Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Children in worship, cont'd

Some months ago I posted about the importance of children participating in corporate worship. Since then, despite arguments I've heard from the "other side," I have grown more persuaded than ever that children belong in the worship service of their church.

I know there are all sorts of opinions about what age this ought to start happening, and I don't want to be dogmatic or legalistic about it. At my church, we've come up with what I think is a reasonable plan. We have two worship services, at 9:00 and 10:45 a.m. We offer Sunday School for all ages during the early service, but during the late service we provide a children's program only for kids in Grade 2 and younger. It's our feeling that kids in Grade 3 and up (if not before) ought to go to Sunday School at 9:00 and attend the full worship service at 10:45.

Some of the people who oppose this approach have said:
  • "Kids that young can't understand the sermon."
  • "I'm always with my children. I need a break!"
  • "Forcing children to stay in church is going to turn them away from God."
  • "I don't get anything out of the sermon when I'm trying to keep my kids quiet."
  • "Children are distracting to other adults."
  • "The people you're trying to reach don't want to bring their kids to worship."
  • "My kids are bored out of their minds in the worship service.
I dearly love these people and understand where they're coming from. But I feel their objections come from some rather serious misunderstandings about worship, the church, and parenting.

And I don't blame them for having these misunderstandings.

Over the years, we church leaders have taught people that corporate worship is an experience to be enjoyed rather than an offering to be given to God. We've trained people to think worship should be entertaining, or moving, or challenging, or instructive, or some other subjective quality. We evaluate worship services by how well (or how poorly) they benefit us, rather than seeing them as an opportunity to delight God.

How many times have you asked a fellow church member, "How was the worship service today?"? Wasn't the answer something like this: "I didn't really like the music so much," or "The sermon was great!" or "I was brought to tears," or "I couldn't follow the preacher," or something like that? We've raised generations of worship consumers rather than worship givers. We've forgotten that worship is work (it's called a worship service for a reason).

Also, I fear we're rapidly dismantling the Biblical model of a diverse covenant family united in worshiping God. You can now find separate services and programs for children, youth, singles, the elderly, those who like traditional music, those who like contemporary music, etc. When we splinter the church family like this we lose important parts of Christ's body. We've adopted pragmatic solutions to valid questions like how to reach the unchurched, how to appeal to different learning styles, and how to keep young people engaged - instead of believing that God's Word and God's Spirit are more than capable of meeting the diverse needs of the church.

So here's my plea: Let's believe that children both CAN and SHOULD be participative members of the worshiping family. We expect young children to practice piano, to compete in sports, to listen as we read books above their reading level, to sit through a 90-minute movie, and to do all sorts of boring things like brush their teeth, listen to Grandma tell the same story all over again, clean their bedroom, and wake up early to be on time for school. What is so different about the discipline of worship?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Signs everywhere

Surely you've noticed the plethora of signs being held by people on sidewalks and street corners around Orlando?

Some of them are huge. The more fancy ones spin around to get people's attention.

They advertise everything from store closings (like Circuit City), to mattress sales, to haircuts, to new housing developments, to free months in apartments.

I can assume two things: one, businesses are desperately trying to do everything they can to get people into their stores or developments; and two, so many people are looking for jobs they're willing to stand on street corners and hold these signs for hours on end. Cheap labor for employers, a job for the unemployed.

I feel sorry for them though. At least it's not summer time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Movies I've seen recently

It's been a while since I've posted some of my movie reactions, so here goes...

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) is quite an amazing movie in many respects. For one thing, it's a remarkable true story about a Frenchman named Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine. In 1995, at the age of 43, Bauby had a stroke, became paralyzed all over his body except for his left eye, and ended up writing a book (entitled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) by "dictating" words to people by blinking his eye. So from one angle the film is a story about the indomitable human spirit, although throughout the movie Bauby struggles (understandably so) with feelings of despair and thoughts of surrender.

The cinematography is outstanding, and very creative. Most of the movie is shot as if you're looking at the world through Bauby's one good eye. So it puts you in Bauby's world, you think his thoughts, you feel his torment much more than if the movie had been entirely filmed in the traditional way.

One of the many things that moved me in this film was the love, care, and patience given Bauby by his wife, children, and hospital personnel. They represent the selfless devotion of Christ, who came to earth and gave his life for us when we were "locked in" sin (Bauby's condition is referred to as "locked-in syndrome"). Bauby often did nothing but reject them, yet they were determined to love Bauby back to health if that were possible.

A touching moment in the film is the scene where Bauby (in flashback) shaves the face of his invalid father (played by Max von Sydow). You can see the tender love of a father and son for each other, mixed with the sadness of separation. At one point Bauby's father tells Bauby that he's proud of him. It's a universal longing to be blessed by one's father. This film beautifully shows the value of affirming words spoken by a father to his child.

Religion is prominent in the movie, although not always is it shown positively. In one scene, Bauby (again in flashback) and his mistress travel to Lourdes, where sick people are flocking to a Catholic shrine for healing by Mary, the mother of Jesus. It made me think of American televangelists who "sell" Jesus and promise healing and prosperity. No wonder Bauby wasn't impressed. Overall, however, the Christians in this movie are generous, loving, inspiring role models.

My wife and I saw Marley and Me after the Christmas holidays. I had read the book last summer and couldn't put it down. You probably know the story. A newspaper columnist named John Grogan (played by Owen Wilson) and his wife Jennifer (played by Jennifer Aniston) get a yellow Lab puppy, and a long and happy love affair with this "worst dog in the world" ensues. I expected the movie to scarcely follow the book's story line, but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie accurately depicts many of the episodes in Grogan's book.

But for me, the movie was just OK. There was little real magic between Wilson and Aniston, and even less between them and the kids who played their children. Too bad, because that's one of the things that makes the book so touching. I think someone like Jason Bateman would have made a much better John Grogan. I'm not too keen on Owen Wilson as an actor. I keep thinking of him as Hansel in Zoolander.

I will say this: When we were driving home from the theatre, my wife says to me, "Mike, do you think we should get a dog?" Now this is a woman who has sworn repeatedly never to expose our home to any pet other than our declawed kitty Cleo.

So I guess Marley and Me worked some magic on her. (However, a few hours later she came to her senses.)

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) is a German film that tells the story of a brave young female member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement "White Rose" in 1943. Just 21 years old, Sophia Magdalena Scholl and her older brother Hans were nabbed by the Gestapo for printing and distributing leaflets critical of Hitler. The film follows Sophie's journey through the last six days of her life: arrest, interrogation, conviction, and execution by guillotine.

The acting is wonderful. You feel the sinister arrogance of the Nazi interrogators, the youthful bravery of Sophie, and her longing for a free and happy world. Christianity receives a very positive and healthy depiction as Sophie turns frequently to God in prayers that are moving and beautiful.

Like Valkyrie, which I saw in December, The Final Days moved me to wonder whether I would have been part of the resistance movement in WWII Germany. Would I have risked my life, and that of my family members, to stand up to Hitler and his madness? Would I have trusted God enough to join Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg, Sophie Scholl, and others like them and die if necessary for the freedom of Germany? Would I have acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with my God (Micah 6:8)?

I suppose even those people doubted their ability to do so until the moment of decision actually arrived. I'm thankful for the examples of people like Sophie Scholl. They are a great cloud of witnesses teaching us how to live by faith and look forward to a better country.

Why join a church?

Yesterday I preached a sermon entitled "Why Do We Think It's Important to Join a Church?" It was part of a series in which I explain and defend some of the practices and values of my church.

In my sermon I presented five reasons why it's important to be a member of a church. (By the way, by "member" I mean an active member, and by "church" I mean a healthy, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, local church.) Thousands of Christians are on the roll of no local church. Perhaps they don't see church membership taught in the Bible. Or, they've been hurt by a church in the past and are reluctant to get hurt again. Or, they are confused by the plethora of Christian denominations, sects, and churches out there these days and can't decide whether to settle down in one. Or, they just like their existence on the periphery and don't want to give up their independence. Whatever the case, I believe they are missing something very important to their own spiritual growth and the growth of the Kingdom.

In my message I said that I actually had nine reasons why church membership is important. But I only had time yesterday to give the "top five." So here is the entire list of nine reasons why I believe it's vital to be a committed, active member of a local church. I'm sure there are others, but these will hopefully suffice.

1 - Membership helps you guard the peace and purity of the church. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus explains how to handle conflict with another Christian. A key part of his teaching is to "tell it to the church" when other avenues of resolution fail. Unless one is a committed member of a church, it's difficult to see how he or she would practically apply this command.

2 - Membership gives you the privilege of being accountable to church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 (ESV) says, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account." If one hops from church to church, or refuses to join a church, how will he or she obey this verse? And if there is no set of criteria to determine who is "inside the church" and "outside" (1 Corinthians 5:12-13), for whom are church leaders responsible?

3 - Membership gives you a tangible way to express commitment to a family of believers. It's great to say in a general way that one loves the church of God. But it's even better to get up in front of a church, look brothers and sisters in the eye, and affirm a set of commitments, vows, or promises. In my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America), a person must affirm five vows to become a member of one of our churches. It takes courage to make those promises, and even more courage to stick to them. But there is great blessing in making a verbal commitment of love to a group of believers.

4 - Membership gives you a powerful way to tell the world you are a follower of Christ. In Mark 8:38 (NIV), Jesus says “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Of course there are many ways to share your faith with others. But to say that you are a member of a particular church can be a great way to come out of hiding and witness to non-Christians.

5 -
Membership pulls you into the grand story of God's covenant love. God has made a covenant with us through Christ. "Covenant" speaks of a costly commitment sealed with an inviolable promise. The covenantal nature of church membership is very precious to God, and when we covenant with other believers we are imitating God. As Walter Henegar puts it, "The Church is the Bride of Christ. He has sworn himself to her - and to us. Should we not do the same?"

6 -
Membership encourages a sharing of the work load in a church. Ephesians 4:16 speaks about each part of the body (i.e., church) doing its share of the work. By formally committing yourself to a local church, you are more likely going to feel a healthy obligation to contribute your time, talents, and treasure to the work of that church.

7 -
Membership helps you distinguish between "neighbor" and "household of faith." God calls us to love everybody. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. But Galatians 6:10 (ESV) says, "Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Paul is making some distinction here between the kind or quality of love we give to non-Christians and that which we give to our fellow Christians. But how do you know who belongs to the household of faith? By going through the process of church membership, one normally has to profess his or her faith to a governing body of church leaders. This process helps identify (not infallibly of course) false professions from true.

8 -
Membership keeps us from showing favoritism. Because we are sinners, we gravitate toward people who are like us, even within the church. We form cliques. We avoid difficult people. But when you become a church member, you realize you cannot do that; you cannot pick favorites. You are part of a family, and all members of that family are equally important. That's the point of Paul's discussion about the church in 1 Corinthians 12:21 (ESV) - "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" In other words, church membership is good for the flesh.

9 -
Membership helps you stop trying to be the Lone Ranger. This was implied in some of the other reasons, but it deserves to be repeated. I am growing more and more tired of the "me and Jesus" view of the Christian life. The older I get, the more I see how much I need the family of God. As a church member, I am able to remind myself often that "two are better than one" (Ecclesiastes 4:9, ESV).

Friday, January 02, 2009

Holiday movies

Over the Christmas holidays my family and I saw two newly-released movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Valkyrie. While neither one got on my list of all-time favorite movies, I liked them both and recommend them (although be aware there's a lot of sex in Benjamin Button).

Benjamin Button's appeal for me was the cinematography. I'm always taken in by the visual quality of movies, and this is one of the best. At times the movie takes you back in time to the look and feel of early American cinema. It also reminded me a bit of 2003's Big Fish, with its larger-than-life story about the value of community, family, and friendship.

It was fascinating to watch the two principle actors, Pitt and Blanchett, "age" in opposite directions. The special effects were incredible and the make-up people ought to win an award for sure.

While a Christian can watch this movie and take away valuable reminders about the wonder of love and the sanctity of human life (both old people and babies are treated with dignity for a change), it struck me that for the most part God is conspicuously absent. Daisy, Benjamin, and their daughter Caroline have no hope that they will meet again on the other side of the grave. Whether you're getting younger like Benjamin or older like the rest of the human race, knowing that this life is not all there is gives meaning and purpose to life and hope in the midst of pain. All this movie offers is the philosophy that "you never know what's coming for you." Instead of God being sovereign, chance is sovereign. Yet the Bible teaches there really is no such thing as chance. Everything that happens is part of the plan of a God who works all things together for good. If I didn't know that, I don't think I'd want to wake up tomorrow.

Valkyrie, the new Tom Cruise movie, has been scorched by the critics. I really don't know why. I thought all the actors did a more than decent job bringing a little-known story from WWII Germany to life.

The value of the movie for me is that it tells the world there are brave, patriotic people out there willing to die for the cause of right and virtue. Cruise plays Nazi Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who in 1944 cooked up a brilliant plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler and put a new government in power in Berlin. As everyone already knows, the plan failed. Von Stauffenberg and over 200 of his co-conspirators were executed. But what they died for survived and survives still. I came away with a deep respect for those who stand up against evil at the expense of life and limb. I wondered to myself, "Would I have done what von Stauffenberg did?" I hope so.

In this story about Claus von Stauffenberg one sees Jesus Christ, willing to be put to death for the cause of our salvation. But unlike Valkyrie, Christ's cause prevailed.