The Transformative Power of a God-Idea

I delivered this message for my Metroworship Academy Creative Showcase on Monday 25 November 2013. Since I was in the company of people who could really sing or play music, I decided it was safest if I did neither. Instead, I wanted to inspire the students to apply God-birthed creative thinking in way that could change our world.

One of the things that really spoke to me as I was doing this course was just how important it was for us not only to embrace creativity as part of what God has called us to do as worship ministers, but also to think creatively as leaders.

In the next few moments:

  • I want to share a biblical vision of how God-given ideas can transform our world.
  • Then I want to posit a creative blueprint which I believe God has given me for our church in our city.
  • And lastly, I want to encourage you to keep pushing your creative boundaries as you grow in ministry.

I want to begin by looking at Isaiah 54:1-3, reading from the Message version:

Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby.

Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth!

You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing women. God says so!

Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big!

Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep.

You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family.

You’re going to take over whole nations; you’re going to resettle abandoned cities.

This passage tells us that even though we may be barren, when God impregnates us with his purposes and dreams, we are going to be fruitful. We are going to dispossess whole nations.

So the prophet encourages us to clear lots of ground, make our tents large, spread out. And THINK BIG!

This is the transformative power of a God idea!

History is replete with examples of how an idea which begins in the heart of one person, much like a pebble thrown into a still lake, can have ripple effects that completely change the landscape of history.

Think about how Martin Luther had this thought as he was meditating on the book of Romans that “the just shall live by faith.” That one spark of divine revelation led to the greatest religious reform in history. Today, much of what we know as church is riding upon the wake of this one idea. The just shall live by faith. It has not only transformed the church, it has transformed society.

Or think about how the Puritans had the idea that, in the face of religious persecution, they could sail across the Atlantic to a new promised land. In the end, their faith and moral standards laid the foundation of the United States of America which would later become a world superpower.

The French revolutionary writer Victor Hugo understood this when he said:

No army can withstand the power of an idea whose time has come.

Nations change. Regimes fall. Entire worldviews can collapse and new ones raised up. Why? Because of the power of an idea whose time has come.

About three weeks ago, there was an event in our city called “Perth Open Day”. Basically, during the whole weekend, different buildings, which are normally inaccessible, were opened up to the public. So you could walk through the BHP Billiton Tower, take a tour of Parliament House etc.

As my wife and I were walking through the Perth Cultural Precinct, bounded by the State Library, the WA Museum and the Art Gallery and therefore a convergence point of culture, I came upon an amphitheatre cascading down from the Library towards a giant TV screen. For a long time, I thought it’d be great to do a worship event right there in front of everyone.

But that day, God began to refine my thoughts. What if, instead of being cloistered in our church buildings, one Sunday, we have a massive “Church Open Day” right in the heart of the arts precinct?

This is how I think it will look like:

  • From 8 am through to 5 pm, different churches in our city, from a wide range of denominations, will conduct one-hour services throughout the day with their unique style of worship and preaching. Of course, Metrochurch will be there. And Riverview will be there. Faith Community Church will be there. The Salvos will be there. The Baptist Church will be there. Aflame Community Church will be there. Churches from different backgrounds and denominations will gather to exalt the name of Jesus unashamedly and in full public view.
  • The services will not be dumbed down or modified for seeker-consumption. Rather, the services will be conducted in all of its rawness as if it were any other Sunday.
  • These churches will cancel their own services so that their congregation can come.
  • And on another stage in the cultural precinct, we will have Christian performance arts: interpretive dance; hip-hop; rap; inspirational songs; brass bands; Christian orchestras.
  • Along the walkways will be stalls displaying and selling inspired paintings and sculptures. And books. And food made with Christian love.
  • And still other stalls will provide information about humanitarian projects that Christians are participating in all over our city such as the Esther Foundation and their work with young women; Compassion and the sponsored children program; anti-trafficking movements like A21; and marketplace ministries. Prayer tents will be set up where people can be prayed for and receive an answer to prayer.
  • Installation art will dot the landscape.
  • It will be the Church (not just your church, or my church), but the one Church of the city of Perth in all its multivariegated beauty on display for the world to see.

Sally Morgenthaler says this:

So what if we could witness through worship?  We can’t get people to cross the thresholds of our buildings.  As I see it, we are truly in a missional situation and the old ‘if we build it, they will come’ mentality is going to get less and less results.  [It] seems to me we’re going to have to start sending ourselves instead of [mail-outs].  And then, in the midst of doing that, can we create sacred spaces and places that bridge the unchurched into worship settings outside of our sanctuaries and worship centres?

Ephesians 3:10 gives us the scriptural anchor for “Church Open Day”:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.

We as the church have been called to proclaim the mystery of God’s grace, hidden in Christ through the ages but spilled out through His open wounds on the cross.

What statement will such an event make on our artistic community? Could the church not only reclaim but begin to once again spearhead the arts? What would happen when the Word is preached out in the open to thousands of passers-by? Will it change them? What will happen when the presence of God comes upon the gathered people, right out in the open? Could our city be transformed?

And I want to encourage you: pursue those God-given dreams and ideas. I’m sure God has already placed big dreams in your heart! Like Isaiah said, “Think Big”. If you think your dreams are big already, I want to encourage you to take a further step and dream of the impossible. Don’t stop at dreaming for your own destiny. Dream for the destiny of your ministry. But don’t stop there. Dream a big destiny for your congregation. And then dream a destiny for the church in your city. But don’t stop there. Dream for your city. Dream for your nation. And when you’ve done that, dream for the nations. Think big! Ask of Him, and He will give you the nations as your inheritance.

Should We Keep Harping on Hymns?

Today, I am continuing my series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In particular, I want to explore the use of “hymns” in our worship services and ask the question: are they still a valid musical expression for the church today?

The emergence of hymns was very much a product of the Reformation. Luther understood the importance of music as a means of instilling and preserving doctrine. He decided that songs should be written in the German language and commissioned poets and musicians to do so. He wanted the songs to faithfully communicate God’s Word. Luther also wrote a lot of hymns himself.

Lamar Boschman describes the characteristics of those hymns:

The songs were ‘doctrine heavy’ in content because the paradigm in this culture focused on principle and purpose. They wanted to remove mysticism and focus on the doctrines of the Christian faith. That caused many of the songs to have a horizontal focus; their purpose was to testify, reason and proclaim principle. It was in essence ‘singing the sermon’.

The Reformation was very much a thinking revolution.

The post-modern church however is experiential in orientation, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of the Word. Perhaps one could say that the post-modern church is marrying the “word and the spirit”.

I found this once when I was doing some research but can’t remember where I got it from. It is a statement published in 1723 against the use of hymns. Here’s what the author said about hymns:

  1. It is too new, like an unknown language.
  2. It is not as melodious as the more established style.
  3. There are so many songs that it is impossible to learn them all.
  4. It creates disturbances and causes people to act in an indecent and disorderly manner.
  5. It places too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics.
  6. The lyrics are often worldly, even blasphemous.
  7. It is not needed, since preceding generations have gone to heaven without it.
  8. It monopolises the Christian’s time and encourages them to stay out late.
  9. These new musicians are young upstarts, and some of them lewd and loose persons.

It is ironic how some of these arguments are still being employed in the church today. Such as the new songs “aren’t as melodious” as the hymns; “there’s too much emphasis on instrumental music”; “the lyrics are too worldly”, “the musicians don’t cut their hair and wear skinny jeans”. Sounds familiar?

And yet, the Bible commands us to “sing to the Lord a new song.” That means that what was sung yesterday (the old song) may not necessarily be what we should continue to sing today.

Psalm 102:25-27 says this:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.

God never changes. His Word remains forever. But He is always bringing renewal. Methods and expressions of unchanging truth need to evolve with the times.

What was relevant about the hymns in Luther’s days may no longer be relevant today. What was parochial and relatable in those days may no longer parochial and relatable today.

So what has the modern worship movement achieved? I think we can safely say that the songs are less horizontally-focussed and more vertically-focussed. Worship is definitely more about our engagement with God’s spirit in exalting Him rather than in exhorting man. And just like hymns were relevant to their contemporaries, we can say that the modern worship movement has kept up with the times and in some cases, ran ahead of the times too.

That is not to say that hymn singing should be shelved forever. There are some definite benefits of singing hymns. The songs of the church have become so diversified that what one congregation might be familiar with would be completely foreign to another congregation. Hymns on the other hand become a common ground when churches of different backgrounds gather together. Nostalgia is another benefit. Nostalgia is good if it is the trigger towards a person turning their attention to God in worship. And of course the emphasis on doctrine is good too.

But when someone says that we should do more hymns, we are ignoring that new songs can have the same benefits. For example, it is a massive overgeneralisation to say that current songs don’t have the same theological emphasis as the hymns. In fact, many do. Matt Redman’s songs are a good example. Many books in the Christian bookstores today have been written using modern worship songs as their inspiration.

Inasmuch as there are a lot of good elements in new worship songs, there are also a lot of good elements in hymns. Similarly, there are bad elements in worship songs, and there are bad element in hymns. But the modern worship song has an a priori claim to being culturally relevant today which a lot of hymns don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I can happily worship and be touched by the words and melody of “Amazing Grace”. I love that rising swell of praise whenever the congregation lift their voices together to “How Great Thou Art”. But “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is beyond me. The words and concepts are hard to grasp. Instead of instilling theology, my mind starts to wander (as it is prone to do!). And I ask questions like “what’s an Ebenezer anyway? Is that like the Dickensian Mr Scrooge?”

So after all of this, I return to the question at the beginning of this post: should we be singing hymns in our worship services? The answer is “yes, if you want to”. That’s right: if you like them and want to do them, why not? Don’t be so religious. At the same time, don’t be so religious by thinking that hymns are better than modern worship songs. The key actually is not in the style of song, but by far the more important question should be: how do we help our congregations worship? As worship leaders we must diligently filter songs to ensure that as much as possible, they capture all the good and leave out all the bad, be they hymns or modern worship songs. We should also keep on the cutting edge so that the congregation doesn’t just linger on the old, but has a healthy diet of new songs which are constantly being written. And keeping in mind that one day, some of the songs of today will (hopefully) become as ancient and enduring as some of the hymns themselves.