Monday, May 6, 2013

Regrets, I Have a Few

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Things I Might Not Mess Around with Again

Vain regrets are vain. The only good uses you can make of regrets are (1) to repent as best you can, (2) to repair what still you can, (3) to ackowledge if it might help others. That’s true for all relationships - friends and friends, husbands and wives, parents and children, and pastors and churches. Vain regrets can only make you miserable, and, unless others enjoy your misery, they can’t do others any good.

From the perspective of retirement after 40 years of ministry, here are four things I might not mess around with if I had it all to do over again:

(1) Praise Songs

I always was primarily a hymns man, but I did mess around with praise and worship songs for a while. We did these two Sunday nights a month and also experimented occasionally with singing “a set” of them on Sunday mornings. Our “band” consisted of acoustic guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and later drums. (I cringe.) Now, if I never sing another P&W song, it will be too soon for me. And, I am hoping very much I shall not have to sing them in heaven.

They are no worse than and some are somewhat better than gospel hymns. I am no musicologist, but my guess is that the P&W songs are the successors of the gospel hymns. Both tend to focus attention on feelings and experiences and many are suspect doctrinally. I smile often when I think about the seminary president who commented on a P&W song that the Holy Trinity now consists of the Son, the Spirit, and the River (Shine, Jesus Shine).

As the gospel hymns came out of the the Second Great Awakening and the revival meetings that continued after, so, or so it seems to me, the P&W songs came out of the charismatic movement.  Neither the gospel hymns nor the P&W songs graft well onto Presbyterian and Reformed worship. It’s the same sort of thing that happens when you have Reformed preaching in pulpit and Gospel Light curriculum in the Sunday school. You’ve got doctrinal disjunction in the second case and liturgical disjunction in the first. If you want to produce revivalistic or charismatic piety, or both, then gospel hymns and/or P&W songs are the way to go. If you want Reformed piety then you need songs that come from the Protestant tradition (Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican).

I am not sure what I would do, and I am glad I do not have to face it, if I were confronted with the RUF and RUF style music today. On the one hand, I am happy that students and now churches are singing Psalms and hymns of substance. But I wonder if the tunes really work. They all sound the same to me; they tend to produce a folk/country twang in voice, especially the female; some seem not to support the lyrics (as, for instance, the bongo beat tune for Let Us Sing, and Praise, and Wonder which also requires the singer to repeat several times, “He has washed us with his blood”); I can't imagine there lasting long, and, I know I am quite old, but so often I find myself thinking, “And was that really necessary to save the hymn?" As I say, I am glad I don’t have to face this decision.

Whatever I might do with regard to RUF music,  I don’t think I would mess around with P&W again.

(2) Liturgical Innovation

I had never really heard about liturgy (except maybe to associate it with Catholics, Episcopalians, and other non-Christians) till I went to seminary. Richard Allen Bodey introduced us to the Book of Common Worship. He required us to memorize and recite to him along with angels and archangels the whole Communion service in the book. We learned also an order of service that moved logically from the approach to God, to the ministry of the Word, to the response to God in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and/or prayers. One of the things we had to do, as well, was to write a various sorts of of prayers.  The problem with all this was that it felt very unnatural to us low-church revivalistic Presbyterians.

I think what happened to some of us at least is that we learned enough about liturgy to be dangerous. We felt, and I have encountered this among those from other seminaries and backgrounds too, that we could mess around with liturgy as we pleased, that we could put our “marks” on services, that we could try to accommodate others regarding special orders of service. Hence, we came up with our own, or we collaborated with couples and families on, wedding and funeral services. I even tried modifying wedding vows. I also wrote a few prayers of confession and collects. All this and more was liturgical experimentation and innovation.

If I had it all to do again, I would do none of this.  I would would do weddings according to the order of the Book of Common Worship or Book of Common Prayer and neither negotiate with others nor give space to my own creativity. With funerals, I would follow the same order of prayers, lessons, and homily every time. I would write no prayers, because I know I cannot do better than Cramner and the others who wrote the Book of Common Prayer. Innovation is the enemy of sound liturgy.

One of the wisest things I ever read was by Princeton’s Donald MacLeod who said about weddings that sometimes the minister just has to say firmly, “This is the way we do it.” I think it would be healthy to be similarly firm about all the ordinary and extraordinary worship of the church with everyone, ourselves as ministers included. We Presbyterians say that we have directed not prescribed worship. My question is, “How’s that working out for us?" Words like chaos, cheesy, tacky come to this mind.

The last things we need in liturgy are creativity, individualism, and unpredictability. I think that C.S. Lewis was right that what you don't want to do when worshiping is to have to think about what you are doing (or, I would add, narrate it).

(3) Church Growth Movement

I got introduced to the church growth movement in a D.Min. class at RTS taught by a Fuller professor. I learned about the homogeneity principle, fishing pools, goals, plans, purpose statements, staff led churches, the difference between “shepherds” and “ranchers", felt needs programming, my work personality, the Schuller adage “find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it”, and more. I began to read the books, especially those by Lyle Schaller, whose analyses of the way churches work, based on data, I found to be helpful. Eventually I became knowledgeable enough to be asked to describe and critique the movement for a Banner of Truth Conference. (This led to the publication of my first and only “book”, a translation into Portuguese of a transcription of those lectures.)

The church growth movement’s usefulness is found in its descriptions of the way churches work and the likely outcomes of things churches may try. It analyzes by the use of anthropology and sociology. As a 2-K guy, I have no problem with using these soft sciences as tools for gaining insight into institutional dynamics.

But the church growth movement is not content with description. Description serves as the introduction to prescription.The goal is church growth, or more people. The movement prescribes what will serve that overriding value and primary goal.  “Here is where you are; here is where you are going if you continue; here is what to do if you want a different outcome - growth.” The prescriptions are always pragmatic in nature. The question is not whether you should have Saturday evening worship, or two different styles of worship services, or a food court, or a rock band with smoke machines, but whether these things will help you grow. Growth trumps doctrine, polity, and liturgy. Pragmatism trumps principle.

I don’t think I would play footsy, much less mess around with, the American Church Growth Movement again.

(4) Faith Promise Giving

I grew up with faith promise giving for missions, but never really thought too much about it till it was strongly promoted as the way to support missions at the inception of the PCA. It was then I saw some problems and developed misgivings. Eventually, however, I made my peace with it and used it to strengthen giving for missions. I did not use 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 as they are used in much of the faith promise literature but tried to use sound principles of interpretation as I handled them. I wrote  brochure for the use of my congregations seeking to encourage generous, sacrificial, trusting giving in response to God’s grace in Christ. In other words, I made an effort to “redeem” faith promise.

However, I am doubtful successful redemption is possible. The traditional presentation of faith promise giving is that you need to determine an amount God wants you to give. It is very difficult to see how this can be arrived at with any certitude apart from God’s giving some kind of “impression” of the right amount, and it is hard to conceive of the impression as anything other than some species of revelation.

When you know the amount, then you make a promise to give it, though it is conditioned on God’s providing in such a way as to allow you to fulfill the promise. This is not supposed to be putting God to the test, but, having come to know the amount and having made the promise, you are supposed then to watch how God will work to provide so that the faith promise may be fulfilled by you, the giver.

As it is difficult to graft charismatic songs onto Reformed worship, so it is difficult to graft faith promise giving onto the Presbyterian understanding and practice of giving. Some Presbyterians believe the Biblical tithe is still in effect. Others believe the tithe was abrogated along with the ceremonial law and that the principles for giving are to be found in the New Testament teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. But neither approach involves receiving an impression of an amount or of promising what one cannot give apart from an extraordinary provision from God.

I believe in generous and sacrificial giving. I believe in trusting God to provide for our needs. But I don’t think I would mess around with faith promise giving again.

I know it’s dated but I thought this was funny when as a teenager I first heard this from my pastor:
We don’t smoke;
we don't chew 
we don’t go with boys that do;
we ain’t got no boyfriends.”
Before anyone decides not to do what I say I might not do again, consider this:

We ain’t no praise songs singing,
we ain’t no liturgy changing;  
we ain’t no church growth practicing;
we ain’t no faith-cards promising;
we ain’t got no churches.”

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