The Scandal of Sacramentality – now available

Believe it or not, it was a total accident of timing that my first book was published on my 35th birthday. The Scandal of Sacramentality: The Eucharist in Literary and Theological Perspectives is now available from Wipf & Stock and other online booksellers. I was pleased that my publishers and the Stadtmuseum in Nördlingen, Germany, where the painting is housed, granted permission to use this 1469 painting by Friedrich Herlin, entitled Der Eucharistische Schmerzensmann (“The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows”), as my cover.

Peter Leithart wrote a nice review of the book on his First Things blog, and my good friend Rick Lee James was the first to honor me with an Amazon customer review. Thanks, gents!

The Best Way to Make Your Church Attractive to Millennials

Answer: quit trying to make your church attractive to Millennials. 

“Holiness Unto the Lord” (modern arrangement)

I just returned from the 28th General Assembly of The Church of the Nazarene, the quadrennial gathering of my denomination. I heard several people comment that during our corporate worship services, we never sang the (unofficial) anthem of our church, Leila Morris’s 113-yr-old tune “Holiness Unto the Lord.” In some ways this is unsurprising, as the original musical setting is very “marchlike” and feels quite dated today.

A couple years ago now, I set out to rewrite this song, cherished by so many Nazarenes (though virtually unknown outside of our tribe), in a more modern musical style that could work with today’s more guitar-driven worship style. I wanted to stay as true to the original lyric and tune as possible, but the chorus, I felt, needed to be altered significantly. I wasn’t sure what to do – I didn’t want to write an entirely new and different chorus – but then I realized that just reversing the order of each couplet and tweaking the melody a bit could make it much more singable.

The finished product has caught on well in my congregation, and I know a few other churches have tried it as well. Feel free to give it a whirl; I thought I’d share the “stripped down” acoustic version rather than a full band arrangement so you have a bit more of a blank slate to imagine how it might work in your context!

Download free chord chart

Why You (and I) Should Pay for the Music We Love

ImageDavid Lowery, alternative rock pioneer and now (I just learned) lecturer in the music business program at the University of Georgia, has written the best thing I’ve ever read about why it’s important to pay for the music you enjoy. I’ve admired Lowery for nearly 20 years now. I’m a bit too young to have been hip to his work in the 80s with Camper Van Beethoven, but Cracker’s Kerosene Hat, with it’s modest hit song “Low,” was one of the rock albums I cut my teeth on in the first part of the 90s. Cracker also remains one of the best bands I’ve had the privilege of seeing play live (with The Eels, no less!).

There’s a backstory to Lowery’s “Letter to Emily,” but don’t worry about it. It stands on its own as an open letter to all of us. Please read this, especially young people. The times are changing, and we need to be intentional about making ethical decisions that support the people who create the things we care about, whether it’s coffee or Tom’s Shoes or your church or music. If the artists you love want to give their music away for free on NoiseTrade or on their own websites, that’s fine, but please compensate them if and when you can. If you hear something on Spotify or Pandora that you really like, download the album from iTunes or Amazon instead of streaming it over and over. It’s the little things that make a difference, especially to artists and creators.

Gloria and I (as The Italics) have 3 songs for free download on NoiseTrade, a site Christian songwriter Derek Webb helped create which gives artists a place to give their music away (facilitating and encouraging generosity from artists) and also gives users a chance to “leave a tip” for the artist via PayPal (facilitating and encouraging generosity from fans). I recently noticed some money in our Paypal account because someone thought those three songs, which we recorded more than 8 years ago for less than $100 per song, was worth leaving us a “tip.” (If our benefactor is reading this – THANK YOU!) I can testify that this makes us want to record more songs and continue to make our art available. It makes us feel that what we do matters. That it is valued by someone. That we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves. That it’s worth trying to carve out time in a life already chock full with three kids, ministry, and teaching for songwriting and recording. And we do this so part-time, so on the side, that it’s almost not worth mentioning. The tip was a symbolically significant gesture for us, but it’s very real for many artists, especially independent artists, who truly rely on fans paying for the music they enjoy, not only to sustain their art so they can keep making albums, but for their very livelihood.

Seriously, read the article. I know it’s long, but it’s important. And consider putting $15 / month in your budget to pay for the music you love. I know most of you spend more than that on coffee, and probably exponentially more than that on your cell phone bill. I believe that art makes the world a better place, so make a decision to do something that directly contributes to that end. Invest in things that matter. Begin to think of yourself as a patron of the arts. We need a more sustainable model, and it begins with taking personal responsibility for our actions and supporting (financially and in other ways) the things that are important to us.

And if you’re looking for a few independent artists worth supporting, might I suggest?:

What do you think about this whole debate? Who are some artists you think are worth my hard-earned money?

Who should I vote for?

Although I attempt to play it close to the vest during political seasons, when “passions” (that sounds so much nicer than “tempers”) run high – particularly in Ohio – I often find myself the subject of mistaken assumptions with regard to our standard, dichotomous political labels. Today, on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, I have decided to set the record straight.

When queried about my political affiliation, my response is “Christian.” I am surprised at how often fellow Christians think I am joking when I say this. I don’t think this is because they’ve disconnected their faith from their politics, but rather because they’ve intertwined them so thoroughly as to only see a possible connection between “Christian” and “Republican” (in which case, why wouldn’t I just say “Republican”?). But I really don’t know how else to answer. My life, including my political perspective(s), has been formed overwhelmingly by the Church, which I believe to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now. “Kingdom” is a political term. To adapt Stanley Hauerwas, I believe the church doesn’t have a certain politics, it IS a politic. Polis simply means “city.” To be a Christian  means (among other things) being a citizen of a city where Jesus reigns. So, with Hauerwas, I believe that when a Christian is asked to say something political, the appropriate response is “Church.” I do not claim that living this out is straightforward or easy, but I aspire to keep clearly focused on the fact that my primary citizenship is not of this world, and to quote Derek Webb, “my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country…democracy or blood – it’s to a King and a Kingdom.” This is not to diminish my love for or loyalty to my nation, or my gratefulness for the freedoms we enjoy, but an acknowledgment that I aspire to be a Christian first, and everything else a distant second.

In light of this, the question of how we live as citizens of our this-worldly cities in the time that remains is not at all simple. In fact, I think it’s incredibly complex, which is why platitudes like “vote biblical values” strike me as not only meaningless but rather irresponsible – I want us to take our Bible, and our responsibility as citizens, more seriously than that. I believe sincere Christians can come to radically different conclusions about politics, because I believe there is a bit of good and a bit of truth – as well as a whole lot of broken, sinful humanity – involved in ALL of our attempts to govern ourselves and organize our common life in the present age. But I believe the Kingdom of God subverts all of our this-worldly political systems, which makes our politics (any of them) a poor foundation on which to build our lives or in which to place our faith.

This is the source of my “dis-ease” with contemporary American politics. I see both sides offering utopian visions of heaven on earth, and I see Christians on both sides believing that “their side” offers true hope, while the “other side” will bring only doom and destruction. We’ve bought into what Peter Enns identifies as a “rival eschatology,” one very different from Christian hope. Perhaps we’ve succumbed to this because we see our this-worldly situation as the more “real” one, and the Kingdom of God as far off, when as Christians we are called to live as though we believe that the Kingdom is more real than “real”…which is admittedly not easy.

So politically speaking, I feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land. I feel very at home around conservatives who promote personal responsibility, family values, and “life.” However, I am often frustrated that this tribe that places such great emphasis on life doesn’t take their agenda far enough to oppose not only abortion but capital punishment, torture, drone strikes that kill civilians, endless war, and to insist upon care for the poor and downtrodden, orphans and widows, and the planet on which we must make our home for generations to come. I am concerned about an uncritical faith in capitalism and “the market” to solve all our problems, an untroubled complicity with violence and militarism, and an inherent selfishness that celebrates those who are “winners” (according to the world’s rubric), while ignoring (or worse, rationalizing) the systemic injustice that results in an impossibly wide gap between the winners and losers. So, although I have chosen at times to vote along these lines, I prefer to not identify myself as “conservative” or “Republican.”

I also find myself quite at home amongst liberals who emphasize equality and believe that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status much less their mental or physical ability, should have unencumbered access to education, health care, and a basic quality of life. However, I am often frustrated that this tribe doesn’t go far enough in fighting for this same basic quality of life for the unborn, or in stressing the importance of taking individual responsibility for our actions as a necessary basis for a flourishing society. I am concerned about an ideology that at times prefers the welfare of plants and animals to that of human life, an inherent naiveté about the brokenness of our human condition that leads to the mistaken and silly belief that if we work together and simply love each other – and most importantly ourselves – we can bring about our own salvation and achieve peace on earth. So, although I have chosen at times to vote along these lines, I prefer to not identify myself as “liberal” or “Democrat.”

I also believe that if being a Christian means anything it means telling and promoting the truth. But I confess I don’t see much truth-telling during campaigns: from the candidates, the media, or even from us ordinary folks as we air our opinions. (Perhaps the old saying should be revised – in war and in politics, truth is the first casualty.) I am troubled by a culture where we’re more likely to dig our heels in about our biases and beliefs when presented with evidence to the contrary, rather than dare to think and reconsider. So in the interest of truth-telling, let me make a few confessions, and give you a chance to weigh in:

  • I am far left on some issues, and far right on others. (What can I say? Anyone who knows me would agree that moderate is not a word often used to describe me.)
  • I am concerned when who we favor in an election becomes a litmus test for our patriotism, or even our Christian faith, rather than simply an indication of diverse political and philosophical preferences, many of which are more likely inherited than thoughtfully selected.
  • I believe America would be better off with more than just two viable political options that seem so polarized in some areas and yet so completely identical in others.
  • I am quite attracted to certain aspects of the platforms of the Green party, the Libertarian party, and yes, even the Republicans and Democrats too; I also despise certain aspects of all of them.
  • I choose to believe most candidates for political office genuinely desire to serve the common good and make things better; I also don’t believe any politician can be trusted to keep all the promises they make during a campaign.
  • I believe God has instituted that we should have systems of governance, but leaves it in our hands to work out what that actually looks like; I don’t believe God is the puppet master behind the geopolitical landscape or is responsible for who wins an election.
  • I believe that if Jesus walked the earth today, he would be quite disinterested in the spectacular beauty pageants we call “elections.”

So…given the available choices, and in light of these convictions, who do you think should I vote for, and why?

10 Ways to Stand Up for Marriage & Family

  1. keep your promises
  2. invest in the lives of children – even those who don’t belong to you
  3. reject all forms of pornography – in fact, get angry about it
  4. tell the truth
  5. be satisfied with what you have
  6. be wise with money
  7. trust people, and be trustworthy
  8. eat meals around the dinner table
  9. admit mistakes and say “I’m sorry”
  10. be part of a community that supports and encourages faithful relationships

“Holy Productivity, Batman!” – the Worship Pastor’s Utility Belt


Of all the products/resources/etc that I purchase/subscribe to as the head of Worship Ministries at Xenia Naz, the following are, in my opinion, the best money I spend on anything.  If you’re in worship leadership and you don’t use these products, you should. I receive nothing whatsoever by endorsing them to you – they’re just things I find immensely valuable and cannot imagine functioning without.

1. Planning Center – our subscription costs about $30 a month ($360 / yr.) because, for now, we can make do with 2 service types and 75 users – I pay a little extra because I go over the allotted 1GB storage (note: we’re about to bump up to the next subscription, which is $50/mo for 250 users and 5 services, because our children’s pastor is going to start using it for her team, including nursery scheduling, etc). As my pal Andrew Adams recently tweeted, “I think I geek out over Planning Center Online about every other week. How did we schedule worship services before this program? Wow!”  Indeed. I have become totally reliant on this for service planning, personnel scheduling, song library maintenance and communication.  It also enables my musicians to rehearse/prepare on their own, which has become as vital to some of my choir members as it has to my band and praise team. A total game-changer – I promise.

2. Motion Worship – whatever presentation software your church uses (we use Media Shout ver. 4.5 on a PC – not that I recommend THIS per se), for motion backgrounds under lyric cues (or whatever), Josiah Smith makes everything on his site available for unlimited download for a mere $50 annual subscription (I’ve been tempted to email him and tell him that I’d pay $200 / yr. for his stuff, but I don’t want to price out smaller ministries for whom $50 is just right). Almost all his designs are really, really good – most are subtle and elegant, which is usually the vibe we’re going for. If you’re not using motion loops already, it’s time to retire those old stock worship graphics of the people with raised arms, the sky-scapes and “holy blobs of color” (see #7) that you downloaded 3 years ago, and start using some slick motion backs. If you’re already using motions, expand your collection.

3. CCLI SongSelect – we subscribe to the “Premium” account for $182 / yr., which resources us with charts, lead sheets and “hymn sheets” (3 or 4 part harmonizations) for thousands of songs in any key I want. I can print up to 200 different songs per year (which we never come close to depleting); not 200 charts, mind you – 200 SONGS – so I can print the charts or lead sheets in any number of different keys, and it only “costs” me “1.” I would be severely crippled without this. I still have to OCCASIONALLY make my own chart or write my own harmonization, but about 90% of the charts my band and singers ever see comes from SongSelect.

4. NoteFlight – a free, online (cloud-based) notation program. When I DO have to write out my own orchestrations or harmonizations, this is what I use. I don’t own a copy of Finale and haven’t used it since 1998 in the Trevecca music technology lab (and I suspect much has changed since then), but since I found Noteflight, I’ve never been tempted to spend money on notation software. Granted, I don’t do a TON of composing/orchestrating/arranging, and what I do is pretty straightforward…but it suits me fine.

5. Worship Leader Magazine / Song DISCovery – $79 / yr and each month I get an excellent magazine and a 12-14 song CD sampler of a lot of great music. There are usually 2-3 songs (at least) from each Song DISCovery CD that I WANT to use – having the time/cause to use all of them is another story. Re: the magazine, I was a bit skeptical when I first subscribed, thinking the content would be too “pop”/trendy for my tastes, but editor Chuck Fromm (Ph.D.!) knows his stuff, and is sensitive to the historical/liturgical as well as the contemporary. I can’t stand most of the album reviews or Darlene Zschech’s column (with due respect), but most of the other columns and the feature articles are great. Since Collide and Paste have both evolved into something other than a print rag, WorshipLeader, Relevant and Neue are my only current print magazine subscriptions.

6. Lifeway Worship Project – the first place I look when I can’t find what I need on SongSelect, or when I need a soundtrack or an orchestration for congregational worship, especially for songs/hymns that have been part of the church music repertoire for awhile (i.e. that aren’t brand-spankin’-trendy-new). I haven’t used it much, but every time I’ve needed something slightly outside my normal routine, I’ve found it.  I’ve also pointed several other people to the LWP and they’ve consistently found what they were looking for and were thankful to learn of this resource.

These are just a few of the tools that help me perform with excellence in my job as Worship Pastor – each one saves me a ton of time and effort.  In my opinion, each one is worth exponentially more than what it cost me.  I wanted to mention one more that isn’t really a product/resource/productivity tool, but about which I can’t speak highly enough, and which, like all these other things, is an incredible value.

7. Midnight Oil Productions “Creative Worship / Design Matters” seminar – I attended Len Wilson and Jason Moore’s seminar in April of 2009 at a nearby UM church, and it got me thinking about worship design, planning, and creative collaboration in some totally different ways. Since then, it has been a continual process of trying to implement what I learned over the course of those two days. If their seminar comes to your area, do NOT pass it up. It’s worth it’s weight in gold. (Ideally, get your senior pastor to go with you.)

What are some of your favorite ministry resources/products?  (And I haven’t even mentioned favorite but less Worship-centric tools, like Dropbox, Screenr, Google Apps, Open Office, Audacity, WordPress, Sorceforge PDFCreator, IrfanView, Vimeo…)

Adventures in Songwriting: “Agnus Dei”

Not sure what got up my nose, but somehow I just sneezed out this Agnus Dei (at least it was about as easy, natural and satisfying as a sneeze).

I find that certain instruments inspire me to play differently, sing differently, find different melodies, etc, and sometimes the words just flow out and fall into place. This session, fiddling with my wife’s old 1960s Yamaha FG-150 acoustic (recently back from Dayton’s guitar doctor c. wright, although it’s going back to him soon to have that Baggs M1A pickup installed properly), is evidence of this… minor chords and aeolian melodies are not my default setting at all… but it kinda works with the Agnus Dei text. I hope you enjoy it! (Chord chart is included in the description on the youtube page.)

Would a “mass setting” like this be applicable in your church setting? What creative reimaginings of liturgical worship have you encountered, good or bad?

Favorite Christmas Albums (2011 edition)

I figured I better share this list before the season ends and it becomes irrelevant for another 11 months! (As a side note, this is also kind of a test-flight of reminding myself how to blog on wordpress, as one of my new year’s resolutions has to do with my writing and blogging efforts.) So, without further ado…these five seven (!) Christmas albums have been on heavy rotation in the past month. If you’re on the hunt for great Christmas music, here are some recommendations to bring on the holiday cheer…and occasional hints of poignancy and melancholy (because we need that, too, sometimes, even during the holidays).

  1. Mike Crawford & His Secret Siblings, Songs from Jacob’s Well, volume III: Songs for the Advent Conspiracy – I’ve been a huge fan of Mike’s work for a couple of years now, ever since I caught wind of  the artist lineup for David Crowder’s Fantastical Church Music Conference and decided it would be the one ministry conference that I would attend in 2010 (amazing, by the way).  He was one of two acts listed that were unfamiliar to me (the other was these guys – also now a huge favorite), so I sought out his music and discovered Vols. I and II of the aforementioned album, which continue to rock my planet.  The music of Mike & the Secret Sibs is hard to describe – it’s very much a “collective”/collaborative approach that reminds me of something that might happen if Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene got religion and teamed up with Michael Gungor to produce them. The Advent/Christmas album is spectacular, and (like all the best Christmas music) is really worthy listening year-round: 
  2. David Crowder*Band, Oh For Joy – speaking of David Crowder, the archbishop of hipster church music, he finally went and did a Christmas album. The 8-song EP is a gift, not to mention the cover art of the band members rendered as nutcrackers. 
  3. She & Him, A Very She & Him Christmas – the collaboration between ingenue Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward feels to me (now, in retrospect, of course) that it was forged solely for the purpose of bringing to birth a Christmas album. If you don’t fall in love with this delightful album, you are a heartless freak. 
  4. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas, vols. I-V – leave it to the guy who said his goal was to make an album themed around each of the 50 states in the union (nevermind that he only completed two, Michigan and Illinois – albeit both brilliant) to release not one Christmas EP but 5 of them (42 tracks; 2+ hours of music), including traditional Christmas songs and carols, original songs, and wonderful instrumentals – and, amazingly, not a single moment of it is skip-worthy. Sure, it’s self-indulgent, but I’m so glad he indulged. (Bonus: contains perhaps my favorite recorded version of the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing.”) 
  5. Low, Christmas – I’ll never forget the first time I heard Low’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” on WRVU (Vanderbilt University’s radio station) and being totally enthralled – who in the world is this? I’ve gotta track this down! I’d never heard of the Duluth, MN husband- (Alan Sparhawk) wife (Mimi Parker) + 1 (then, Zak Sally) band, but this began my fanaticism not only for Low, but for lo-fi / minimalist post-grunge forms of “alternative”/”indie”-rock music (whatevertheheck any of that means), and for boy-girl / husband-wife musical partnerships (cf. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Mates of State, the Swell Season, and 57% of the artists on this list).
  6. Jenny & Tyler, Love Came Down: A Christmas EP – my college-aged cousin Olivia introduced me to this (yet another!) husband-wife band after seeing them at a house show. Their 8 song-EP would be worth downloading just for their arrangement of Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child is Born” (anyone who attempts to adapt Handel’s Messiah is musically very brave), but happily, the whole EP is lovely. They are a cute, creative couple that make me want to gag occasionally but mostly inspire me to get to work recording music with my own boy-girl duo
  7. Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year – we can’t get enough of Karen and Linford’s music, and this album continues to be one of my favorites from their incredibly rich catalog, whatever the season. There’s just something about a bowed upright bass that – mmm – hits ya right *there* (to say nothing of Karen’s voice). 

Well, there you have it. I was going to only list 5, but couldn’t bear to leave any two of these off. And I could have easily rounded it off to 10 by listing the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, Reliant K’s Let it Snow Baby…Let it Reindeer, and Rosie Thomas’s A Very Rosie Christmas. But hey – it is what it is. I hope you enjoy these, and peace to you all this Christmas season.

make it simple

These insights from Seth Godin blew my mind a little bit this morning (read the whole post). My short version of an already short post: for all but a committed few, take baby steps. And lots of them.:

“We’re not going to have a lot of luck persuading masses of semi-interested people to seek out and embrace complicated answers…:
1. Take complicated overall answers and make them simple steps instead. Teach complexity over time, simply.
2. Teach a few people, the committed, to embrace the idea of complexity… Embracing complexity is a scarce trait, worth acquiring….
You can’t sell complicated to someone who came to you to buy simple.”

This speaks profoundly to those of us in ministry trying to (re)teach, shift mindsets, change cultures within the church – whether we’re after liturgical renewal, more intentional discipleship, moving a congregation from an internal- to external-focus, or anything else.

The Christian life – worship, discipleship, mission, all of it – is complex, but it’s our job to do the exceedingly difficult work of making it into a series of simple (to understand; not necessarily to do) steps for those who came to us for “simple.”  Jesus didn’t send the rich young ruler away with, “well, it’s complicated” – he gave him two action steps: 1) “sell all you have and give it to the poor,” and 2) “come follow me.” Not easy to do, but simple enough to grasp.

This is why Granger Community Church (who employs my church communications guru, Kem Meyer) constantly asks how to “help people take their *next steps* toward Christ – together” (which is their mission statement, in fact).

And just maybe along the way we’ll find a few people who we can teach to embrace the complexity.