing in Christ and experiencing the fullness of what the Church can be.

FITTING IN: THE CASE FOR INCLUSIVITY

One young person replied to my recent blog by stating, “I don’t think age has anything to do with it. What it comes down to is the person a fit spiritually, relationally, and musically.” And while I understand what he’s trying to say at some level (For example, you actually have to have chops and love Jesus to be on my worship teams), I think “fit” misses the mark. My response to him was that the Church is intended for people who don’t fit. Certainly Jesus reached out to those who didn’t fit—the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the Roman centurion, the woman at the well. He invited each of them to live in His Kingdom. Indeed, we grow spiritually when we learn to love those who don’t “fit.”

I believe that the Church is most beautiful and most compelling to the world when we sacrificially love—across races, genders, cultures, and generations. We are most like the Church God intended when people who don’t fit together in the world’s eyes fit together perfectly through Jesus. This is why I believe the make-up of your Worship Team should reflect your congregation—because it is simply an extension of it.

IN SUMMARY

I’ve tried to provide some perspective to all this—via the case for mutuality, for diversity, and for inclusivity. It’s not all sexy and smoke machines. But ultimately, I believe these are characteristics of the healthy, grace-filled church. Thoughts?

NOTE: For those new to my blog, I encourage you to pick up my book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Role as a Christian Artist (Moody Publishers).

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