Marketing a Christian Self: Pastoral Care in a New Media World

I had a moment on Facebook the other day. I was flicking through my feed disinterested about my PhD edits. And a friend who I admire greatly had posted a video clip. It disturbed me.

 Firstly, because of who she was in posting it – a thinker and church leader with great influence.

 Secondly, because of what it was communicating about Jesus.

The video was entitled “Keep yo’ business off of Facebook.” The urban dictionary defines business as “pointless meaningless life-consuming spirit-draining activity.” So, I guess, in this context, “business” means anything from a bad romantic break up through to study woes, through to ventures gone wrong.

Now, the song is very catchy, with beautiful gospel harmonies. It’s a contemporary Christian original, clearly sung for a congregational audience.

It’s not singing to or about Jesus, per se, but it’s a humorous take on Christian engagement with social media. It’s written by a pastor. And the chorus pleads with Christians to (breathe) “Keep yo’ business off of Facebook.”

The underlying theme is that it’s unwise to put all the messy details of your life online. And sure, oversharing (and personality disorder, for that matter) is a thing. But the whole point of Facebook is self-disclosure. So before you get all judgey at me, let’s remember that.

I suspect some people will disagree, so I’ll outline my thoughts, and then it’s over to you for comment. This video makes me intensely uncomfortable for a number of reasons. I’ll try and explain.

You can view it and sing along here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2axEKrms2g

I wish I had this video clip when I wrote a chapter about Christian pastoral care in the 21st century (and particularly its intersection with worship ministry) for the book entitled Congregational Music-Making and Community in a Mediated Age.

A couple of months before I was asked to write this chapter for my colleagues, I had a mind-bending moment in which I moved for a brief second from the “church is wonderful and I love it” group into the “maybe church is a brainwashing cult” group and back again. I personally think every Christian leader needs a window into life on the other side. Now, I see this event as a gift, which I’ll explain here.

I’d been happily attending choir practice for six months every week (that I feel like some people may not believe this is kind of the point of this story). I knew I had a European music tour and scholarly fieldwork coming up, and I was nervous about both. So, I thought maybe I could “ground” myself in Sydney between these trips by singing. I’ve sung all my life, including at Fuller Theological Seminary, where I helped lead the chapel team. I thought that if I participated in my local church every couple of weeks, it would make the lonely “on the road” nights a little better.

It wasn’t really very complex. I didn’t even care where I sang – on the front row, in the back row, behind a curtain. But I did feel like I wanted to serve in weekend services, because that’s what marks “legitimate” from “non-legitimate” involvement in the Christian musical context…

So I went to the vocal training sessions and tried to get a hold of a leader to do an audition, which I knew was the right process. There was some really weird stuff going on, in my opinion. I clearly hadn’t been seen by the right people, or at least, I had people regularly lean over to me and say in a weird meaningfully-edging-on-sinister tones “I haven’t seen you around lately” while I stood right there beside them in the room. I’ve perfected the art of sliding under the radar in public meetings, I guess. Or not. Anyways, it was a comedy of errors, and I couldn’t work out how on earth to get an audition. Which was all I really wanted.

When the girl I was driving home each week ended up chatting to me happily about her audition date (and later tearfully let me know she had failed), I honestly wondered what was wrong with me.

The next morning I posted something vaguely funny and very confused about this experience on Facebook. And within ten minutes I had forty comments. I guess that should have been a clue. By the end of that day, it was two hundred.

That day I got over five calls from pastoral care leaders, including staff and non-staff from my church and other churches. Some knew me, but others I had never officially met. I had clearly shamed people into acting. And they did with a range of responses – everything from getting the facts straight, to apologies, to empathy and inviting me to another church, to outright anger and blankly asking me to remove my post.

Gosh. What a mess. I could hear myself in every single one of those phone calls and text messages. I’ve “cared for” hundreds of young musicians and singers. I’ve been a worship pastor at a medium sized church. I’ve led interns in chapel in two different seminaries. I felt exhaustion in their tone, and I related to it.

How is it, after all these years as a Christian leader, I still don’t have the tools to help myself when I’m slowly disintegrating in this fast paced global life? When I’m tired, I ignore it. When I’m upset, I read the Bible, pleading with God for clues.

I’ve pastored people through miscarriages, death, grief, singleness, and marriage troubles. I’ve seen other very good pastors completely destroyed. And I wear the scars on my heart like trophies. I’m still around. Those who get it, they rejoice with me. Others look at me with skepticism or get competitive. But what I don’t say often is “oh my gosh, at times it hurts.”

Christian leaders are usually really, really good people. But I think we set ourselves up to fail.

We do it in our seminaries, in our bible colleges, but more than ever we do it in the way our internalized models fail to engage our emotional lives, online or otherwise. We have largely abandoned the notion of pastoral care in favour of good biblical teaching, and better communication methods. But this is not how we do the “soul work” of being a Christian.

We market an attractive Christian self. We call it evangelism. Anything less, we think, will embarrass our pastor.

I was genuinely and completely shaken by this really dumb experience. I had an audition (they were kind enough to move heaven and earth to give one to me) and I shook like a leaf the entire time. I passed it, but in the end, I had to let my desire to sing with the team go. I can only explain it as finding myself trying too hard to fake the correct emotion in the one place that had always been a place of non-performance or truth for me. In worship.

This has made me hunger to see something deeper and more profound in my own pastoral care, and the care offered by churches across the globe. And so, my chapter was a manifesto on how I wanted to care for other Christians. I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I’m trying.

Pastoral Care is an ancient art. It began in the early church, and is first noted in Latin through the word “pastorem”. It drew upon the image Jesus painted of himself, as a shepherd. The interaction between watching, and hearing is important to Jesus. Sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, and keep close. But if lost, they must be found. And this is the shepherd’s role.

The shepherd follows the sheep to the place where they fell off track, and he picks them up and he carries them home.

According to Clebsch and Jaekle (1994), pastoral care takes the form of four roles:

  • encouraging congregation members towards wholeness and healing
  • sustaining them in situations where healing is impossible
  • reconciling relationships and embedding them into the community
  • guiding decision-making via wise advice

I’ve had to recognize that our Neoliberal world wants workers to perform and to look a certain way. It asks us to navigate our losses and risks and continually get up again unscathed. This is often made into a virtuous pursuit by Christians.

But you don’t need to appear “put together” for the shepherd. Jesus (as well as those who follow in His way of shepherding) sees it all anyway. That gritted teeth moment. That comment where you’re slightly insecure. That one you wish you hadn’t said. The fact you’re on Tinder and your profile shows you’re not celibate. All your business, whatever that is.

So as far as I’m concerned, you can put your business on Facebook. Because it’s not about censorship. When you’re transformed by Jesus from the inside out, we really want to see it, and celebrate it with you.

What is more important than looking like you’ve got your business together, is engaging in the deep work God asks of us. It is cultivating the soul. And whether you preach on the weekend, or you’re in the back row – we’re all in that together, honey.

Christianity is not about having it together. It’s about having a shepherd.

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Brand “Christian” Challenges Part #1: Parable and Myth

I’ve decided to start up a new series that includes some straight talk for Christian leaders in urban Western contexts trying to build the church. These summarize challenges  Christians face in negotiating our changing world, recognizing cultural Christianity, and keeping a commitment to living out the Bible story in the twenty first century.

The first brand “Christian” challenge is the importance of truth – meaning both parable and myth.

You see, Often, Christians use the word “truth” with the word “judgement” in reference to calling out sin. But Jesus mostly judged the religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Evangelicals are really concerned with “truth”. But there are two types of truth we need to account for within the church, not just one.

Let me explain. Yesterday I was sitting in a service in which my husband informed a relatively wealthy majority white congregation that they were seated within two blocks of sixteen known illegal brothels. And I want to say they took the news quite well, which seems ridiculous, really, when you think about it. We should be able to state a fact about the community without too much angst*.

Before they can act towards the good of their neighborhood, Christians have to be made aware of their community. And there’s the catch. Many people in the church are in a state of deep unconsciousness, and even denial about our world. And so, telling certain truths can be a shock.

In their book Mighty Stories Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley diagnose this challenge as directly related to our liturgy, or worship.

Many Christians don’t deal well with the truth of parable, because they prefer the truth of myth.

A myth presents an ideal which we can agree upon. It makes us feel united, linked in our togetherness.

There are so many myths we ascribe to: national, family, sports myths. So it’s not unique to religion. Atheists have myths. We all do. They help us decide what we’d like our lives to look like in the future.

In conversation with an Aboriginal leader recently, she confessed to me why she wouldn’t be attending an upcoming Christian conference. “They want us there to tell a good story, but they aren’t willing to sit in our pain and brokenness as we navigate our actual lives”.

She was telling me this church wanted a future of a reconciled community so much they were willing to deny ways they were not reconciled, or things weren’t perfect, or there wasn’t a solution. What was happening now.

This sounds like half friendship, doesn’t it, if we as Christians amplify a “good story” from the platform, but are unwilling to publicly weep when people are suffering, hurting, and need help? … If a girlfriend did this to me, I would call her “superficial”. And yet, that’s often what Christians do to marginalized groups.

I think a good question to ask is, how does this fit with the redeeming symbol of the cross, which clearly recognizes public suffering and pain as the path to God’s triumphant victory?

Bono recently identified something like this in Fuller Studio‘s newly released documentary “The Psalms“. He said,

“The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion… And I often think, ‘Gosh, well, why isn’t church music more like that?”

Sure, there is deep solidarity in the laments of the psalmists, that resonances within the Beatitudes and other parables of Jesus. But, if we’re honest about it, Bono probably doesn’t listen to Christian music (or attend church) often. Because over the years there’s quite a few “explosive joy” songs out there, right?

What we’re not singing is passages such as these:

“No one who practices deceit
will dwell in my house:
no one who speaks falsely
will stand in my presence” – Psalm 101: 7

or

“Do not put your trust in princes
in human beings, who cannot save
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground:
on that very day, their plans come to nothing – Psalm 146:3-4

or

“But as for me, I am poor and needy:
come quickly to me, O God
You are my help and my deliverer:
LORD, do not delay” – Psalm 70:5

There are certain words and phrases in the psalmody embraced by the church today, while others aren’t, and the best way to get at this is the word “parable”. Anderson and Foley explain it this way:

“… Parable … is about contradiction. Parables challenge our expectations of a world without blemish. In the parables of Jesus, the last are first, and the meek inherit the earth. The parabolic perspective creates contradiction in both narrative and ritual in order to reveal a truth that is otherwise hidden.” (1998, Kindle Loc 81)

Parable causes a rupture in the way we see the world.

Parable is hidden in the words of a court jester who announces the emperor has no clothes, or in the brush strokes of the artist who paints the blind leading the blind…

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Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

And, it is found in the image of Jesus hanging on a cross, having given the religious leaders one last chance to save him, but knowing they would chose the criminal Barabbas.

The Christian Bible uses truth in the form both of parable and myth. It presents an ideal, and then it tells us how we really measure up.

Ironically, this second truth is common language used by secular poets such as Bono, many of whom reject the church, and trade-off their participation in the industry for personal reputation among Christians. And yet faith serves as content for much of their lyrics. Interesting much?

We should be able to sing about the brokenness of humanity in a Christian gathering, even if it divides “us” in various ways.

If Trump’s U.S. Presidency campaign has taught us anything, the church needs better language for “politics” in this moment. We need language for intersections between faith and power. Because God is with the poor and needy while they await his help, even if we aren’t singing about their life experiences.

We need to reclaim parable as Christian language.

Our brand problem that the good news is supposed to be proclaimed to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. Because they are the ones that can see straight through our myth making. We need both types of truth, but this news requires more truth in the form of parable.

——-
*I deleted this section from the post after comments. It wasn’t so helpful because I equated ‘illegal’ with ‘trafficked’. But I think some Christians will still want it said, particularly those who know the context. So here it is.

While historical memory of the New Atheists does not attend this far, Christians publicly and actively fought human slavery since 1789 with abolitionist William Wilberforce. Once a congregation is made aware of its neighborhood, it can get involved. Involvement in this case wasn’t to judge people’s sin or out of an emotional need to rescue anyone, but to communicate God’s love to the women this figure represented, and to commit to support police efforts in prosecuting traffickers – if and when that was needed.

Worship Leading in Every Season

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One of the strangest things for worship leaders is a long season off the platform. If you’ve been really involved in church, it feels uncomfortable, like wearing a onesie to a formal wedding.Many women worship leaders tell me that they struggle in times of their lives when they are forced to take a break. This could be due to pregnancy or having children. It could be due to sickness, or study. Or, it could be due to discouragement from others that leads to a musical silence of the soul… More tragically still, it could be because you no longer look the part, or your church wants to take a new direction in sound, or promote younger people on the platform.

Some reasons are hard to bear, and may even feel like failure.

But I’ve learned that keeping one’s heart singing in the night seasons is the journey of every worship leader. We see this in the life of David, who worshiped God at all times in his life both good and bad. And he is described as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). Making a decision to worship in and out of season is what makes a long and effective ministry, compared to a bright star that soon fizzles.

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Here are five ways to worship lead off the platform.

1.Decide to be first to enter joyfully into the Lord’s presence in every single service you attend.

You are not only a worship leader on the platform. You can be one behind the sound desk. You can even be one from the floor. Present your voice, body, and soul to God and sing out with the utmost of your depths. Inspire your team and your congregation to do the same.2. Find a female worship pastor to encourage.

I remember when I was one of the only female worship pastors in my city. I was overseeing eighty volunteers, many of them men. I had so many questions about myself. Was I too bossy? Had I said the right thing? Should I apologize for the standards I was setting for the team?

This month I was able to sit and encourage a worship pastor in the same position. All she needed to hear was a clear voice saying, “Great decision. You’ve definitely got this my friend.” That’s all. And she was soaring again. What a joy to see her bring that strength to the platform, and into worship. It wasn’t mine, it was hers. But I got to share in her joy. It’s easy to worship lead via encouragement

3. Continue to worship at home.

At the end of the day, it’s not about getting onto the platform. It’s actually about you and your God. All the hosts of heaven are waiting for you to pick up your instrument and worship. God is waiting. So make it a priority to lift up praise even when you’re not seen by your church. This is the power of unseen moments.

4. Give into smaller churches and ministries. 

You might not have space and time to be involved at a high level capacity, but I guarantee  if you open your heart to God and say ‘yes’, God will make a way. Smaller churches, and midweek ministries are often desperate for help. This is such a beautiful way to show that we are all a part of the body. And hey, it doesn’t hurt to get us back into shape for the main church services, either! Say yes to something you would usually say no to!

5. Lift the standard in your discipline of worship. 

There are times when God draws us into a secret place. And ultimately, worship is not just about the music. It is about our lives. In Romans 12, it talks about worship not as music, but as a personal discipline.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.” 

Having space and time to work on your life’s sacrifice of worship is a gift. This is also what will make your musical worship ring authentically true to the church when you stand before them, encouraging them to lift their own hearts to God. Don’t forget the battle for your own heart is worth it.

And if all else fails, then put on Brooke Ligertwood’s ‘Desert Song’ and remind your heart by singing at the top of your voice:

All of my life
In every season
You are still God
I have a reason to sing
I have a reason to worship…

xx Tanya.

I’d love you to share this piece from this link: http://www.projectwow.org/conversation/2016/4/7/worship-leading-in-every-season

A Review of “Things We Never Say” by Nikki Lerner

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This post gives me a chance to comment on an intersection of faith and music, a love of mine I’ve had to put away in the final stages of my PhD writing.

The incredible Nikki Lerner has brought out her third album ‘Things we Never Say’ and I’ve been privileged enough to get my hands on a pre-release copy. It launches on Feb 19th 2016, after which you can get it here!

You would be forgiven for thinking Nikki’s music is the release of just another uh-mazing, silky, drop-dead-gorgeous vocal Diva. Which I hope other reviews highlight, because her singing brings together the sweet tones of jazz greats (like Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy) with dark ones reminiscent of soul singers (such as Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, Lalah Hathaway).

I’d here like to pin my hopes to the wall, and believe we’re looking at the the actualization of a revolution in worship music. Not gospel. a new genre of worship music. Because Nikki is the worship pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

You see, while Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) is constructed on the market-proven formulas we’ve grown to love (or accept) on Christian radio, this is something.else.entirely. Sonically, it’s reminiscent of Israel Houghton & the new breed’s release in 2010 : a sophisticated musical fusion that moves from African-American genres back and forth into more Hipster-friendly ones. You could call this musical acts of cross-cultural generosity. But lyrically, it is closer to Michael and Lisa Gungor’s vision outworked in their CD I Am Mountain. And thus, it shares a lot in common with the projects of Mute Math, and of Sufijan Stevens: those who want worship to include more than the small vocabulary we can sing together in our congregational choruses. Which I guess is why its title fits it so well.

That Nikki has done this is significant. She is one of the founders of the Multicultural Worship Leaders Network, a network of over eight hundred worship pastors in various cities forging local musical dialogue across various lines. And church for her is not a gig on the weekend –  she’s a genuine Christian in word, heart and deed. So my hope and prayer is that this may hail the return of Christian musicians into their regular music industries, both at a local city level and I guess hopefully eventually, a global one.

Because as a model of where ordinary worship pastors and leaders are going, it provides important breakthroughs. This is not going to be an album you play once only. Let me explain:

It’s a big thing to release a CD, particularly when your performance and identity is located primarily in the church. There are a lot of excellent big congregational music publishing houses competing for the tiny four-song-list of an ordinary church. So, unless you’re pitching to them or happy to die wanting, worship choruses are kind off the table, and any music you make is really because you want to perform it live on your own, and to distribute it among those you love, as your message.

But the Christian church has moved further and further away from the radio music that speaks of love, of sex – the words of classic poetry, or of mystery and questions. As in, the music that many ordinary people want to listen to.

Well – this is exactly that. Music you’ll want to listen to. Musically, Nikki is influenced by a range of genres, including R&B, jazz, soul. In others, she’s tapping into the alternative scene in Brooklyn (or Baltimore, I guess). It’s a feast of sounds. Selah begins as a jazz guitar ballad, but as it gains tempo it twists in steel drum and Afro-Caribbean sounds. This leads into the piano intro of Can We Start Over… Notable is the experimental electronic soundscape of Never Gets Old, perfectly matched with its layered vocals. The band nailed the rhythmic crescendos that underpin her vocals. I can only describe this as a shifting sonic palette.

Now for the faith content, which I think is totally worth highlighting, because at first look, you could gloss over it entirely. Track #1 Selah sings “I can barely say your name”, reminiscent of the ancient Jewish awe and respect for YHWH. A sultry Sarah McLaughlin-esque verse in I Rise sets its scene inside a bed, complete with “wine coloured sheets”. This moves into a classic gospel chorus, into a rock guitar solo, and back into a gospel choir. Which seems somehow to epitomize faith lived out within community, doesn’t it? Faith, prayer, sex, honesty, fear and love mixed together into a musical collage that is a snapshot of a real waking up as a Christian in the urban space.

The song Let us Talk Through the Night speaks of  love lost and honest conversations, “It is you who has loved me back to life”. Much of the content of this CD evokes something more to a marriage union than simply bodily intimacy. In Choosing to Fall it speaks of loss and grief, falling out of love and choosing to fall back again. The song Tell Me evokes questions of faith posed from a younger woman to an older one. Things We Never Say has such a catchy chorus that Hillsong should sing it ;).

And healing flows
Pressing through the pain
It’s peace I know
Reaching for a love I can’t refuse
Because love pursues

The honest musings in One of These Days are directly God-ward discussions about the responsibilities of having talent. Ah, yes – the pain and joy of being creative.

So to be honest, if these are Things We Never Say, then we’re better off for saying them. Or at least, turning them up REALLY LOUD on the stereo and letting Nikki say them for us.

 

Wheaton, Christian Evangelicals and Islam

This whole Wheaton thing. I’m reading every press release perched on the edge of my chair, and holding my breath. I feel like I’m watching a car crash in slow motion, tumbling and turning.

Exhibit A – Professor Larycia Hawkins attempts to send a message of solidarity to Muslim people by wearing a hijab, and posts a statement to encourage her students to do the same. See: http://time.com/4174229/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-muslim-facebook/

Exhibit B – Wheaton leadership find themselves in a publicity mess with donors and decide to terminate her employment. See: http://time.com/4174229/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-muslim-facebook/

First up, I understand that any Christian institution, whether it be church, university, sporting group or prayer ministry has a right to set common guidelines for staff (and to be in charge of their brand and public image). That’s a given as far as I’m concerned. And someone has to monitor those boundaries.

But honestly? I’m weeping tears for Dr Hawkins. I can see her as a younger Christian scholar, becoming concerned about religious interfaith dialogue and perhaps reaching for her very first book on the topic. I see her, sitting prayerfully reading the Koran. I see her trying to reconcile her pastor’s sermons with larger global trends, and the confusing media coverage. I see the long years she traveled to sit in conferences and listen respectfully to people she did not hold the same faith as, and the first article she sent trembling to her editor, after researching and writing. I see her thinking maybe one day her work would be important, and contribute to something as ‘big’ as American religion and politics.

And then years later, she realized the people she was researching were suffering in her own local city. So she decided to wear a hijab. She posted a message. She covered her own Christianity with a symbol of those she was trying to reach. And she suggested her students do the same.

Maybe her particular choice of words was ill advised, and her forum of Facebook too explosive, too new, too unproven. But she’s since provided an extensive outline which shows that she was not intending to challenge the institutional Statement of Faith. Her words are intelligent, nuanced and clearly researched.

I’ll be honest, her actions speak of a particular graciousness I long for in the Christian community. I want to be able to communicate to people that they are loved because the image of God rests within them.

I do not want to be taught to love people in hope they will turn and accept our Christian language, our Christian conferences, buy our Christian CDs or turn up at the same service I’m attending so they can sing along. If this is evangelism, then it doesn’t seem very respectful.

Let me be clear, I believe that an encounter with Jesus is transformative. The Bible is the revealed word of God. I hope that each and every person would have the same transformation I’ve experienced.

But I don’t believe for a second that I (or the Christian church) have a monopoly on God’s Spirit. I’m simply someone who wants to partner in the mission of God on the earth, Missio Dei.

There are common spaces, infused with enspirited life, where the Holy Spirit lives outside of the church. God is not sitting in the church by the pulpit waiting for us all to turn up. God the Spirit is the Creator and Giver of Life that sustains all things. Even in darkness, grace abounds – and maybe it intensifies (Rom 5:12).

Surely there is something that can be shared in return? Something life giving in the other’s prayers, even moments from our common history?

I feel the hopefulness in the Muslim community as they see Dr Hawkins’ action, potentially able to move Church and Mosque towards some kind of relationship that could be life-giving for both. And I know this hope will probably disappoint, that Doc Hawkins’ employment will be terminated.

Most North American PhD students have come to realize that they will not get tenure track at a university. The odds are simply against them, as institutions do not need to cover the health care of employees working less than 20 hours a week. These are called “Adjunct Professors”. Many scholars just want a job, so they give in, and adjunct at a number of institutions. Universities have a constant stream of adjuncts as potential employees desperate for positions.

But Dr Larycia Hawkins made it up the ladder, and she was employed by Wheaton College full-time, tenure track. Until she decided to communicate solidarity with Muslims.

Perhaps in time, she will think the cost was worth it. Right now, I’m sure she is barely making it through each day.

All I can think is “Lord, have mercy”.

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A Good New Year’s Resolution for Christians

I’ll be honest, I’ve kinda lost it online in the last couple of days. Something is bugging me a *lot*. And I’m hoping I’m not alone in these thoughts. So, can we make a real New Year’s resolution, my Christian friends?

First, to get rid of any shaming, let’s start with a beautiful verse in the biblical book of Lamentations (3:22-23). In my opinion it’s best sung:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

We can just make this a resolution for each new morning, because I suspect we’re going to mess up.

What resolution are we making, you ask? It’s this. Can we agree that this will be the year we act with more grace towards other Christians on social media? 

I think maybe it starts with refusing to press ‘share’ on articles about how other people’s worship style is wrong. And it ends with a deep hospitality of the ‘other’, which leads to radical love. You know, the type of love shown by Jesus.

There’s this rule I’m holding myself to now. I’ll only comment online about what I know is true. I want to be the comment that turns each thread towards graciousness. I guess this is a version of the Golden Rule of reciprocity used to argue for religious tolerance. But I’m not trying to tolerate, but instead love people better – because I’m a Christian.

It’s a pretty high bar, but you can keep me accountable this year. You can say ‘hey! that wasn’t loving’ or ‘that wasn’t very true’ or ‘that just wasn’t beautiful’. And if you want me to watch for your comments, let me know.

I’ve learned a lot from the discipline of social anthropology – a scholarly study (not of ants but human people and cultures i.e. anthro). Broad generalizations are not always true in reality. All black people don’t necessarily like rap music. All white men don’t love their guns. Even if we can say the majority of them do, some black people despise rap, and some white men refuse to use guns. If we keep it just at the level of generalizations, those realities are silenced.

Similarly, broad generalizations we find online about churches or religions aren’t always true when you turn up. Some points may be valid. But, culture is contested. Development scholars say it this way, “community is a myth” (Guijt and Shah 1998). That just means that in every culture you’ll find people both for and against any issue. But we’re sold a certain structure: elites who abuse power, and the majority who are duped and passive.

Every religious community is diverse, it is a living organism. There are influences that move it towards good, and also away from it. But in the online space, it’s hard to verify anything. Personal experience is key. And so, by retelling stories about people we don’t know and cultures we haven’t learned to read, we only become more attuned to the facts that reinforce our pre-existing perceptions.

This changes us, into seeing a bland majority rather than a beautiful, diverse and complex reality. More importantly, it’s hard to be attentive to themes of redemption or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases Phil 4:8, “things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

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I’ll make this personal for illustration’s sake… my church has had lots of press in the last six months; everything from a bad Christmas carol through to gay choir directors (if you know the Arts world, wow a huge shock right?), to police removing critics from the venue and prosecuting them. Pastors have been called to the stand for events in 1999 resulting in a censure from the Royal Commission, and a berating from the weekend paper.

Some (not all) of this stuff is normal to churches. If you’ve recently been a pastor, you’ll know most have an AVO (apprehended violence order) list in the foyer, that the choir don’t always sing in key, and that Christians aren’t perfect. In this list we’re scraping the tip of an iceberg on what people are capable of, and messes they get themselves into.

But it’s weird because it’s different when it’s posted online. I’m reluctant to put forward what I know, or even say the name of the church on my blog, because it’s easily replicated out of context. There’s a certain website I’m trying desperately to stay out of, that will publish what I say. It doesn’t deserve promotion, because some of what it says is not true, and those parts are crucial. So when you hear about my church, you hear it from critics or publicists rather than ordinary people like me.

I’m not saying everything in this list is good. And, over a coffee I’ll sit down, and tell you what I think – and let you tell me what you think too.

But it’s not easy to know what the end game is online – what is an ordinary attendee supposed to do with these articles, other than force them upon their leaders, or disassociate by leaving? When I spend time talking with critics, especially Christians, they want the pastor fired, or the organization to go away. But I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

This has been a fascinating window to see how social media works. After interacting a lot online and trying to present the facts as clearly as possible, I’m starting to realize that people have emotion associated with my church’s name. And that emotion is very difficult to change. It’s generated within images and posts that have accumulated over a long period of time. Whether true or not.

It taps into how they feel about contemporary worship, and how betrayed they feel about clergy abuses. It’s how they feel when told about pastors who own houses in wealthy suburbs when they work so hard just to get by.  But this emotion has little to do with the reality of the ‘other’.

I’m not writing this because I’m trying to deflect from real issues. There are all kinds of things I find deplorable in this world, and that I believe deserve to be denounced. Sexual abuse, every time. Violence in the home. Genocide. But we have to work out how to do this. And I think yelling about carols is simply a distraction.

Christians have developed a passive-aggressive way of dealing with things and people we don’t like (everything from Islamic violence, halal foods, to boring worship songs and PEOPLE NOT SINGING IN WORSHIP).

It’s become a new liturgy for us. 

We practice the art of critiquing things online, and claim we are justified in doing so because The Reformation. And The Bible. But it doesn’t really add up with biblical verses on judging others, or Paul’s hopes for the church as a new and different community.

I’m not sure why this behavior is now definitional of Christians. But I suspect it’s because we want to feel like we are righteous, meaning ‘in the right’. Righteousness is an important part of the Christian faith. Posting things about other people deflects from problems in our own lives and churches.

It’s sad, because that’s not really what Jesus was on about, is it?

It’s only self-righteousness that we’re generating. 

We are working as hard as we can to turn right attitudes and thoughts into right behaviors. But I think maybe we should go back to the beginning, and draw from what the church does best – liturgy, or worship. Worship is about practicing right behavior, not just once but regularly, until it shapes us. In Christianity, we’re measured primarily by our actions, not on our attitudes or ideas.

We desperately need a better online liturgy. Because we will become righteous by behaving right, which will eventually change into right attitudes and thoughts.

This year, let’s stop and think about what we’re posting.

Let it be grace. grace. grace. grace.

The Incredible Record Breaking Popularity of Hillsong’s ‘Oceans’

My life is kind of like a rollercoaster… from one minute to the next I have no idea what I”m going to be doing. I could be at my desk reading for my PhD, I could be performing music in Malaysia, I could be sitting down listening to Indigenous elders, or I could be… answering a list of questions for the magazine Christianity Today, due by 5pm. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to give me a title, I guess Overeducated-Singer-Songwriter-Thinker fits OK.

Well, last week I received an email with some questions about Hillsong United’s song ‘Oceans’, sent by the journalist Kate Shellnutt. She was interviewing a number of people on this topic for the article here… My answers were very kindly included, but in brief, so I thought I’d put up the rest of the response. Feel free to add your comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

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The Hillsong United Band has hit unprecedented popularity on the Christian Billboard charts with ‘Oceans’

First, in case you’re confused as to what I’m talking about, this is Hillsong’s church song that was popular enough to stay on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs for 50 consecutive weeks, breaking all records:

That this song has been so incredibly popular is seen as an indication of how deeply it has moved people’s hearts and communicated sentiments of life and faith. And the question that was posed was “What is the sticking power of ‘Oceans’?” 

I later saw that this question had been raised by a group of scholars on facebook, and there was some good informed (and not so informed) discussion. Having had a long history with Hillsong, I can’t see the song with completely fresh eyes like some of the other commentators. In my view, this song is a continuation of the amazing popularity of Hillsong United, and a testimony to their hard work. But, the beauty of asking the question is that ‘Oceans’ is a song being sung globally in many different churches, and so now everyone has a different take on it. I love the unexpected answers which have ended up revealing some truths about the global church, the way congregational music travels, and how and why it is so important and so beloved by Christians. Anyways, here are my thoughts on why ‘Oceans’ is so popular, with a couple of edits.

Why do you think this song has become so popular?

Hillsong United is a very popular band. Its popularity began as the younger voice of Hillsong Church in the late 1990s, as just a local youth group band in the Hills District of Sydney. Hillsong United has produced many albums since then. Their recent releases have tended to be more for listening to than playing in church, which I think is largely because younger generations of Christians wanted music they could hand to their unsaved friends. But this song is both; it is great to listen to, and can also be played in church with a group of local musicians.

The reality is that the vast majority of Christian contemporary artists and bands have a professional, masculine sound – with some very obvious exceptions. Most of the new female artists come through the Spirit-filled churches (e.g. Bethel, Hillsong, Gateway). However, many church worship leaders around the world are women, who serve with whatever local musicians they have on their roster. Sometimes, women are deemed less marketable by Christian labels. So because of this, there is a huge demand for songs women can lead. And, a popular congregational song sung by a female is always going to stick around. So many songs disappear, but think of the longevity of Kari Jobe’s ‘Revelation Song’; Brooke Fraser’s ‘Hosanna’; Darlene Zschech’s ‘Shout to the Lord’.

Most of the previous album was the Hillsong United guys, who are all very talented. There’s no doubt that Taya manages the fine balance, as she holds her own with the boys but has also brought a distinctly feminine sound back to United. She’s a very unique talent but has a great worship pastor, Cassandra Langton, and a long heritage she’s inherited from Darlene Zschech.

What is unique about “Oceans,” musically or lyrically?
In truth, there’s very little difference between Oceans and many other songs Hillsong Music Australia puts out. It is musically accessible, and a very singable congregational song. So maybe its popularity is a mystery in that sense. Because, ‘Oceans’ is popular all over the world – it is loved in Australia but also most places overseas, and perhaps this is one of the first times that the *same* song has been popular everywhere at once. We are now seeing a global convergence of popularity.
How does this “Oceans” compare to previous listener favorites by Hillsong, or breakout hits from other Christian artists in the ’90s or early ’00s?
Hillsong songs are the songs of a local/global church, and perhaps that’s why it resonates effectively with Christians. It would be a mistake to think that Hillsong is a one-hit wonder music producer. The church’s reach and influence is growing, but it has the same heart beat it always had.
The official YouTube video for “Oceans” has over 32 million views. How has the Internet changed the way Christian music becomes popularized?
The internet has definitely changed the way music is popularized – it’s a lot more accessible, as it’s largely free.
Is there a broader lesson or trend to be gleaned from its popularity? 
While I personally associate the song with the Australian shoreline when I’m singing it, it’s likely written around the biblical passage in Matthew 14 with Peter stepping out of the boat to walk on water with Jesus. I think that’s something that all Christians can relate to, being asked by God to step out in faith.
Anything else you’ve noticed about the song?
The song for me (and title ‘Oceans’) draws upon a stereotypical Australian image of coastal life, but there is a strong metaphor is of globalization. Life ‘without borders’ is becoming our new reality, and it is incredibly risky. There are just so many reasons why someone might imagine themselves being on the brink of a new venture, as our world rapidly changes. The 2008 crash is an example of how things can go wrong. But it’s also a very exciting time. And we the church can trust God is with us, regardless of which way history goes.
The lyrics of Oceans are modern but also timeless, which fits Taya’s quirkiness completely. It could be sung in this generation, or a century ago. It echoes the fears of missionaries heading off to do work overseas. Some of the greatest songs ‘I Surrender All’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ are linked to the sea. In that sense, maybe it connects the current church to the faithfulness of those in the generations before us.

Summary
I didn’t think there was *much* different to many other Hillsong songs, although it has a poetic collision of ‘good’ lyrics with ‘good’ music and ‘good’ instrumentation/recording… But its popularity as a congregational song was surprising to me. Many recent Hillsong albums are relatively unsung in the US. But Oceans has four features I noted:

First, it is an image particularly relevant to globalization. The instability (and mobility) of our present world and time is acknowledged. “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders”, “where feet may fail”.

Second, it communicates that the Spirit is with us in our uncertainty.

Third, it connects us to the church’s conscious history. Many great hymns used imagery of boats/water, such as ‘It is Well’ and ‘Amazing grace’ (also noted above). It made sense in a maritime age. So, here, the image of Peter stepping out of the boat is fresh, but also familiar. Various church members were leaving for Hillsong’s LA church plant from Sydney (on reverse mission?). Maybe Taya’s quirky vintage vocal style, and the cinematic orchestration somebody noted above captured the sentiment perfectly – even evoking images of the stories of missionaries such as Hudson Taylor traveling to China. Perhaps that’s why it is open to so many interpretations, regarding our many crossings of borders.

But that’s just me – I’d love to hear your thoughts on why ‘Oceans’ is so popular.

T.

How poetry can change the world

A couple of weeks ago I was (very casually) asked to speak at an event, and then I was un-invited due to the time restrictions upon the event. I didn’t take it personally. But, as I’d already written out an outline, I thought I should at least share these thoughts with somebody… such as you.

The question I was asked was “what is the role of an artist in bringing justice?”

This group was highly concerned about poverty. And to be honest, I find this question entirely fair. It’s not immediately easy to see how a graphic designer can help in the many conflicts happening around the world. What can a sculptor do when the news declares another famine? How does a songwriter have anything to assist when faced with global climate change, when realizing that whole nations of the South Pacific are likely to be affected by rising seas?

Our world’s response to poverty has been thus far separated by a divide: spiritual solutions, and physical solutions.

You may have heard the phrase, “children can’t eat bibles”. And it’s true, of course. Children can’t rip out the pages and eat them. But that doesn’t mean a bible can’t play a role in a child’s development. It doesn’t mean that a bible can’t help form community values, creating a secure environment in which a child can reach their fullest potential. It doesn’t mean that a bible can’t teach someone Paul’s classic phrase “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” (2 Thess 3:10), or help them understand that God accepts our lament in its loudest, most raucous form (Lamentations 3). To reduce bibles down to their physical substance doesn’t do the ideas contained within justice.

But why would we reduce a bible down to just its paper and binding, its potential to fill a stomach? The answer is, sadly, because in our recent history, many missionaries have separated out the spiritual aspects of well-being from material ones, claiming that they were not responsible for the body, but only for the soul. They allowed a division of labour to be created, separating out ideas from things, and deeming that only the ideas (salvation, God’s presence) were going to be of real help. The idea of the person was more important than their dehydrated skin, or their lice-filled hair. This caused development workers to declare loudly that in fact, the things (rice, wells, malaria nets) were real despite what the missionaries said.

This seems ridiculous right? How could we get to this place? And so we travel back further in time to the ancient Greek world, with Aristotle, and his dualism that split the universe into categories to help us make sense of things and their essence. The chair separated from the idea of the chair. Similarly, working with ideas (or essence or spiritual substance) became theoria or theory, and this was separated from work with physical substance which was called praxis or practice.

Stick with me.

Because the thing is, no-one tells you that Aristotle had in fact three categories. This third one is rarely ever spoken about. He called it poesis and this is where we get the word ‘poetry’ from. It means “to make”.

This was the act of taking a thing and executing a theory with it – making it – into a new thing.

So, what is the role of a poetry of film, a poetry of watercolors, a poetry of words, a poetry of dance? How can seemingly luxurious vocations have any impact upon the poor?

By understanding the role of art as ‘re-making’. Art makes our world. And remakes it again.

But, in our society, poetry is deemed useless, even leisurely. It was the role of the upper class, with women relegated to cross-stitch and learning to play harpsichord. In some societies it was funded by patrons, and the role of the poet was dumbed down to simply begging a pay check from them. These tensions will always exist, of course – but as patrons became more powerful, and manipulative business people took over the art “scenes”, we forgot the power of our tools at hand. And now we must prove that we make music just for the love of it, and not for the cheque, lest we be deemed “commercial” and therefore useless at making.

But art is not art because it is free, or because it is paid. Art is art because it makes something into another thing.

Real art in our society is mysterious, and rarely in the places we expect it to be. It is not always found on The Art Gallery wall. It can be the notes of a song that wafts past us on the Spring wind.

But why does poesis have the power to transform our realities?

So here we find ourselves at the intersection of religion and development studies, which is where most of my work is located.

However I’m going to explain this by using a metaphor entirely outside of my scholarly discipline – a small disclaimer to say this is a poetic depiction of anatomy, or an anatomic depiction of poetry.

If the oil paints, and the easels, and the choreography, and the Protools sound bites, and the Photoshop images are all broken down beyond the real, we would quickly realize that they are powered by imagination.

And we would soon see that our imagination, if it were put under under a microscope, is filtered through frames we can call aesthetics, our way to evaluate everything we do. Aesthetics is our way of deeming what is beautiful, or important. It is the hidden ‘rule’ that underlies why a piece of clay is scraped off the wheel and started again. (It is of course a lie that artists work without rules. Rules turn ideas into new possibilities). The aesthetic frame determines when something is finished, or when it is still incomplete. It is the decider between the word kept silent and  the one spoken out.

It’s the reason artists (hopefully poetically armed with a glass of red wine) can retire at the end of the day to say, in the words of the Great Creator, “it is good”.

But, if we were to place our aesthetics under the microscope, we would find that these aesthetics, the frames we use, are made up of smaller units, which we can call values.

It is values that build the frame that determines if we pick up this brush or that calligraphy pen  – it is excitement about a globalizing world versus a commitment to traditional and ancient local ways. That sentence about the heroine is formed and measured against strong words, or sexy ones depending on our deep understanding about what a woman is, or can or should be. The chosen print that ends up upon the fabric is determined by our values – for whimsical play, or usefulness.

For example, my first ever solo album ‘Grace’ was written with ten evangelical songwriters in Sydney. I intentionally create music for communities. But my muse in this case was the stories from the margins. The unheard experiences, the questions, the excluded. When I told people about this inspiration for my music, they displayed one of two reactions: curious interest, or disgust. These guttural reactions were deeper than their intellect. They were instilled and rehearsed aesthetics, formed from values: either the embrace or the exclusion of the ‘other’.

When we break down our aesthetics, and we break down our values, we find symbols. Symbols make values concrete.

Symbols are things that have energy at the heart of them, that makes them quiver like the atom. They are things either alive and energized, or dead and abandoned. In other words, alive things become symbols.

Interestingly, they are alive or dead subjectively. This means that what is alive for some can be dead to others.

Again, as an example of this, my PhD with indigenous Australian leaders in Pentecostal churches shows me that to some, a particular movement or a sound, or a Lingo word evokes another thing, an ancient indigenous world. To some, these indigenous symbols quiver. Their use reveals possibility, and hope, and freedom. But to others, the same symbols are repelling.

What is the energy that quivers at the heart of a symbol? Desire.

And the role of the artist is to awaken desires.

We have in our hands the power of life and death.

We have the ability to breathe upon the small ember of a symbol, just enough that it becomes a flame, but that flame eventually ignites the world. Every creative person has the power to make.

I cannot imagine the difference if every artist were to choose a theory of compassion. Choose a theory that humanizes the poor, and make things into symbols. Depict the poor as unique. compelling. attractive. intelligent. capable. partners. In our films, in our brochures, in our press releases, in our copy.

We have the potential to draw generous lines. But our poetry now depicts the poor as smelly, stupid, incapable, undeserving. Our poetry deems that it is their choices that led to their demise, not the outbreak of war. Our poetry says that they took the easy option, that they stopped looking, fighting and growing. And so we turn away.

Making does not diminish the power or necessity to also give or practice, or to theorize or idealize. This work is needed too.

But only poesis can cause someone to desire to give. Only new poetry can cause politicians to want to rewrite laws that see justice enacted. Only a new song that permeates people’s brain and hearts can build their compassion enough to cause them to drive over to the other side of town.

Only new poetry can breathe life into symbols, can form our values, can reframe our aesthetics, and change our imagination.

If we can be a generation who make in a way that bestows dignity upon every human being, and who realize the power of that making, I truly believe we can change the world.