Posts Tagged worship

Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral

An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

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Are Asians Sell-outs?

On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.

It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America.  Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs.  Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.

But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here.  The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.  East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada.  And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .

This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black AmericansSo the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad.  It is quite easy to have  a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.

Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit.  A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy.  It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream.  It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it.  Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.

I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society.  We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice.  It has been worth it.   Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it.  However it has come at a cost, a high one.  Are you willing to pay it?

A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.  Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.  They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about.  They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding.  Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God.   It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.

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Why the TNIV’s demise makes me happy…

Well, it doesn’t really; I mean, not in any “real” way.  As I said before, I never liked the TNIV and don’t care for the NIV either for that matter.    Part of this is frankly because I tend to prefer “word for word” translation over “dynamic equivalence” that the NIV and TNIV employs.  The other reason is because, as I said in my comments on the preceding post, I believe the publication of the TNIV as well as it’s withdrawal has more to do with profits than anything else.  But allow me to lay out a bit more my larger issue with English language Bible translation.

1) Arguments over Bible translations (whether NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc.) provide cover for Christian intellectual elitism

Christianity is a translated religion.  Unlike Islam, we do not hold to any particular language being the revealed language of God and scripture.  Therefore the words of Jesus (perhaps spoken in Aramaic) were translated into Greek without losing their potency.  Reading the Bible in French or English or Twi or Russian does not represent a deficiency, but the heart of the missionary impulse.  However the way debates over translation occurs communicates that unless one is fluent in the so-called “original languages” one cannot really know what God is saying. This is inherently elitist as the vast majority of Christians in the world who have ever lived and who currently do live may not even be literate, much less experts in ancient Greek.  Is their understanding of God, ethical practice, and Christian maturity therefore inevitably compromised?

This is not to say that translation with great care is unimportant.  It is very important, but if we communicate, however unintentionally, that you “really need to read it in the Greek to understand” we inevitably establish a hierarchy to which only an elite and privileged few have access.

2) The proliferation of English translations in the last 100 years has done NOTHING to advance Christian maturity or knowledge.

Faithful translation is important as I have said, and that has ostensibly been the motive for updating translations, in addition to keeping pace with new or better source documents that have come to light.  But is hardly evident that these multiple versions have done anything to increase the amount of scripture knowledge or biblical practice.  Indeed I would venture to guess (anecdotally to be sure) that those Christian “neanderthals” who hold onto the KJV probably have  more extensive Biblical knowledge than many others.

3) The proliferation of English translation is driven by profit and is evidence of an exceedingly materialistic self referential culture.

Many translations are copyrighted.  Book publishers make lots of money selling Bibles.  There is great incentive to come out with a “NEW & IMPROVED” version every few years.  We buy them because we can, and because we want a version that “fits” us.  This is related to my last point.

4) (Not the last point but related to the previous one) The English language has not changed so much in the last hundred years and certainly last fifty years to justify the new translations.

The 400 year dominance (and continued strength) of the KJV meant that much of the language was indeed very different than contemporary English and quite opaque to some (though not so much as to be unintelligible. After all it is still a leading version and in some ways superior; KJV English conveys continuing present tense better than contemporary English) and therefore made some sense to update.  Since then… not so much.

5) The proliferation of translations is in some ways a capitulation to the Christian disengagement with shaping culture.

The chief justification for many modern versions is to faithful translate the scripture into “today’s English.”  Well this is fine as far as it goes. BUT, none of these many translations, partially due to their abundance and partially due to their linguistic poverty, actually affect the culture into which they are cast.

The KJV, for all its flaws (and they are many) was written in a language that though long “obsolete” retains a poetry and magnificence that remains unsurpassed, much like the language of Shakespeare (written in the same era).  Many contemporary versions, though technically superior, frankly lack any beauty and therefore are less powerful in their effect in shaping culture, both within and outside of the church.

Now it can be argued that aesthetic value is less important than accuracy, but I disagree.  Aesthetics have a truth value all their own and while “though I walk through the darkest valley” may be a more technically accurate translation, it does not speak in the same way as “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and is therefore lest likely to be memorized, or to shape our worldview.  Bad writing cannot be covered up by saying “the translation is technically accurate.”

Additionally the multitude of translations means that Christians have lost something very important: a common language, which is important in creating and reinforcing and yea verily, shaping our common dialogue and culture.

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Somebody ought to testify

“First giving honor to God, who is the head of my life.  To the pastor, first lady, all the ministers, deacons, mothers, missionaries, saints & friends…”

I’m sorry, you must have thought I was talking about this kind of testimony:

Testimony Before Congress

Testimony Before Congress

What I really mean is quite different, and its related to my post on Things I Miss About the Black Church.

Giving a testimony in church is one of the most amazing and wonderful expressions of participatory worship you might imagine.    Each person that stands to testify gives a song, an inspiring story, shares a prayer request, exhorts the congregation,  unburdens themselves from the struggles of the week and allows the whole community of God’s people to laugh with them, cry with them, rejoice with them and yes, sometimes even roll their eyes at them.

It was funny to see the concerns of one group of folks as they prepared for a testimony service that is upcoming.  Being reformed, there is of course a great deal of course about maintaining proper order in the midst of it all.  One quote:

one testimony service in the past had been billed, at least to the worship leaders, as a “Spirit-Filled Free-for-All.” A few songs were chosen to start things up, and then … whatever. There is something exciting and spontaneous and … all right, authentic about that. I get it. I even like it. But yikes! The Spirit leads us into freedom, but is it freedom for “all”? Freedom to do anything? Does the Spirit work only in the direction of liberation from perceived stricture and structure? Surely this is appealing—especially to young people. But doesn’t the Holy Spirit also work, as in Genesis 1, in the direction of creating order from chaos? Finding true freedom only in slavery to Christ? How do we balance these two?

I find their questions humorous, but understandable coming from their perspective.  What if the spirit gets out of control?  But it was the next section that made me laugh:

How do we, as a worship team, as musicians, prepare for such a service? Do we choose no songs at all ahead of time? Do we rehearse anything? Do we wait and hope for students to suggest songs that we know? Do we pray for the Spirit to move us in the moment, and move us to play the same song in the same key? What if the Spirit tells us, like that old joke has it, “Oops. You should done more planning.”

And what happens if someone’s testimony turns inappropriate? We can’t control what folks will and won’t say…

Well now that’s just part of the fun of a testimony service.  They could perhaps learn from these folks about how to manage a testimony service:

It may be perhaps difficult to understand what’s being said, but the scene in that church is pointedly NOT chaos, and there are rules of engagement that differ a bit from one church to another, but some which are commonly understood. Testimony service has a rhythm and flow all its own.  And musicians are just along for the ride.

Allow me to tell you some of these rules:

1) The testimony leader (usually an up and coming fiery preacher, or a missionary, or someone who can keep the crowd going) conducts the service.  If there aren’t a lot of people waiting to testify, you can just stand up and start, but if two or three stand up at a time, the testimony leader tells who can go first.

2) The testimony will also shut down the testimony if it goes too long or veers off into “crazy.”  They usually do this by at first saying things like, “Amen, Amen.  Praise God sister” in a calming voice.  They may also interrupt at what seems to be a pause in the testimony and make some remarks before moving on to the next person.  If its really bad they will collaborate with the organist to start a praise song to shut you down.

3) The testimony leader may take over your singing of a song if the singing is really bad

4) Your testimony should begin with giving honor to God in some way, acknowledging the leaders of the congregation and the pastor (whether present or absent) and should end with some sort of, “You all pray for me”

5) It is perfectable permissible to lead out in a song during testimony service, especially if you know the words and can sing.  but even if you don’t people will try to help you out.

6) Your testimony cannot take longer than about 3 minutes unless it is REALLY good and folks get to dancing and shouting from it.  If folks start doing this, then you are not permitted to come back at the end of the shouting session to resume your testimony unless YOU were the one dancing, and then only to give a closing.

I will close with a typical testimony that I might have heard growing up in the Universal Christian Holiness Church (yes, I know our church was the one holy catholic church)
“Praise the Lord saints! Praise the Lord saints!  To the pastor, pulpit guest, deacons, missionaries, saints and friends. Truly we give honor to God today for all that he has been to us.  Down through the years, God has been good to me.  Earlier this week I was thinking back on some times when I thought I wasn’t gonna make it.  Thought I was gonna lose my mind.  But God!  But God!  Even this week, he keeps on blessing me, in spite of all the things I’ve done.  And I thank him for it. He’s been better than good.  You know I’ve been so worried lately; so many people being laid off, and the economy is down.  But God continues to provide for me and my family.   I think about all the young people running the streets and getting into trouble, and then just this week some of my nephews stopped by the house, and they aren’t doing all that they should be doing, but God has kept them from dangers seen and unseen.  They could be out here in the streets, but God continues to have mercy.  He’s been so good, I just can’t tell it all.  Pray for me saints, as I’m traveling next week that God would give me traveling mercies.  And pray that the Lord would help me to hold on until the end.  Y’all pray my strength in the Lord.”

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Can I be myself?

On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.

I was the soloist.

Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.

Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.

What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.

In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.

The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.

Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.

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Post-mission Mission

I write this post from a nice comfortable guest bedroom in the home of a friend in Gentilly, a suburb of Paris, France. Just a few days ago I was in Ghana on mission, doing all the things that short term missionaries do, and some that they don’t (like discussing with our ministry partners what kind of woman I need so he can find me a wife). Now I am relaxing in Paris for the next several days – almost 10 full days before I return to my normal life and responsibilities. Hence the blogging hiatus since late May. Thanks Wayne for checking in on a brother.

As I rode the train from Amsterdam to Paris yesterday, I began my process of debriefing my summer experiences in mission. Anyone who has gone on missions knows, or should know, that how you re-enter your home country is as important a part of the trip as anything else you do. I debated, given my tiredness, if I was perhaps foolish to set aside quite so much time for recovery and “vacation.” There are lots of other things I could and maybe even should be doing. And I miss the students who were part of the team. But I also know that rest is important, and I have no choice now, since my plane tickets are already purchased. So I am stuck here until time to leave, and I have no agenda. I will see what I want to see and there may be many things I do not see. My priority is rest and refreshment in the Lord’s presence here in the capital city of the eldest daughter of the church.

In Amsterdam and subsequently on the train to Paris, I had many uncollected and random thoughts as I tried to piece together my experiences and my surroundings. Some observations…

The first observation, a recollection really, is just how big Dutch people are. I mean, they are just really tall and big people. I am six feet tall and easily at many points was the shortest person in the crowd. There were many women who were taller than me. It makes me wonder what the heck they’re feeding them.

The second is that Europe is far more diverse than America. The world was present on the train and in the Metro station – people of varied nationalities and cultures mixing and intermixing. There are lots of mixed race children around.

The third and easily the only really disturbing one is that for all the wealth and luxury of Europe (and it is indeed wealthy and luxurious – have you looked at the dollar/Euro exchange rate lately?) it is a spiritual and communally desolate place compared to Ghana. The reality of spiritual oppression in some communities in Ghana were idol worship is practiced is nothing compared to the oppression of a godless and unarticulated spiritual depravity that stalks the land here. I do not mean to suggest that God is absent; He is never absent. And amazingly I met someone on the train who quite likely is Christian, as he explicitly asked me about attending the Hillsong – Paris church after I told him I had come from Ghana on missions. He also mentioned that some of his American friends were coming to do church planting in Paris. No, the gospel is alive and well, and the kingdom is steadily advancing in quiet and not so quiet ways. But in just this short stay, the words of I Timothy seem even more prescient to me, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.” More thoughts on this later, but can it be that the very wealth of nations is a spiritual placebo, plastering over our spiritual destitution with the appearance of security?

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