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A friend recently asked me to explain what a hymn is, and it is a great question. Here are a few observations. Feel free to comment and add any of your own.

1. A hymn is not determined by when it was written. The date is irrelevant. Many hymns are being written today — usually more modern in style and easier to sing.

2. Hymns often consist of a progression of lyrics, thus the need for multiple verses. (e.g., progressing from the incarnation to the consummation)

3. Hymns are generally more eloquent and theological, and for that reason, they appeal to the cognitive part of us. Hymns inspire by reminding believers of specific doctrinal truths.

4. Hymns are usually laden with complex truths, which makes them suitable to pair with praise choruses that are often simpler and more emotive. We need to worship in both spirit and truth.

5. Hymns often repeat words, especially during a refrain — a trait that they share in common with praise choruses.

6. Hymns are not inerrant. Some are well-written and worth singing, while others are not. Some wonderful hymns have been treasured by the church and passed down for centuries.

7. Hymns acquire deeper meaning over time as Christians sing them in church, at weddings, at funerals, decade after decade. As a Christian sings them over the years, the truth expressed in the lyrics becomes more precious.

8. Older hymns often have a difficult melody line to sing and can be out of the vocal range of many people. The notes and style are not sacred, however, so musicians should feel free to adjust the melody and arrangement for the sake of the congregation.

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Driving through various parts of Chicago, I was reminded of how scattered and isolated we have become as a nation. This is nothing new, of course, but I realized again how many social and economic barriers we have created amongst ourselves. One block is home to one ethnicity, while across the street is another. As a society, we are not united as much as we think, but broken.

Admittedly, it is easy to criticize the Christian church for not being more multicultural and diverse. While there are usually good intentions within our churches, in actuality, very little is done. This is because there is not a quick solution or an easy program that will erase the societal boundaries that surround us. We face a nearly insurmountable task.

However… we serve an amazing God. Our God is constantly desiring to tear down boundaries between people groups and unite them in love. He is continually destroying the walls of hostility. He unites people through His love.

While we don’t have easy answers, we serve a God who has all of the answers. If our God could part the Red Sea, then He can work miraculously in our communities. But we need to believe. Step one in being more multicultural is trusting in a miraculous God.

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Before God created music, He created the heavens and earth. Think about it for a moment. There are many styles of music, but we all share the oceans, the stars, the sun and moon. All over the world, we look at the same handiwork of God. Incredible!

Psalm 19:1-2 tells us that the skies display the glory of God. David says that the world around us declares, proclaims, speaks, and displays truth about God. In other words, God’s creation speaks to all cultures, to every part of the globe — regardless of language or dialect. Everyone can see God’s glory because He left no one out.

To inspire global worship in our churches, it is helpful to include images of creation in worship gatherings. Since most congregants spend a large part of their week indoors, Sunday is a great opportunity to remind them that the world is bigger than the sanctuary. In doing so, make sure that artwork and photography represents a wide scope of locations, not just scenes of North America.

God is committed to global worship, and we should try to reflect this in our worship gatherings.

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What is evangelism? Is it inviting people to church? Is it sharing the gospel? Is it about helping the suffering?

Christians have used different methods of evangelism. Willow Creek and Saddleback are prime examples of the “come and see” approach, where a large gathering is used to attract people who do not normally attend church. On the other hand, some younger churches are starting to focus on a “go and tell” approach, where evangelism is incarnational and all of life is seen as an opportunity for evangelism.

But I wonder, do we really need to pick between the two? It seems like a debate between two good approaches that are not contradictory to one another. Does an engaging worship service exclude the possibility of missional living? Not at all. In fact, each should motivate the other.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been examples of non-Christians being amazed of Christian worship. They came, saw, and believed. Back in 988 AD, for example, some converts had testified to the power of experiencing Christian worship. They reported that, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth for on earth, there is no such splendour or such beauty and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” (Moreau 102) What was true a thousand years ago is still true today. Countless people have come to Christ through the “come and see” approach.

At the same time, we fool ourselves if we believe that droves of non-believers will attend Christian events within our church walls. Compared to the growing population, fewer and fewer people are attending church. This is not due to a lack of programming, but a lack of interest in the culture at large. There is a growing animosity towards the church. So our churches must not only welcome seekers, but our churches must become the seekers — going into the world, seeking the lost, and offering hope outside of the church walls.

Rather than dividing sharp lines between us, therefore, we should see the value of both approaches. We should continue to invite non-Christians to experience genuine and true worship; it can forever change their life. But at the same time, we need to seek those who will never step inside of a church; we must reach them where they are at.

Thankfully, God doesn’t limit us to a single approach. With so many creative ways to reach others, we should do everything we can to share Christ’s love with as many people as possible.

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Missional has become a buzzword in Christian circles, but what does it mean? There are many different responses to that, but in my mind, here are a few descriptions of what it means to be missional:

Incarnational:
You display God’s good news in the way you live.

Contextual:
You connect God’s good news with everyday life.

Personal:
You view yourself as a missionary wherever you are.

Communal:
You connect with others in order to spread the good news.

Cultural:
You communicate God’s good news in a relevant way.

Continual:
Your entire life is committed to God’s mission.

Looking at that list, all of us can strive to be more missional. Before we label ourselves as “missional,” we need to be careful to recognize that being missional is more than a label. It is not a simple yes or no. There is always more that we can do.

First Ice Cream

I wonder how much time we spend wanting something else. When a child, we want to be adults. When we are adults, we want to find a job and a spouse. Then we want a child, maybe a few. When we have children, we want a house, then a bigger house. We also want a car, a television, a computer, and so on. Our cravings never seem to cease.

I was reminded of this today when my daughter ate her first ice cream cone. She never asked for ice cream because she never knew that it existed. But when it was offered to her, she entered baby heaven! She wasn’t consumed with all of the possible deserts or all that she did not have. Rather, she was so delighted with one simple ice cream cone. Her smile was bigger than I have seen any adult smile in months, if not years.

King David once wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” (Ps. 23:1) If we could fully grasp that, most of our moaning and groaning would cease. We would not be consumed with what we do not have; instead, we would realize that we have all that we need in God. And when content, we are filled with deep and inexpressible joy, no longer enslaved by temporary things.

 

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The book of Leviticus can seem daunting, irrelevant, boring, and downright frightening. Honestly, I have avoided the book from time to time, as have many others. It is easy to overlook the book because the “rituals” no longer apply to us, and it can be difficult to discern what those rituals teach us.

After reading just the first few chapters, though, here are a few reasons that we can be thankful for its message:

* God has a plan for His people.
* God gives answers, so we don’t need to figure out problems on our own.
* God sets standards intended for people to follow.
* God knows we sin, but still wants to communicate with us.
* God provides a way for us to get rid of our guilt.
* God enjoys our offerings, as simple as they may be.
* God has decided to forgive us!

Those are just a few reasons. Read the first few chapters of Leviticus and see if you can add some more to add to the list.

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Recently I was asked, “What are your suggestions for a Christian to experience meaningful worship?” What a great question! It can be answered in a variety of ways, but here I will limit my response to the weekly worship gathering.

In this post, I would like to summarize a few observations that I have made over the last ten years. These are merely opinions, so feel free to disagree, but I have found that these factors have led me towards more meaningful worship.

* Time. My most meaningful worship experiences often occur after focusing on God for an extended period of time. Time itself is not magical, but we all need time to slow down. We need to ruminate in God’s presence, not merely rush on to the next thing on our agenda.

* Diversity. We all have my musical preferences, but cultural variety in a worship service deepens our vision of the Kingdom of God. Diversity helps us get beyond our self and our selfish preferences.

* Balance. There needs to be balance between theology and emotions, or truth and spirit. Without any content to our worship, we merely express our feelings. Without any emotion, we merely impress ourselves. Meaningful worship occurs when we have both.

* Freedom. As much as we need order in our worship services, we also need freedom. Worship is more meaningful when we go beyond singing to raise a hand, kneel, pray, listen, etc.

* Christian. This may seem obvious, but in practice, many worship songs lack content that is unique to Christianity. As a result, many worship songs could be just as easily sung in a temple, mosque, or synagogue. A worship service needs to be noticeably Christian.

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I am a huge proponent of incorporating technology into the local church. It deserves to be said, however, that when it comes to technology in the local church, we need to think through our options. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should.

On a practical level, one instance of this is the recent increase of multiple video screens (usually in larger churches) and the rise of satellite churches (which incorporate sermons via a video feed). After nearly 2000 years of church ministry, only in the past decade or two has this technology been an option. In response to this growing phenomenon, much could be said about the importance of personal contact, proximity, and lifestyle as they relate to preaching. A quick illustration, however, will suffice to show why we need to think through these issues:

At the most recent Presidential inauguration, there were roughly 2 million people in attendance. Some of these people were near President Obama or within eyesight, while others were 2 miles away at the Lincoln Memorial. Those who were far away, of course, depended on video screens in order to see what was happening on stage. They were present in person, but in in a different sense.

That actual event reveals a very simple truth: people within eyesight had a greater sensory experience, while those far away (though enjoying their time) had a much different experience. For those watching a video screen (2 miles away), there was a personal disconnect that could not be fully resolved by technology. At least to a degree, they were removed from the action. They were participating, for sure, but in a more distant sense.

Of course, this directly relates to preaching because a preacher appeals on behalf of God and calls people towards a response. We should want as much “proximity” as possible and not allow technology to get in the way. On the other hand, some may argue that technology increases proximity more often than decreasing it. Maybe the question we ask is, “How does this particular technology change ministry (compared to New Testament times), and how do we overcome any potential weaknesses?”

While technology certainly has a place and can be very helpful — obviously, without technology there would be no internet or printing presses — we also need to be aware of the drawbacks. The point here is that simply adding more technology does not automatically ensure real, inner life change. Rather than simply accepting whatever technology is available to us, we need to be careful and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating technology in the local church. The solution is not a boycott of technology, but a greater effort to think through how we use technology.

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It is good to ask God, “Where are you?” Some of us are afraid to ask, thinking that our faith or our soul is in jeopardy. But in reality, it is quite the opposite. If we are asking God where He is, it means that we care and that we want to know where God is. In fact, we are better off when asking this question. As Scripture says, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)

Living in New Testament times, we are apt to answer this question too quickly. We dismiss passages like Psalm 22, where David asks, “Why are you so far from me?” Often we flippantly respond that David didn’t know the whole picture. Now that we have the New Testament, we know that God’s Spirit lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 3:16, Romans 8:11), so we no longer need to ask God where He is.

But honestly, that is only part of the picture. In Psalm 22, David is not asking a question about spatial location. He was well aware that God is omnipresent; in other words, there is no place where God is not. (Psalm 139:7-12). Nor was David doubting that God was within earshot. Otherwise He wouldn’t have prayed when He felt distant from God. (Psalm 51:11, Ps. 44)

What did David mean, then, when he asked God, “Why have you forgotten me?” He felt distant from God in terms of God’s relational presence. We do not know whether God was actually distant (because of sin in David’s life) or if He only seemed to be distant (because of David’s feelings). In either case, though, it was good for David to ask.

In the first case, when we sin, we should always ask God where He is. We should reject our sin and turn back to Him. As 1 John 1:9 reminds us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Though we have gone astray (Is. 53:6), God is faithful. When we are willing, we will always be able to find Him.

In the second case, we should also seek God. Our feelings are easily swayed by our circumstances, trials, conflict, chemical imbalances, or even a lack of sleep. Because of this, when we feel distant from God, we should immediately seek God. Just as God can heal our physical body, He can also heal our emotions. (Exodus 15:26) It is so important that we trust God with our entire lives, not excluding our emotions.

This is wonderful news for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ! God provides a perfect balance for us. On one hand, we are not called to a fake happiness or to smile all of the time. As it says in Eccelesiates 8:6, “there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him.” There is a time to face reality and mourn. (Ecc. 3:4)

At the same time, we do not need to needlessly struggle with depression or downheartedness. We can rejoice and experience inexpresible joy in our life — not because of who we are, but because of our hope in Jesus Christ. Our hope is a living and secure hope because it focuses on God who, unlike our circumstances, does not change. It does not spoil, fade, perish, or ruin. 1 Peter 1:3-9 helps us remember the hope that we have in Christ.

In closing, hear the word of the Spirit, who is able to encourage us whenever we feel like David:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, 5who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:3-9)