Tom Waits/Austin City Limits

January 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Tom Waits performing on Austin City Limits in 1978:


Watch Tom Waits on PBS. See more from Austin City Limits.

Monthly Mix Tape: “Skinned Alive”

January 20, 2012 at 11:15 am

As you may or may not know, I love music. I listen to a lot of music. All kinds of music. That’s not an exaggeration just so that I seem eclecticly hip. I really do listen to all kinds of music and I love to share music I like with lots of people. I don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions, but one thing I’d like to do here on the ol’ blog is upload a mix once a month.

I don’t know what this will look like or if each mix will have a theme. But I do know what the first mix is: songs I’d love to hear my friend Shawn Skinner cover. Not because Shawn is primarily a cover artist but because covers are often a way for an artist to stretch themselves and find their voice through other people; and I can honestly hear Shawn’s voice in each of these songs, though in very different ways. I can hear him making each of these his own. Each song on this mix was picked with Shawn’s voice and playing style in mind.

So, without much further blabbing, here is January’s mix tape (yes, I know it’s not actually a tape, but I’m dating myself here): “Skinned Alive: Songs I’d Love To Hear Shawn Skinner Play.”

Enjoy and feel free to let me know if there’s some sort of mix you’d like to see in future months.

Download January’s monthly mix tape: “Skinned Alive: Songs I’d Love To Hear Shawn Skinner Play”

Here is the track list:

  1. Say Valley Maker by Smog
  2. Radio Cure by Wilco
  3. No Peace, Los Angeles by Mike Doughty
  4. My Winding Wheel by Ryan Adams
  5. Deep Red Bells by Neko Case
  6. Nights Like These by Lucero
  7. Jesse With The Long Hair by Robert Earl Keen, Jr.
  8. Come To My Senses by Doug Burr
  9. Vivid by Greg Brown
  10. Folded Hands by Zoo Animal
  11. How Good You Are by Joe Pug
  12. If I Needed You by Townes Van Zandt
  13. Sorry You’re Sick by Ted Hawkins
  14. I See A Darkness by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
  15. Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen
  16. Barstool Boys by Marah
  17. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by Richard Thompson
  18. Boots Of Spanish Leather by Bob Dylan
  19. Old Shoes (&Picture Postcards) by Tom Waits
  20. When It Don’t Come Easy by Patty Griffin

Download January’s monthly mix tape: “Skinned Alive: Songs I’d Love To Hear Shawn Skinner Play”

Jesus Wants You To Stop Going To Church

January 20, 2012 at 7:42 am

The Hufington Post recently picked up on some research from the Barna Group that should not surprise us. The HuffPo says: “Almost half of churchgoing Americans say their life has not changed a bit due to their time in the pews, a new survey shows.”

This is nothing new. In Ronald Sider’s 2005 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?, sider provocatively argues:

Once upon a time there was a great religion that over the centuries had spread all over the world. But in those lands where it had existed for the longest time, its adherents slowly grew complacent, lukewarm, and skeptical. Indeed, many of the leaders of its oldest groups even publicly rejected some of the religion’s most basic beliefs.

Another book from 2005, Alan Wolfe’s The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith makes the same argument. Wolfe, not a Christian, had this to say of American Christianity at-large:

in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer.

Just in case you might be worried that this is simply a 2005 opinion, Kenda Creasy Dean, in her 2010 book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church, writes:

Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survivie long after they graduate from high school.

One more thing: we’re responsible.

And now in 2012, HuffPo continues:

In a finding sure to disappoint pastors, three out of five church attenders said they could not recall an important new religious insight from their last church visit. Of those who attended in the previous week, 50 percent could not recall walking away with a significant new understanding.

What’s the problem? Church attendance is not the issue because each author speaks of people who “attend” church with little to no discernible difference in their life. The problem could be that there is not enough teaching in our churches. Or the problem could be that the teaching we have is too shallow, too man-centered.

Or the problem could be deeper. Perhaps the issue is with the idea of “church attendance” itself? The very notion of simply attending church simply reinforces the idea that we are consumers and that “church” exists to dispense spiritual goods, which are a nice add-on to our lives that requires no real commitment.

But Jesus seemed to operate with different assumptions. Jesus says in Mark 8:34-37 that if we want to follow Him, we must deny ourselves and that if we love Him, we will obey Him (John 14:15). James says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). This doesn’t sound like merely attending church.

We need to move beyond just attending church to being the church, to being and proclaiming good news; loving and serving the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Living this kind of life will change us. Sitting in a pew once a week (or more) is not likely to change us.

Jesus did not come so that we could hear about Him and do nothing with it. Jesus came calling us to follow Him and make disciples who learn to obey Him (Matthew 28:18-20). What if we moved beyond the notion of attending church and asked people to actually be the church, would we continue to see articles like this?

Jesus wants you to stop simply attending church.

Doctrine/Action (?)

January 19, 2012 at 9:40 am

It seems as though, largely speaking, that American Christians fall broadly into a couple of main categories: those that emphasize doctrine or those that emphasize action. There is, of course, that large group of churches that water down just about everything in order to grow numerically. In fact, there is a very large church in my area in which leaders readily admit that you won’t hear public teaching above a seventh-grade level. They call it their USA Today approach. But those churches are not my point today.

One of the main reasons we hear at Church of the Cross, where I pastor, for Christians leaving our church family is that we don’t have enough “bible study.” These people often go to churches with a lot of classes and that heavily emphasize doctrine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love to study the Bible, I love to study doctrine and doctrine is fundamental to our faith. If you don’t believe in the Trinity, you’re not a Christian. There are clear boundaries to Christianity and we need to know those boundaries but I’m not convinced that “studying the bible” is the main thing the church should be doing. In fact, our right doctrine should move us to action.

Jesus very clearly says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus commands that His people make disciples, “teaching them to obey” all that He commanded (Matthew 28:18-20) and James says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Scripture is very clear that right thinking (doctrine) changes our heart (affections) and that this results in action. We are not yet doing it all that well, but I am not interested in pastoring a church of people who want to learn more that they won’t do. If our churches are not putting faith in to action, all the doctrine we study is simply puffing us up (1 Corinthians 8:1).

This is an uncomfortable thing to consider. Lots of people will loudly proclaim, “Yes, but our actions don’t save us! Salvation by grace though faith alone! (Ephesians 2). Fair enough, but I’m not saying that our actions produce faith. I’m saying that our faith should produce actions that ask us to sacrifice and become “good news” to our surrounding culture. James says that if we simply hear the Word without doing it, we are deceived (James 1:22) and that if our faith doesn’t result in works, then it’s not real faith (James 2).

Jesus is not going to be impressed if you can parse your Greek and Hebrew and if you’ve worked out the definitive ordo salutis and if you’ve worked out Infra- vs. Supralapsarianism. Most Christians in America already know enough Scripture that we don’t live. Jesus says that whatever we do for “the least of these” we do for Him (Matthew 25:40).

I’m still not sure what this looks like in Suburban NW Phoenix, but I do know that the church should serve those in need and that, the more we learn, the more we should live. So, at Church of the Cross, we’re not interested in studying the Bible just to study but to become equipped to live on mission. We want to put it in to practice. We want to live it. The question shouldn’t be whether a church emphasizes doctrine or action but whether or not the truth about Jesus is moving people to action. We are really struggling with this as a church family but I am incredibly humbled that there are others who want to see faith put in to action.

Mark 2:17 And Church Culture

January 17, 2012 at 7:58 am

As I’m want to do, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about church and church planting. I’ve also just finished reading Hugh Halter’s latest book Sacrilege. Over the years, Halter has been a tremendous source of challenge and encouragement. On one hand, I come from a fairly “traditional” church background in which, though it may not have been explicitly been communicated, we’re expected to be more comfortable around those who already follow Jesus than those who do not; so Halter has pushed many of the buttons I thought I was holding on to. On the other hand, I’ve long had a heart to plant a church in which people at every stage of faith were drawn closer to Jesus, so he has been a breath of fresh air, reminding me that I’m not the only one (I was going to say, “reminding me that I’m not crazy,” but I don’t know Hugh, so for all I know, he could be quite crazy.).

One verse Halter references really stuck out to me (yes, there was much to applaud in the book, but for the sake of this post, I want to ponder this particular verse). Mark 2:17:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Throughout the book, Halter reminds us that Jesus spent quite a bit of his time and energy connecting with people whom the “religious” or “spiritual” people didn’t think Jesus should be with. In fact, this is the premise introducing Luke 15, which contains one of Jesus’ most famous parables, the Prodigal Sons:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

But Mark 2:17 has really been haunting my thoughts and my prayers lately. In my current situation, I am blessed to have the chance to talk with a lot of pastors and, in particular, church planters. This has caused quite a bit of self-examination lately. I’ve found myself wrestling with the one question a church planter never leaves behind: Is the church we’ve planted the church we initially wanted? It seems that in church culture, we like to swing the pendulums. We either immerse ourselves in “building up Christians” or “reaching out” as though, somehow, these things are mutually exclusive.

In 1 Corinthians 14, when addressing people on the issue of speaking in tongues, Paul assumes that there will be unbelievers present. I wonder how many theologically solid churches also intentionally word and present things in a way in which they assume unbelievers will be present. Do we take time to explain our terms and practices? It seems that many of our church plants err on one side or the other. What has been called “seeker sensitive” or “theologically deep.” But are these things really at odds with one another?

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Are the churches we are planting places where “the sick,” sinners, those who don’t know where else to turn, feel welcomed and loved while also challenged? It’s a fine balance to call sin sin while also loving sinners. Or are the churches we’re planting places where we have a “preview service” so we can appeal to certain Christian sensibilities and get a “core group” of people “on board” so that we can have “respectable numbers?” Pardon my cynicism, but I’m really wrestling through some of these issues.

I am in no way saying that Christians shouldn’t be part of church plants. But, I am saying that I wonder if we don’t sometimes cater our church plants in such a way where we can simply guarantee that we have certain numbers of Christians to present to the people who ask. I want an environment where those who already follow Jesus are challenged to go deeper in their relationship with Jesus and those who don’t yet know Him are not only challenged to follow Him but made to feel both welcomed and challenged until they do so.

I fully realize that I am probably naive, but I don’t understand churches that set the bar so high that only those who already follow Jesus will ever feel comfortable. And even then, only certain types of Christians will have the “right doctrine” to belong to this church. In my own background, this is Reformed Theology, but it can be any number of issues. We are very prone to center our churches around practices and doctrines rather than Jesus. The result is that, in our pursuit of our particular doctrine or practice, we exclude many. We don’t explain what we do, we speak “Christianese” and we simply expect others ti immerse themselves into our culture as quickly as possible.

Are we more concerned with whether the sick find healing (and we all recognize our sickness), or that the healthy find a place to belong? Would it look any different if we continually considered the sick in everything we do? Why do we seem to believe in practice that these things are mutually exclusive?

Church Planting and Presidential Politics: Just Don’t Be The Other Guy

January 16, 2012 at 7:22 am

I used to care A LOT about politics. I served as President of the College Young Republicans and, for a while, I even wanted to be a lobbyist. But, gradually, over the years, things have changed. My life is not demonstrably different under a Republican or Democrat President and I’m no longer registered as a Republican. Frankly, I’ve lost faith in the power of politics for any meaningful change. But me being jaded about politics is not really what I wanted to think about today.

As I’ve watched the lead-up to the Republican primaries, I’ve been struck by just how unoriginal the candidates are (with the exception of Ron Paul who is not the subject of this post). As each candidate one-ups the others and tell me why they’re the best, the main theme that seems to emerge across the board is that each of the Republican candidates is NOT President Obama. And at the end of the day, that’s all they have to do. At the end of 8 years of President Bush, all the Democrats had to do was run a candidate that WASN’T Bush. It was only to their benefit that they ran an extremely charismatic politician who iced his message with hope of change. But the truth of the matter is that he simply WASN’T Bush and the Republican candidates AREN’T Obama.

It’s disheartening when our politicians run on the fact that they aren’t like the other candidate, but that’s what it’s come to. But, in reality, it’s not all that different from the genesis of many church plants. I’ve been thinking of the idea of church planting lately, especially in Suburbia.

It is not uncommon for a church plant to basically be the result of disgruntled people leaving one church and simply NOT wanting to be like the church they left, so they plant a church. The result is that the mission of the new church is simply that they don’t have to be like the old church. That’s it. Therefore, once they quickly realize this goal, they’ve “succeeded.” The drive to reach people and become more like Jesus dwindles because they’ve already succeeded at their basic goal of not being like the church they left.

But is this really the point of the church? Shouldn’t we all be striving to become more like Jesus, making, maturing and multiplying His disciples? When this is our drive, we will make progress but we will never “arrive.” There should always be the holy discontent of wanting more Jesus, wanting to be more like Him, wanting others to know Him and know Him better.

If you’re considering church planting, please pray that it isn’t simply in reaction to a situation you want to leave. It’s not all that difficult not to be someone else. We’ve got to have more drive than this.


January 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

Giant Sand‘s Howe Gelb with Vic Chestnutt: