The Great Controversy: Hymns Vs. Praise Worship

“The Great Controversy: Hymns vs Praise & Worship!”

Intro: The battle is intense, bordering on comical. Praise and worship has been blamed for everything from declining church attendance to the Kennedy assassination.  And when some people hear “hymns”, they see bonnets and white beards. What’s a church to do?

Last week we looked at some of the distinctions between hymns and praise and worship songs. Hymns are songs of adoration and praise to God. They are generally more formal, classical, and liturgical than praise and worship songs. Praise and worship songs are generally more intimate, contemporary, approachable, and repetitive.

Now, I am to the left of most folk when it comes to church music and worship.  If it’s too loud for you, it’s probably just right for me. My playlist has gotten me into trouble for years. But I absolutely love hymns!

  • I love the theology of hymns.
  • I love the gospel of hymns.
  • I love the structure of hymns.
  • I love the harmony of hymns.
  • I love the depth of hymns.

I also love the memories of hymns. And therein lies a challenge. I think we should acknowledge that a strong element of the appeal of hymns is nostalgia. Hymns take us back. And since most of us suffer from “selective amnesia”, older is generally better.

But don’t confuse nostalgia with the Holy Ghost. There has always been this drive to hold on to the past. In 1723, Thomas Symmes was writing new music-hymns. Look at the criticism he recorded:

  • “It’s not as melodious as the usual way!”
  • “There are so many new tunes, we shall never be done learning them.”
  • “It’s a contrivance to get money.”
  • “The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly!”
  • “It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it!”

 

I love it! That was the criticism that your hymn writers got when they introduced “new” music. Certainly, some of the criticism then and now is warranted.  There are strong hymns and sentimental hymns. There are good praise songs and some not so good. But we generally prefer old wineskins to new, even if the old wineskins are tired and ineffective.

No one fully understands what Paul meant in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 when he encouraged the church to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” But it is clear that he’s encouraging variety. Frankly, we need good hymns and great praise and worship. We need variety. There are 4 gospels, not 1. Each with a different perspective of the good news. There are multiple generations in our churches, not one.

I’m not advocating for an eclectic service that has a totally different feel from one week to the next. But it’s important to realize that God is God to us all. Young and old. Traditional and contemporary. As much as I love hymns, my default is to favor spiritual songs-new songs.  I believe God’s priority is for us to sing a new song, do a new and fresh thing, Ps.96:1, Ps. 105:2. Even if that means breathing new life into old lyrics.

I teach Christian Worship and Black Liturgy. In his book, Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin reminds us of several healthy tensions or balances that churches should establish with their music and worship in church.

Head and Heart

Our music and worship should engage our entire being. It should reach our emotions without stooping to emotionalism. This is incredibly important for a generation that values a tangible experience with God. Some of us are much more comfortable in a fairly cerebral worship setting. That’s good but not good enough. We are holistic beings and God wants to impact every part of us.

Vertical and Horizontal

God is our primary audience in worship. It’s what distinguishes our worship services, hymn singing, and praise and worship from empty entertainment. ( Sidebar. There is a legitimate and productive role for entertainment, but that’s for another blog.) But although God is our primary audience, He is not our exclusive audience. We have a responsibility to lift each other in our worship services with song, testimony, exhortation, and word.  

Ephesians 5:19 encourages us to sing to “address one another”, in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In other words, it’s not enough to focus our attention solely on God with our music and worship. God says we need to also focus on how our music and worship can lift up the church.

Rooted and Relevant

Hymns are appealing because they have rich theological roots. They also remind us that we are a part of a body of believers that is much older, and broader, and bigger than our local church. Hymns carry memories and traditions that we value.  But hymns can fade into traditionalism when they are unfairly compared to spiritual songs of a new generation. They both have their place. Roots without relevance is useless.

When modern worship and contemporary praise and worship songs are strategically sprinkled with classic hymns, it is a recipe for a spiritual feast.

So, what are your thoughts? What would you change about the music in your worship service? Is it rooted? Is it relevant? Is it too cerebral? Too emotional?  Share/Comment/Thanks

What Happened to My Hymns?!

What Happened to My Hymns?!

I miss my hymns. That’s not nostalgia, that’s a need. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…”  Colossians 3:16

So, I’m preparing for this blog and researching the most popular Christian songs of all time, and the list is long:

  • “ I Just Need You.” Toby Mac
  • “ Shackles” Mary, Mary
  • “Oh, Happy Day” Edwin Hawkins
  • “I Can Only Imagine” Mercy Me
  • “Oceans” Hillsong

Just to name a few. Really? Those are great songs, but if I’m in a dark place, I seriously doubt if I’ll have Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” in my headphones! “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave can inspire me in a single service, but “Redeemed How I Love to Proclaim It!” by Fanny Crosby has inspired me for a lifetime. It’s the power of hymns.

A hymn is a song of praise and adoration to God. In ancient Greek culture, hymns were not necessarily Christian. Hymns were melodies praising the gods of the day. It seems that Christians shared the practice and directed attention to the one true God. Sounds like Kirk Franklin or Lecrae, but that’s for another blog.

Hymns are generally more formal, classical, and liturgical than spiritual songs. They have been a mainstay of Christian worship services for generations.  But they seem to have fallen on hard times.  Praise teams gather where the chorister once stood. The sale of hymnals has plummeted. And for years churches have chosen to drop the morning hymn from their order of service.

But change is in the air! Robert Webber, David Brooks, and other Christian writers and researchers have noted the beginning of a postmodern return to more traditional and historical worship forms. Hymns are growing in popularity among young and old alike, and not a moment too soon. Because hymns play a unique role in the Christian life. What’s so special about hymns?

Hymns Teach Scripture

The late minister and educator R. W. Dale once said, “Let me write the hymns of the church and I don’t care who writes the theology.” Dale understood the value of hymns for teaching the Bible. Hymns from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, to “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” to “Holy, Holy, Holy,’ can teach more theology in 3 minutes than many people hear in 3 months.

Hymns Round Out God’s Personality

Hymns, spiritual songs, and praise and worship songs are different by design. They highlight different attributes of God. Different shades of his character. Praise and worship songs remind us of the nearness of God. They are intimate. We need that. But God is more than my “buddy”, God is my King. Hymns are more transcendent, more mystical, more majestic. We need that too.

Hymns Encourage Depth

I mean no harm, but if I hear one more lazy lyricist tell me, “One of these days and it won’t be long, you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone”, my head is going to explode!  In some of our services, we are drowning in clichés:

  • “Touch your neighbor!” “Turn to your neighbor.”  “High five your neighbor” (You get the picture)
  • “Won’t he do it?”
  • “Give God some praise.”
  • “I’m gettin’ ready to close” “…. I’m gettin’ ready to close” “…..I’m gettin’ to close….”

Hymns are a refreshing return to phrases that actually mean something! The lyrical content of hymns is generally richer and more intricate than praise and worship songs. Not better, necessarily. Just richer, deeper. We need that.

Hymns Add Variety

Don’t get it twisted. I’m still a fan of praise teams and I prefer my lyrics on the screen. I love my hymns, but not as much as Tamela Mann, Thomas Whitfield, John P. Kee, Hillsong, Vincent Bohanon & SOV, Sir the Baptist, and a grip of other Christian artists too long to mention. But variety is not only the spice of life, it’s the salvation of a predictable worship service. Do yourself a favor and spice up the service with a well -placed hymn.

Hymns Make You Sing!

The Bible is saturated with song. It seems that a happy heart Is inspired to sing. And talent has nothing to do with it. Hymns were written and structured to be sung with other believers. Not alone, but together.  Of course, that’s a goal in praise and worship also. But what many of those songs lack is familiarity. Great hymns are stamped in our memory banks.

Hymns Connect Generations

The only thing more challenging than leading a multi-generational church is leading a multi-generational worship service. What pleases one group is a problem for another. Solution? Try weaving familiar hymns into the order of service or the praise and worship set.  Grandma might not know, “Hallelujah! We Have Won The Victory,” but she does know, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!” Sing them both.

So, what do you think?  What are some of your favorite hymns and why? What memories do hymns bring to mind? Are they still singing hymns in your church? Would they work in your service?

What Memphis Reminded Me

What Memphis Reminded Me

Yesterday brought back strong memories. I can still see the face of the television newscaster fighting back tears and announcing, “Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.” Just 10.5 miles from my home in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, April 4, 1968.

50 years later, I’m standing about 300 yards from the Lorraine Motel balcony where he was shot. Thousands of us have returned to that spot to remember that giant and that day. The speakers were amazing. Jesse Jackson, James Lawson, Sister Peace, William Barber and others walked us through the history of a civil rights movement that changed this nation. They pushed us toward the ballot box to continue the fight for change.

At 6:01 PM the bells began to toll and the crowd hushed. They recognized that at that very moment 50 years ago a shot rang out and King crumbled on the balcony. Moments later the mood changed as Al Green sang songs that lifted our spirits and launched us from that place, determined to keep the dream alive.

I announced that this week’s blog title would be, “ What Happened to My Hymns?” I’ll get to that next week. Being in that historic gathering yesterday in Memphis reminded me of a number of things. Some important. Some, not so much. Here are a few.

There is nothing quite like the Black Church

There was one thing that most of the civil rights leaders past and present had in common. They were children of the black church. Even the ceremony itself reminded me of the magic of that institution. At times like a lecture. At times like a revival.  The music, the preachers, the fraternities, the speeches, the emotion, community, the choirs. Then and now there’s nothing quite like it.

We don’t realize how good the Aeolians are!

Where did that come from? Well, I was listening to the national HBCU mass choir sing, “Beams of Heaven” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and it occurred to me that I was missing something.  What was it?  The Aeolians. The HBCU mass choir was fine and twice the size, but not even close!  It reminded me again why the Oakwood University Aeolians are the 2017 Choir of the World. I’m afraid we take them for granted.

The more things change, the more….they don’t! 

Dr. King was in Memphis in 1968 supporting city sanitation workers. They were underpaid, disrespected, and the targets of systematic racism. King died supporting workers. 50 years later, Memphis is 64% black but 88% of senior managers in the city are white. Those are plantation percentages. The problems of crime and poverty and unemployment plague the city, but the downtown area is a growing shrine to gentrification. There’s work to do.

Movements are messy, and leaders are flawed. 

King was no choir boy. The leaders of the civil rights movement- male and female- were a mixed bag of energy, ideas, courage, and cowardice.  They were deeply flawed, but like the early Christian church they turned their world upside down. If you’re looking for a perfect movement, you’ll be waiting.

Friends come in all colors 

The bells tolled at 6:01 pm. It was the most important moment of the rally yesterday. Ironically, the speaker at that time was not a black pastor or politician, but a white Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pflegar. He has been an important player in the black community for years in Chicago. He wasn’t a token, he earned his spot.

The crowd began to boo when the mayor of Memphis and governor of Tennessee-both white- began to speak.  On the surface it seemed like a racial statement. But the jeers turned immediately to cheers when congressman Steve Cohen followed them. He has been a warrior of a representative for the black community-and he is white. You might not want to identify the friends or enemies of a movement by the color of their skin.

Our ancestors did more with less 

I was struck by the fact that most of the “builders” on the platform were in their golden years. They were recognized for the colleges, businesses, fraternities, and service organizations they had sacrificed to build. I’m afraid that sacrifice is a profanity to many in my world. We usually worship in churches and study in universities that our parents and grandparents built at great sacrifice. Of course, there is the problem of debt and the declining dollar. But the greater problem is a black community that is at times all talk and no action.

The power for change is still the power of God 

To the natural eye, the answers to the problems in the black community are obvious: economic investment, quality education, voter registration, etc. Those are powerful and legitimate answers. But James Lawson and the senior statesmen of the movement reminded us yesterday, that while we are pursuing those legitimate resources, the real answer comes, “not by might, nor by power” but by God’s spirit and power. Sound silly? I’d rather do it the way King did it than the way the scoffers and complainers aren’t doing it!

So those are a few of my thoughts about King and the movement. What do you think?

3 Reasons Adventists Should Celebrate Easter

3 Reasons Adventists Should Celebrate Easter

Intro: What are your plans for Sunday morning? Where will you be? In a few hours Adventists across the country will enjoy a special spring weekend. On Sunday we’ll be shopping in malls, watching the Elite 8 of March Madness, or perhaps just relaxing with friends. We’ll probably be every place but the best place- somewhere celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Celebrating Easter.

Now, I get it. I’m writing this blog from a glass house. At this very moment I’m preparing for Alumni weekend on our university campus. Thousands will be here.  Saturday will be a full day of worship and Christ will be at the center of it all.  Now, we may mention Easter somewhere along the way, maybe not. That’s not good enough.

Easter deserves special, undivided attention. Easter is one of the few days on the calendar that grabs the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike. Despite all the commercialism and confusion, Easter is a day that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That alone is reason enough for Seventh Day Adventists to celebrate Easter.  Here’s why:

“Of all professing Christians, Seventh Day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ.” Ellen White, Evangelism p. 188.  

As imperfect as the holiday is, it’s an opportunity to lift up Jesus. And frankly, Adventists are internationally known for a lot of things, but lifting up Jesus is generally not one of them. The resurrection that Easter celebrates is also especially meaningful because it’s a pillar of our faith.     Paul puts it this way.

“ And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”

I Corinthians 15:14

So let me give you 3 reasons that Adventists should celebrate Easter.

Number One: We should celebrate Easter because it’s not about the day but the Daystar!

The problem with Easter is the stuff that distracts: Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, Easter parades, and Easter fashion. And for some Adventists the biggest distraction is that it’s celebrated on Sunday. They miss the utter irony of criticizing Christians for celebrating the resurrection on the day that Christ was resurrected. Go figure.  But don’t be distracted. The main attraction of Easter is Jesus and His resurrection. Everything else is secondary at best.

And please spare me the “pagan origins” of Easter arguments.  If we go down that road, let’s take a stop at the pagan origin of the names of weekdays and months, church steeples and clergy robes, wedding rings and flowers at funerals.

And don’t forget money. Surely you’ve noticed the pagan symbols on some of our currency? So, in the spirit of Christian brotherhood, I’ll hold your money while you work through these issues. You’re welcome.  Point is, lift up Jesus.

Number Two: We should celebrate Easter because we need to fellowship with other Faiths.

There are not many opportunities for different faith traditions to get together without a fight.  We generally emphasize our differences. Adventists need a reminder of how much we have in common with other Evangelical Christians. With certain obvious exceptions, we agree in most areas of doctrine with most mainline Christian denominations. In fact historically and theologically, Adventists are as about as close to the Methodist church as another denomination can get.

Here’s the thing. Easter Sunday is a great time for Christians of all faiths to focus on the thing they have in common-their appreciation for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and His resurrection.  Fellowship and friendship lead to dialogue.  Honest dialogue is what we desperately need. It helps us understand and respect the beliefs of others and it allows us to share what we believe.

Side note: if the idea of worshipping with other believers is a significant issue with you, then my first advice is don’t go and don’t judge. My second advice is, grow up. You’re not real light if no one sees you. You’re not real salt unless you’re mingling. No contact, no impact.

Number Three: We should celebrate Easter because a Resurrected God can Resurrect You!

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be made alive!”  1 Corinthians 15: 20122

Last week, Elder George Earle and his wife died within days of each other. Few men have left a clearer mark on their generation. As a young preacher I loved his sense of humor and uncanny leadership skills. But now we prepare to funeralize him.  And that story is played out everywhere, everyday. The resurrection promises victory over death.

But the resurrection also promises power while we live. Romans 8 says that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead can live inside of us. That’s real power. Resurrection power.

  • Power to resurrect our broken lives.
  • Power to resurrect our messed up marriages
  • Power to resurrect our frustrated dreams
  • Power to resurrect our wasted gifts and talents

That’s the real meaning of Easter. It’s another chance to say, “ I need you”, or “ I thank you.”  It would be great to say that with other believers, but that’s not a deal breaker. Find a way to celebrate Easter that works best for you. It may be in a church or in your secret place, but don’t miss this chance to celebrate the Risen Savior. He lives!

Snoop! “Why We Need To Judge”

“Snoop! Why We NEED To Judge.”

It has been an interesting week. Calvin Broadus Sr., a.k.a. Snoop Dog, released his new project, Bible of Love, and it broke the internet. From gangsta rap to gospel music?  It was a recipe for controversy. Snoop is an icon.

  • Since his debut album in 1992, Doggy Style, Snoop has sold over 32 million albums worldwide.
  • His name is practically synonymous with weed. In 2015 he launched, Leafs by Snoop and became the first major celebrity to brand and market a line of legal marijuana products.
  • Acknowledged pimp, player, and convicted drug dealer, he has been a poster child for the excesses of popular culture.

These days Snoop is more the business mogul, game show host, and doting father, but his legend lives.

Full disclosure? I’ve never been a Snoop fan.  Motown fans like me still don’t think the words rap and music go together. Just sayin.  But I was excited when I heard that Snoop had converted to Christianity. God can redeem anything and use anybody. He has proved that through the likes of David, Solomon, the Apostle Paul, and frankly…you!

I got the album. Album was good, not great.  Lyrics ranged from light to questionable, but that really didn’t bother me. Why? Because I assumed it was coming from a new Christian not a seasoned theologian.

I’ve said this before and it bears repeating. Snoop professes Christianity.  If Snoop is a fraud, he’s in good company, because all of us are frauds from time to time. There’s grace for that. I assume he’s sincere, as I do with all new-believers. He needs to be taught and mentored.

Those who are close to him need to disciple him. They need to teach him the word of God, and how to make his actions line up with his confession. But here’s the thing. We don’t do him a favor by giving him a pass. My fear is it’s already happening. His greatest danger might be his Christian “friends.”

The Favorite Verse of a Fallen Generation

It is said that the favorite bible verse today is no longer John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1, “ Judge not that you be not judged.”  Follow any post about Snoop or any other controversial new believer and you can’t get away from that verse and the comments.  “Leave him alone!” “ Stay out of his business.”  “Who are you to judge?”  Its sounds so progressive. It sounds so loving. It’s not.

The problem with Matthew 7:1 is that it’s generally taken out of context. The issue there is not Should you judge, but How should you judge!  In fact, the passage teaches valuable lessons on how Christians should judge correctly. That passage and others teach that it’s wrong to judge motives, but it’s a Christian responsibility to judge or evaluate words and actions. Because if we don’t, there will never be genuine growth or discipleship in the body of Christ. Real love constructively and confidentially confronts me.

Loving Snoop Dog To Death

This is an age that values tolerance over truth. An age suspicious of absolutes. It’s a spiritual age but not a religious age. It’s an Oprah age. A mystic age. It’s uncomfortable with religious expectations and accountability. That is a recipe for disaster for new believers, especially new believers like Snoop. New believers need the support of a loving community that teaches them to discern truth from error- inside them and around them.

And that is the very reason Christians are encouraged to judge, to measure, to weigh the evidence.

  • Jesus commends “right judgement” in John 7:24.
  • Romans 16:17 encourages Christians to “mark” or judge those who cause divisions in the church.
  • I Corinthians 2:15 says, “ But he that is spiritual judges all things…”

Young Christians need mature Christians to speak the truth to them in love, Ephesian 4:15. They need loving, honest evaluation from mature believers to help them reach their spiritual potential. And celebrities need direct, honest, confidential discipline more than others. They probably rarely get it.

Snoop has already demonstrated a willingness to shift from one religious idea to another. In 2009 he joined the Nation of Islam. In 2012 he converted to Rastafarianism and changed his name to Snoop Lion. In 2013 members of the Rastafarian movement criticized Snoop for not living up to his beliefs. Snoop’s response was his beliefs were personal and “not up for outside judgement.” Not true. Only God can perfectly judge our hearts, but Snoop needs mature believers to judge him, to discipline him, in the context of a loving relationship, so he can grow.

Critical or Charitable Judgement

There are two basic types of judgement, critical and charitable. Critical judgement is the judgment of the stereotype: superior, insensitive, hurtful and harmful.  But all Christians need charitable judgement if they want to grow. Judgement that looks to help and not hurt.

  • Charitable judgement reads actions and not motives.
  • Charitable judgement builds up, not tears down.
  • Charitable judgement is based on principle and not preference.
  • Charitable judgment is quick to cover and not expose.
  • Charitable judgement removes the log in my eye, before the splinter in yours.

That’s the kind of judgement that Snoop needs and so do we. A judgement that brings out your full potential.  A judgement that can save you from one of your greatest enemies. Yourself.

But that’s what I think. What about you?

Black Panther And The “Problem” Of Black Conferences

Black Panther and the “Problem” of Black Conferences

Black Panther has inspired amazing interest in black consciousness, self-determination, and all- things African. For many, it wasn’t enough to buy a ticket to the movie, they bought entire African-inspired outfits, and posed for pictures in front of life-sized Black Panther posters. It was an event.

But I noticed something interesting as I read comments from several Adventists who attended Black Panther. It seems that a number of people who took pride in Black Panther have problems with black (Regional) conferences. Interesting. There’s seems to be a disconnect here.

How can you applaud black self-determination in a movie and criticize that same black self -determination in the church? How can you applaud black ingenuity and black invention and black institutions in a movie and not support them in the church?

Regional conferences were formed in the Adventist Church in 1944, at a time when the church and country refused blacks full participation. Their growth over the years is nothing short of a miracle. Stanford Economist Henry Felder noted that between 1945 and 2008, the Adventist church in North American grew 242%. But the growth in Regional Conferences over that same period was 1059%. Amazing!

But Regional Conferences have become a “problem” for some in the church because they seem divisive and dated. Doesn’t Christ want us all to worship together? Haven’t we reached the point where black and white conferences are unnecessary? As I often say, this is a blog and not a paper. The issues of Regional Conferences and missional structures and Adventist ecclesiology are far too complex to be handled in 1000 words, but let me share some comments and you can share yours.

Regional and State Conference are BOTH Multicultural

It is a passion of this present generation. The desire for different cultures to work and worship together. Well, it’s the reality of both Regional and State conferences. They are open and welcoming to all cultures, and cultures across the spectrum are represented.

Now the labels might be a bit confusing if your assumption is that State=White and Regional=Black, because things have changed. If you attend a camp-meeting in the Greater New York Conference, a State conference, you’ll probably see fewer white faces than in some Regional Conferences. It’s rapidly approaching the same situation in the Florida Conference, the Potomac Conference, and other State conferences. It’s already the case for State conferences in all of the major urban areas: Atlanta, Orlando, New York, Chicago, etc.

Here’s the thing. If your passion is desegregation, then you’ll be happy to know that all State and Regional Conferences are open and inviting to all. But if integration is your passion, not so much. People continue to choose to worship in their own ethnic and cultural groups, regardless of conference affiliation. Why is that? This blog’s not long enough.

The “Colonizers” Are Back!

The rumor was that our racial problems were over when we finally elected a black president. “Post racial” was the term. But there was a backlash during the Obama presidency and a total collapse with the election of Donald Trump. Now the rate of hate crimes has exploded, frat boys are marching with tiki torches, Muslims are demonized, and the “other” could be anyone from a white liberal to a black professional.

“Colonizers” Come To Church

As amazing as Regional Conferences have been, they weren’t what Black Adventists requested in 1941. They requested full integration and participation- and they were denied. Why? Because there’s no racism like religious racism. Then and now. There were two organizations that gave Donald Trump 83% support in the 2016 election – The Ku Klux Klan and white evangelical Christians.

And frankly, if you look up the word “colonizers” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of the Adventist church. Why? Because you can’t fix a problem that you refuse to face.

Colonizers Offer Suggestions, Not Sacrifice

Some suggest closing Regional Conferences because they “duplicate structure.” Now, State Conferences and Regional Conferences are both legitimate church structures. Both welcome everyone. Both advance the mission of the church. But an argument can be made that Regional Conferences do it more efficiently.

9 Regional Conferences cover the same territory as 42 State Conferences. Historically, they have done more and grown faster for less.  So, if duplication is the problem, then some State Conferences should be first in line to be closed. And if we’re talking mergers, why not merge the low performing State Conference into the local Regional Conference?  But that’s rarely the discussion. Why?  Because it’s easy to talk about sacrifice if you’re not making it.

“Colonizers” Come In All Colors

“Colonizers” do more than capture territory, they capture minds. I support the freedom of choice. Attend the church that allows you to serve most effectively. I pastored for years in Regional and State conferences. My churches were predominantly black in both settings. That’s my call. That’s my passion. I have no desire to pastor a Korean church or a Spanish church or an Anglo church, although I support those who do.

But I was always amazed by black people who would argue the value of multi-culturalism and the evil of black conferences- while continuing to attend black churches! It’s hypocrisy 101.

No one can advance the agenda of the colonizer like the brother that’s been colonized.

It’s All About Mission

I am a pragmatist by nature and a missiologist by trade. My mantra is, “form follows function.” I am for the structure that most effectively advances the mission of the church. The mission of the church is to make disciples-fully developed, fully devoted followers of Christ.

That is why I challenge both Regional conferences and State conferences. I support churches that are missional, and I support closing or merging churches that have demonstrated- over time- that they are not. Same for conferences. There is nothing- absolutely nothing- sacred about structure. They all need change!

But that’s me. What do you think?

Adventists and the Wakanda Weakness

Adventists and the Wakanda Weakness

By the time you read this blog, Black Panther will have reached $1 Billion dollars in box office sales. It was at $944 million world- wide on Wednesday, but it opens in China on Friday, (and I understand there are a few folks living there.) From comic book to cross- cultural sensation, Black Panther is impossible to ignore.

But it hasn’t been without controversy. The ancestor worship, blood rituals, talking with the dead, and astral projection have stirred up conservative Christians and not a few Adventists. Believe me, I think I’ve heard from most of them!

My feelings? It’s a comic book not a Bible. It’s literature. It’s art. It’s certainly not without flaws, but short of the Bible, what medium is? And even the Bible at times uses flawed parables to teach flawless lessons. If you don’t believe that, then you’re ignoring the Rich Man and Lazarus. If God uses imperfect people to communicate the gospel, he can certainly use imperfect art to teach noble lessons- and Black Panther is full of them.

I think there are good reasons for not attending movies, if that’s your choice. I think it’s more sensible to carve out some personal guidelines for movie viewing, whether it’s at a multi-plex or on your phone, and last week I listed 4 questions I ask media all the time

  • Will I leave worse?
  • Will I leave weak?
  • Will I leave bored?
  • Will I leave broke?

Works for me. Work out your own. But let’s move on.

It looks like the real star of Black Panther is not T’Challa, or Nakia, or even Okoye and her female fighting force. The real star of Black Panther seems to be the kingdom of Wakanda. It has caught the imagination of the world. Carvell Wallace wrote in the Washington Post, “What makes Wakanda so attractive is the fantasy of an African nation untouched by colonial influence.” Yes, but it’s more than that.

This fictional East African nation is intentionally hidden from the realities of a messed up world. The mysterious and expensive metal vibranium has made Wakanda prosper in a number of ways:

  • It’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
  • It offers free universal health care.
  • It offers free education from kindergarten to university.
  • It has one of the highest life expectancy rates on the planet.
  • It has discovered the cure for cancer.

No wonder Wakanda is the star of the show! But in spite of all of her strengths, I think Wakanda has one glaring weakness. It’s a problem for imaginary kingdoms and it’s a bigger problem for “imaginary” Christians. It’s the problem of isolationism. The intentional or unintentional decision to separate from the people who need you the most. What do I mean?

Well, Wakanda’s answer to crime, confusion, and “colonizers” is to hide. That’s an oversimplification sure to rile some Wakandans, but it’s basically true. They won’t even allow their youth to attend non-Wakandan universities. King T’Challa was a rare exception.

Wakanda is right about the dangers of the world but it is wrong about the solution. Like many Christians in general and Adventists in particular, the answer to evil in the world is to hide in plain sight. It doesn’t work for at least 2 reasons.

It Hides The Benefits

Wakanda is rich and in need of nothing. That’s a call to responsible engagement. That’s exactly the point Nakia made early and often to T’Challa, the Black Panther. Wakanda had enough resources to help itself and others. That’s not just a word to Wakandans, that’s a word to the church.

In 2011, a major health study of more than 11,000 subjects confirmed that African American Adventists defy health disparities and experience a much better quality of life than average Americans-white or black. Life expectancy was even longer. It ain’t Wakanda but it’s significant!

Our unique combination of healthy living and practical spirituality is desperately needed in communities of color. But far too often they don’t get it because we “don’t get it.” There is no impact without contact. We can’t be salt and light if we’re not connected.

It Hurts The Benefactor

Isolationism presents another problem. It creeps back to kill you.  You see it clearly in Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Killmonger grew up in the world that Wakanda neglected. They neglected him when his father was killed. They neglected him through his struggles as an orphan. He grew older and bitter, and he finally came home to destroy. They didn’t help, so they got hurt.  The Bible records an almost identical story in the life of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20.

When you live disconnected from the real world, you generally stop offering help and start offering criticism. You live in an echo chamber. You’re hearing voices, but the voices you hear are your own. No criticism, no accountability, and becoming more useless by the minute.

T’Challa got it only after he’d lost his kingdom and almost lost his life. Wakanda was almost destroyed by a monster of their own making. Will we get it before it’s too late.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it. Comments, cracks, critiques, and criticisms are welcome.

Black Panther and the Adventist Movie Myth

Black Panther and the Adventist Movie Myth

I’ve been tricked! Hoodwinked! Bamboozled! …I think that’s a word. After a time of research and writing, it’s dawning on me that Ellen White never actually said that our guardian angels “stand weeping at the door of movie theaters.” (Actually, she came pretty close. But that’s for another blog.)

Now why is that mythical but missing quote on my mind? Because it occurred to me that if it’s true, a lot of guardian angels have been patiently waiting outside Black Panther showings lately. The movie has become a movement. I’ve already seen it -for purely research purposes- 2…. ok, 3 times. It has taken the nation by storm.

  • Cinema Blend reports that it will be the most financially successful superhero origin movie of all time. In 2 weeks it has grossed $412 million domestically and $700 million world – wide.
  • Black Panther is the first mega budget project – super hero or otherwise- with a black director and predominantly black cast.
  • The stars and cast are everywhere. Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa, is on the cover of Time magazine this week. The feature article title sums up the phenomenon well, “The Superpower of Black Panther.”
  • #Wakandaforever has become more than a hashtag. Millions of people have adopted the mythical African nation as a symbol of everything from self- determination, to black liberation, to artistic excellence, to feminism for women of color.

But this is not a Black Panther blog. Believe me, I’ll be back for that. For a black academic/preacher, Black Panther is the gift that keeps on giving! No, this is a quick word on Christians as consumers of popular culture; movies, music, sports, you name it. In a world where we are bombarded by positive and negative sounds and images, what are we to do? How are we to choose?

Before I suggest what does help, let me suggest what doesn’t. Myths. Unthinking, unbiblical, unresearched urban legends. They do more harm than good. They offer quick answers to often complex questions. Here are 3 unhelpful movie myths.

  1. Adventists Don’t Go To Movies – Perhaps you don’t, but that myth is way off base. Adventists have visited movie theaters, in large numbers, for years. In 1975, Insight Magazine sited a survey that showed 48% of Adventist youth attended the movie theaters. And that was almost 50 years ago!
  2. Adventists Can’t Go To Movies – This is the myth that the movie prohibition is buried somewhere in our baptismal vows or fundamental beliefs. Not there.
  3. Angels are weeping at the door – I began with that one. Believe me, if our angels dropped off every time we dropped in to the wrong places, we’d have bigger problems than Black Panther!!

So, what is a Christian consumer of popular culture do? It would be a lot simpler if immediately following the book of Revelation, the Bible provided a comprehensive list of appropriate books, movies, and music. Simple, yes, Sensible, no. We don’t mature by having decisions handed down, we grow by exercising our powers of choice under the direction of the word of God and the influence of the Spirit of God.

The favorite colors in the Christian crayon box are black and white. We don’t do well with grey. But popular culture is full of grey areas that demand that Christians think, watch, and pray. Now let me be clear. I fully support those who choose not to attend motion pictures. I can think of several good reasons for that choice. But the fact is, most Adventists are probably already choosing to attend movie theaters. So instead of acting as if they don’t, we should probably invest our time exploring guidelines that will help them make wise choices.

For those who choose to visit the local movie theater, let me suggest some quick questions you can ask about the movie before you buy that ticket.

Will I Leave Worse?

Philippians 4:8 is a helpful measure, “  Finally brethren…whatever is true…noble…right…pure…lovely…and admirable. If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things.”  The Christian battle is staged primarily between your two ears. Motion pictures, at one level, are pieces of art. They have the power to teach powerful lessons in creative ways. But they can’t be divorced from the same standards you apply to other influences.

Will I Leave Weak?

This is a personal question. I Corinthians 8 and I Corinthians 10 are passages that illustrate an important principle.  What might be fine for me, might be bad for you. Your experiences have made you vulnerable to certain temptations that mean absolutely nothing to me. For instance, Black Panther was packed with noble lessons, but if you have a thing for bald- headed black women, you might not want to go. Just sayin.

Will I Leave Bored?

Life’s too short to waste on bad media or entertainment. Some of the most creative minds in media today are in the motion picture industry. Some hit close to home for Adventists. Hacksaw Ridge was the true story of Desmond Doss, an Adventist who was the first pacifist combat medic to receive the Medal of Honor. It got 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. If you’re choosing, choose well.

Will I Leave Broke?

That’s the stewardship question. Is it the best use of my money?  If you take a date to a $15 movie and leave broke, you don’t need a movie, you need a job!

Just a few thoughts on the Black Panther and consuming popular culture. What do you think? Did you like the movie? Did you see the movie? Is it safer to stay away from movies altogether? How do you choose what to see?

Dr. E. E. Cleveland: A Black History Giant

Dr. E.E.Cleveland: A Black History Giant

He was no more than 6’3, but to the world he seemed larger than life. Dr. E. E. Cleveland. I actually heard him before I saw him. As a child, we’d listen to the recording of his 1966 evangelistic campaign in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the close of that meeting over 1000 people were baptized – a first for the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Born in Huntsville Alabama in 1921, he was a man of amazing gifts and scholarship. He authored 15 books, lectured regularly at prominent universities, trained over 1000 ministers, and served the church effectively at several levels. He was the most prolific evangelist in the SDA church, baptizing over 16,000 people.

He had a passion for people-especially people of color. He organized a campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. at Oakwood College when he was a student. He participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. He crossed paths with Dr. Martin King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy during the civil rights movement and he was clearly the equivalent of Dr. King to the Adventist Church. He was the co-founder of the Human Relations Committee for the General Conference of SDAs. He was a tireless champion for social justice inside and outside the church.

But the personal encounters and connections are what marked me. Four of them influence me to this day.

Encounter Number One

Dr. Cleveland left the General Conference and came to Oakwood University in 1977. His class on Public Evangelism was probably the most popular class on campus. Attended by religion majors and non-religion majors alike, it was literally standing room only in the classroom. The class was already full when I registered in 1979, but they told me to just go to class and perhaps someone might drop out.

I could hardly get in the door for the press. Somehow I was able to enroll in the class and everyday was amazing! It was part revival, part evangelistic campaign, part college class. The stories, the testimonies, the humor, the passion, the insight. I had never had a classroom experience like that and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to reproduce it in my own classroom ever since.

Encounter Number Two

As a religion student, I got to know Dr. Cleveland well. Frankly, I was in awe of him. I would soak in every suggestion and hang on every word. In the late 70s the campus and church community were always struggling with some legalistic teaching or off-shoot group- Shepard’s Rods, Brinsmeads, you name it. I set up an appointment to speak to Dr. Cleveland about salvation and sanctification.

He spoke about grace in a way that I’d never heard it before. Tears rolled down his face as he told me:

  • “We are justified, before we are qualified.”
  • “We are accepted, before we are acceptable.”
  • “We are trusted, before we are trust worthy.”
  • “We are declared perfect, while we are being perfected.”

This from a man who preached passionately against sin and who many felt was amazingly arrogant. They didn’t quite get him. As powerful a figure as he was, he was sensitive, almost overly so. What I saw was a man who was so grateful for what God had done, that he had no filter sharing it. He was so confident in his salvation, that at times it could be mistaken for overconfidence in himself…… and he could be a bit arrogant.

Encounter Number Three

When Dr. Cleveland retired from Oakwood, I was the Director of Church Growth and Discipleship in the Southeastern California conference. For a couple of years, they split his courses across the faculty, but in 2007 they asked me to join the Religion faculty of Oakwood University. My concentration is Church Growth and Evangelism, so I was effectively Dr. Cleveland’s successor. I taught his classes.

That year, I accepted the position after the class schedules were printed. Dr. Cleveland’s name was still on the class schedule when the students came back from summer break. In short, the students came to class expecting to see E.E. but instead they saw me! It took a minute or two for the students to realize the cruel switch, but when they did….it was Not pretty!!

I knew how they felt. There was no way anyone could fill Dr. Cleveland’s shoes. Certainly not me. But he was always there for encouragement and counsel. I spent hours listening to him. Even as his steps slowed, his mind remained sharp and he was a blessing until the time of his death in August of 2009.

Today

Last year I became the Director of the Bradford, Cleveland, Brooks, Leadership Center on the campus of Oakwood University. Our lives intersect again.  Today we are teaching a changing church the unchanging principles that marked these men’s ministries. There will never be another E. E. Cleveland, but his contributions live on. I’ll make sure of that.

7 Artists Kirk Franklin Should Thank – Part 2

7 Artists Kirk Franklin Should Thank – Part 2

Last week reminded me how powerful and personal gospel music is. Musical artists we’ve never met can feel like family, because we’ve heard their voices as often as family. In short, these lists are personal and that’s what makes them so different and so revealing.

We’re looking at artists that paved the way for the Kirk Franklins of today. Many of you responded with your own lists and they were great. Names like Thomas Dorsey, Roberta Martin, Alex Bradford, the Fairfield Four, and the Blendwrights, to name a few.  All great names.  In the future we’ll look specifically at choirs, quartets, COGIC artists, and Adventist artists.

But although all of the pioneers were groundbreakers, some of them faced extra-ordinary criticism from the religious community for their music.  When I hear artists like Jonathan Nelson, Karen Clark, the Walls Group, and J.Moss sing at the Oakwood University church, I can almost hear the legendary pastor of that church, Elder Eric Ward, turning over in his grave.  At one point, they not only banned drums in that church, but they banned audio tracks that had drums on them! Times have changed.

It’s that element of Kirk Franklin’s genius that I see reflected in the people on this list of 7. Artists who were ahead of their time. Artists who endured until their ministry went from extreme to standard. Artists who were banned but who are now honored. We started with Thomas Whitfield, Mahalia Jackson, and Edwin Hawkins. 7 is not nearly a long enough list, but let’s go.

James Cleveland

A native of Chicago and pianist for the legendary Albertina Walker and Thomas Dorsey, most people don’t realize how monumental the ministry of James Cleveland actually was. He strained his voice at an early age, but it left him with that signature “voice of gravel” that was a gospel music staple.

Cleveland was the driving force behind the birth of “contemporary” gospel music. He traveled the country with the Cleveland Singers and the Southern California Community Choir performing to crowds of thousands. He won 4 Grammys and was the first gospel artist to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Today his influence lives on through the Gospel Music Workshop of America that he founded with Albertina Walker. Today it has over 200 chapters with 30,000 plus members.

Andre Crouch

His songbook is broad and reads like a contemporary church hymnal:

  • The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power
  • Soon and Very Soon
  • Jesus Is The Answer
  • Take Me Back
  • Through It All
  • My Tribute (To God Be The Glory)
  • It Won’t Be Long
  • Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus
  • Let The Church Say Amen

His music not only brings back memories, but it brings back emotions, and musicals, and graduations, and funerals. Andre Crouch music was practically the sound track for black church life for years. But it was not without controversy. He was the principle figure in the Jesus music movement that brought contemporary music into the church in the 60s and 70s. He was also the first major black artist to cross over into the Anglo Christian music market. (CCM).

His music is heard in the films, Color Purple, The Lion King, and many more. He worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross and a long list of secular artists. But it’s nearly impossible to find a gospel artist that does not list him as an influence or trailblazer.

The Winans

I was helping a church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi one summer and went to a radio station to record a radio spot. They gave me some new albums to choose my music from and I picked up, “Introducing the Winans.” For the next hour I couldn’t get past the first track, The Question Is. It was amazing.

Over their career, those 4 brothers from Detroit won multiple Grammys, Doves, Stellars, and a host of other awards. They were known for their crossover appeal and often appeared on R&B charts, collaborating with Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker and others. They are still impacting gospel music today as solo artists along with several of their siblings, including B.B. and C.C Winans.

It’s important to note that they were introduced to the music world by Andre Crouch. No Andre Crouch, no Winans. No Winans, no Commissioned or Witness. No Commissioned, no Fred Hammond or Marvin Sapp…and on it goes.

John P. Kee

“How did he get on the list?” I hear some of you. Here’s why:

  • First, I love him!
  • Second, I think he’s one of the best combinations of traditional, contemporary, quartet, and choir music ever.
  • Third, at his height-and I’ve heard them all- he was the best live performer in the business, and Franklin’s early concerts were a rip-off…I mean “homage” to Kee. (You didn’t realize gospel music fans could be so snarky….get over it!)

When Kirk Franklin first arrived with the Family, John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir were the hottest young act in gospel music. His energy, his grooves, his dancing, his jokes, his musicianship, his business genius…have all knocked down walls for the Kirk Franklins of this world.

A former drug dealer turned preacher, he is currently the Senior Pastor of New Life City of Praise. He continues to travel and perform across the country.

Ok, that’s it. I gotta stop. I could really double this list and still not be done. As I said, gospel music is powerful and personal. So, who’s on your list? Who would you take off of mine? Comments?