Our Trip to Mars Hill

My wife and I recently took a trip to Seattle, Washington so that she could attend the American Pharmacist Associaton conference. We were there over the weekend and, as there was not a faithful congregation nearby where the Gospel was purely preached and the sacraments faithfully administered, we decided to attend Mars Hill Downtown, a short walk from our hotel. It’s a very influential network of non-denominational churches founded in Seattle under the leadership of Pastor Mark Driscoll, a fiery and uncompromising preacher.

Mars Hill Downtown is located in an old red brick building that from the outside looked like it was abandoned. It would appear from the structure that they are trying to reach out to the poor and disenfranchised of the city. I was a little surprised, then, that there was a security guard at the entrance, put there to keep the homeless and poor out and the young yuppies in.

Once inside, the building was a hybrid of coffee shop and contemporary art gallery. The floors and walls were black, without any decoration, crosses, or other symbols that would lead the visitor to think that this is a place to worship the Triune God. There was a gathering area with good coffee, information about the church, and a bookstore which consisted mostly of books written by the Mars Hill staff. While getting our coffee, we were greeted by a very friendly man in his twenties, dressed in Urban Outfitters jeans and trendy buttoned down shirt, who kindly asked where we were from, how we heard about the church, and told us that he was glad that we were there.

The worship space was darkly lit with a stage in front. At the back of the stage was a curtain especially made for projection, and an advertisement for a church trip to Turkey was looping. The equipment was set up for the band, and we sat down and had a seat about ten minutes before the service was about to start so that my wife could read through their booklet on what they believed.

After we sat down another young man in his twenties, dressed in Urban Outfitters trendy jeans and button down shirt, sat down in the seat in front of us, asked us where we were from, and told us how great the church was. He had been attending Mars Hill since he moved to Seattle about 4 years ago and since attending there he had started taking his faith much more seriously, had learned much more about theology, and had become a better man and a better husband.

The service started with two songs led by a rock trio of guitar, keyboard, and drums. The first song reminded me vaguely of Psalm 51 and the second song was the David Crowder arrangement of “All Creatures of our God and King”. I appreciated the hymns, as they were the only songs in the service that I would call sing-able congregational song. After the opening songs, we had about 20 minutes of announcements. It was during this time that most of the church attendees came in. The people attending the church were nearly all young, white people in their 20’s and early 30’s. There were no children as they were sent elsewhere, and there were no middle aged or older folks. There were also no teenagers. The announcements were part announcement/part pep rally. We clapped several times at all the amazing things that God was doing at Mars Hill. We were introduced to the staff, all of whom were dressed in Urban Outfitters jeans and shirts, and we learned that the Easter service was going to be combined with all Mars Hill campuses and held at Qwest Field (the home of the Seattle Seahawks). The feeling of incredible excitement and happiness filled every moment of the announcements.

After the announcements, they took up the offering and we sang the hymn Amazing Grace. Now, a full 35 minutes into the service, we were ready to hear from the Man himself, Pastor Mark Driscoll.

As Mars Hill consists of several campuses, we watched a video of his message which was broadcast from another campus. Pastor Driscoll was nicely dressed in Urban Outfitters jeans and buttoned down shirt. His hair was just slightly messy and he had the two-days-without-a-shave beard. Mars Hill was making their way through the book of Luke (and taking two years to do it), and this week’s message was on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. While the irony of reading that parable while a security guard stood at the entrance to the church and kept the poor people out was not lost on me, the focus of the day’s message was on hell. There are some very positive things I have to say about Mark Driscoll at this point. First, unlike many mega-churches, he does not do Christianity-light. He does the best he can to preach the truth to the people he can reach. Secondly, he did appear to be genuinely concerned about the people in the campus churches and in the community regarding their eternal salvation.

He began his teaching on hell by showing very clearly from Scripture that we consist of body and soul, and that at death the two are separated but will be re-united at the resurrection. Everyone will either spend eternity in heaven or will spend eternity in torment in hell. He then went through several false teachings such as universalism, annihilism, reincarnation, naturalism, and purgatory and showed how they were false. While he was good to this point, he began repeating a phrase that he repeated throughout the entire 45 minutes message that really began to sting. He said, “It’s my job to tell the truth. It’s your job to make a decision”. He spent the bulk of the 45 minutes making it abundantly clear that if you did not make the right decision you would, without a doubt, spend all eternity in torment in hell. The Lutheran in me kept expecting him to get around to the Gospel. Unfortunately he never really did. If I make the right decision I go to heaven, if I don’t I spent all eternity in hell. I’m sorry Mark Driscoll, but that’s not the Gospel. My wife leaned over to me at this point and said, “There’s no grace!”

The Gospel was so tainted with decision theology that there could be no assurance of forgiveness besides your own personal feelings of conversion. This is the problem with decision theology: it separates the forgiveness of sins from the death and resurrection of Christ and places it on the decision of the individual believer. Yes, Jesus died for you, BUT, it all really depends on your ability to make a decision to BELIEVE that and to have a true conversion experience. I am so thankful to belong to a church that preaches pure Gospel, where I simply look at Christ and trust that I am saved by His grace, brought to faith by the Holy Spirit, and nurtured daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament. I think an important outreach for the Lutheran church could be to reach out to those who get burned out by this all-law, emotionally draining approach to Christianity, and give them the comfort of the pure Gospel.

Following the message, they celebrated communion. Pastor Tim got up in front of the congregation and explained their beliefs on the Lord ’s Supper (it’s an act of obedience to remind us of what Jesus did). He also tried to reach out to those who were committing the cardinal sin of evangelicalism; knowing the faith but not REALLY believing it. You could also use communion as a way to rededicate yourself to Jesus. However, Pastor Tim did not mention that communion gives us forgiveness of sins and salvation and he did not recite the Words of Institution. It was interesting to me that we were not ushered row-by-row, but people came up and received the cracker and juice or wine as they felt moved to do so.

The band played a song during this time that made a few references to the Passover (the song was called “Pass Over Me”). The song went on during the duration of communion and led to a very, loud, mystical, and moving climax as communion finished. Pastor Tim then led us in prayer and told us that the staff was available to talk if anyone had questions about the faith. Then we left, feeling like we had been spiritually beaten by 90 minutes of law. We stopped by a near-by chocolate shop to cheer up my wife, which just goes to show that emotional “spirituality” can be edified with Hershey’s.

The best thing was probably the coffee. It was quite good and you could drink it during the worship time. It really made the 45 minutes of hell-fire much more relaxing. As a 20-something I really did feel like I could belong there if I just gave up the pure Gospel and my Lutheranism. Mars Hill has the following things that the Lutheran church could emulate: good coffee, very welcoming people, a positive environment, well-executed worship times, and a good use of technology such as their website and their use of the web 2.0.

Besides that, it is beyond my understanding why we would want to imitate the Mars Hill experience in the Lutheran church. What they practice in worship clearly supports their doctrine. Really, it does!

Perhaps this will help:

The Spirituality Paradigm of Evangelicalism

 

  • The problem: Sin, death, and hell.
  • The solution: Jesus’ death and resurrection pays for our sins
  • This is applied to me through: My decision for Jesus and my personal conversion experience.
  • This includes: Emotional response, good works, and a concerted effort to follow Jesus.
  • The place where I commune with God most intimately is: First: Private Time. Second:     Small Groups: Third: Corporate worship.
  • The purpose of corporate worship is then to: Help me connect to Jesus, open the door for personal conversion experience, and to let me know about opportunities for doing good works.
  • This happens through: Emotional and subjective music ,media, messages, and environment.

Music and media may be at the bottom of this chart, but they fit very well within this system. Mars Hill has the emotional and subjective down to an art. I would say, whether intentional or not, it is emotionally manipulative. Let’s review the service:

  • We are greeted by a really cool, excited group of  people who care about us and are in love with Jesus.
  • We drink excessive amounts of caffeine.
  • The music is loud and meant to get us going.
  • We sing the word “Alleluia” thirty successive times during one of the songs.
  • Everyone is super excited about everything going on at Mars Hill.
  • Everyone is really pretty, young and dressed in Urban Outfitters.
  • The pastor skillfully tears up without crying. He does this several times during the message.
  • During communion, the bass is turned up so that I can feel something in my chest.
  • The lights are turned down low.
  • The prayers are subjective and highly emotional and meander around so that they feel “genuine.”
  • The service ends with a powerful, almost frenzied song. But it’s not so frenzied that it makes anyone too uncomfortable.

All of these things, from the evangelical perspective, are simply there in worship to help people connect with Jesus. And these are all standard practice. But what were we so excited about? What was the substance of the service? Let’s review everything in the service again, looking for biblical content. This was a bible believing church after all.

  • Minute 45 of the service: The pastor read a parable from Luke.
  • During the Message, the Pastor uses a few verses of the Bible to prove his points.
  • The End.

That’s it. Really, that was it.

Now let’s look the Lutheran Spirituality Paradigm

  • Our Problem: Sin, death, and hell
  • The Solution: Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • This is applied to me through: Faith alone.
  • This includes: Really, it’s faith alone, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. God works faith in us, gives us the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and feeds us with word and Sacrament. We always look to Christ for our salvation, assurance, pardon, and forgiveness.
  • The place where I commune most intimately with God is: First: Corporate worship where I receive Word and Sacrament. Secondly: In my vocation, as my life is an act of worship and as I pray continually.
  • The purpose of corporate worship is then: Giving us the Means of Grace, which are the preaching of God’s Word and celebration of the sacraments. My personal response is simply that; a response to the forgiveness, life, and salvation that I have through Christ.
  • Corporate worship includes: Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the reading and preaching of Holy Scripture, the celebration of the sacraments, the prayer of the church.

Where does the intense, emotional, personal manipulation come into play? It doesn’t. It doesn’t come into play because we believe that we are saved by grace through faith, and not through our good works or the personal emotional intensity of our conversion experience.

It is worth noting that the Lutheran paradigm fits perfectly with the Liturgy of the Christian church, which itself grows out of the synagogue service which was familiar to Jesus and the early church. While Jesus rebelled against the excessive legalism of the Pharisees and academic disbelief of the Sadducees, he never rebelled against the synagogue service. Rather, it seems that he attended regularly, preached within it, and never made an attempt to make it into a subjective, personal, and emotionally manipulative event.

Having established the Lutheran faith paradigm, let’s look at how much biblical content we find in the Liturgy which we call the Divine Service.

1. Introit (opening Psalm)

2. Biblically literate, Christ-centered hymnody.

3. A reading from the Old Testament.

4. A Psalm of the Day

5. A reading from the Pauline Epistles, Revelation, or the book of Acts

6. A reading from the Gospels.

7. Prayers that petition God on behalf of the world.

8. The sacrament of the altar.

9. The sacrament of Holy Baptism on certain occasions.

10. The Sanctus, Nunc Dimittis, Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and Alleluia, which are all taken right  from Scripture.

11. A sermon, in which the reading of the day are explained.

12. The Lord’s Prayer

13. Confession and Absolution, which is clearly taught and commanded by our Lord.

In other words, we can see how in the Divine Service we are practically swimming in the Word of God. Because we believe that the Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament, we submit ourselves to the way He normally works, rejoice in the sure salvation won for us by Christ, and we respond with our songs and prayers. This is why the Lutheran confessions state that seeking God apart from Word and Sacrament is of the devil.

The big question in the Lutheran church in the past thirty years had been whether we can take the emotionally charged, subjective elements from the Evangelical faith paradigm and insert then into the Divine Service without destroying the Lutheran Paradigm. I think the wisest answer is a clear no. We cannot important elements of the paradigm without eventually seeing a full shift to that paradigm. Attempts to mix the two will inevitably be met with conflict because we attempting to believe two contrasting things at once.

I know that parting from the Evangelical faith paradigm is not an easy thing, yet we leaders in the church must think pastorally. It is possible that allowing our dear lay people to live with the Evangelical paradigm for years has given them an Evangelical approach to the Christian faith. Dear brothers and sisters, this is not okay! We must slowly, deliberately, and lovingly restore (or in many cases, teach for the first time) the Lutheran spirituality faith paradigm, not for our sakes, but for the sakes of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ who will be and are already being led astray by the loud, steady stream of American Evangelicalism which leads to nothing other than a mixing of law and Gospel and terrible burden on the consciences of God’s own people.

I know the temptation to copy and paste what we see in Evangelicalism is strong. They do, after all, attract thousands of young people. So let’s copy it; let’s copy the good coffee, positive environment, and accept nothing less than excellence from those who lead worship; even from the volunteers. Let’s leave the emotional manipulation, co-mingling of Law and Gospel, and un-biblical spirituality right where we found it.

Church musicians behaving badly

In my reading, I’ve been making my way through The Music of the English Church by Kenneth Long. There’s a very interesting passage about average town churches in second half of the 17th century, during a period called the restoration. Previous to this, organs and choirs across England had been dismantled and disbanded. The average church would have a rowdy group of minstrels hanging out in the balcony (gallery). What resulted was quite interesting and some if it seems as though it could have been written today.  Here are a few amusing excerpts:

Members of the minstrel group were often referred to as ‘musicainers’ or ‘musickers’. They were very proud of themselves; proud too of the group as a whole and they would practice regularly  and work hard to gain the ascendancy over minstrels from neighboring parishes…But this same strong corporate spirit could occasionally bring them into conflict with the clergy or people or both; indeed, in many parishes the minstrels were a force to be reckoned with. They were often autocratic; they were not above putting the parson firmly in his place (during the service if need be) neither did they shrink from going on strike if necessary in order to get their own way. They were jealous of their rights and even a seat in the gallery was a privilege hedged round with protocol and taboos.  They resisted change, even when it did not personally involve them, and their opinion had considerable influence in the parish. In some churches the minstrels looked upon the music as their own special prerogative and woe betide the member of the congregation rash enough to join in!

Most of the minstrels were yokels – ignorant, illiterate and musically self-taught – yet they possessed immense zeal and diligence and often by sheer perseverance the more intelligent players learned to read and write music…Similarly minstrel performances were usually more notable for enthusiasm and vigor than for accuracy and artistry; indeed contemporary accounts are scathing in their criticism and make it plain that both the singing and playing were so appalling as to be either pathetic or frankly ludicrous. Many writers comment on the ‘shrill tone’ and ‘screeching’ or ‘screaming’ of the children and the uncouth voices of the men…

If the music was bad the standard of behavior was worse and there seems to have been a total lack of reverence. Instruments would be tuned during the sermon; loud exhortations, blame and praise from the leader of the minstrels would punctuate the service; raucous arguments in the gallery distracted the worshipper below…Some of the instruments were found useful for chastising boys and the intermittent thwacks and the boys’ yells were merely another irritation for the congregation to endure. All this was made worse because during the singing it was customary for the congregation to turn in their seats and ‘face the music’, so they could not escape seeing as well as hearing all that went on.

 

A Story for the Lutheran Church

The Traditionalist Evangelical

 

Jason Smith grew up as a good evangelical. He accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, became active in his church, and was an expert on determining God’s Will for his life.  The church where he began his relationship with Jesus and spent his formative years was Mission Hills Community Church, a large, family-friendly, relevant community of Jesus-followers. His years at this wonderful community of Jesus-followers had taught him what to expect in the evangelical church and how what they did reflected what they believed. He even got to know his dynamic, relevant pastor and learned a thing or two about useful leadership skills.

Jason finished high school and enrolled in a local community college, unsure of what exactly God had in store for his life.  He did discern, however, that God wanted him to move away from home and experience new things, so he moved to a neighboring state and enrolled at a four year university.  During his first week of classes, he looked up the nearest community church online and headed out for the worship experience on Sunday morning.

The local church was called Woodland Heights Community Church and from the outside it looked like any other relevant church. The building and parking lot were new, there was a cool church sign that made trendy graphics, and the people in the parking lot looked young and relevant.  Once inside he found the visitor’s desk, behind which sat a helpful woman in her 20’s, and inquired where the college-age worship experience was held.

“College-age worship experience? What kind of experience?”

“ The worship experience for young adults, college students, people like me.”

“What kind of experience are you looking for?”

“WORSHIP experience! The service!”

The young lady’s eyes lit up. “Oh, the Divine Service!” she said, “It’s held in the sanctuary starting in 10 minutes. You’re just in time.”

Jason thought to himself that this must have something to do with the current teaching series. Perhaps they were currently teaching on dealing with difficult people. Still, it was an odd way to treat a newcomer, especially since they had no way of knowing if he was yet a fully-devoted Christ- follower.

He began looking for this thing called a sanctuary. The idea of a sanctuary was really very quaint; perhaps it was a coffee-house venue based on the style of an old sanctuary, maybe with a little bit of antique stained glass right behind the barista.

He soon found the sanctuary venue and entered.  It was apparent to him from the moment he entered that this was not the main venue for the young adult crowd. There were people his age here, but there were also young families with children, teenagers, baby-boomers, and (gasp!) old people.   There was no coffee bar, and most of the people were already seated. He didn’t want to deal with the welcome desk again, so he decided to just have a seat and stick it out.

He had a seat and looked up at the stage. The screen at the front said, “Welcome to the Divine Service at Woodland Heights.”  Jason surmised that the earlier confusion at the desk was all because this service was called the divine service and it took place in the sanctuary venue.  He was very curious how the service was going to start, as the band was not set up on the stage, and there was only a keyboard at the front.

It turned out that all the music was to be led by the keyboard, using an old organ setting.  The songs themselves were filled with dead religious language and some of them sounded quite old.  The congregation sang them well enough, but only a few people raised their hands, and it seemed most of the people were not really worshipping at all.  The pastor’s message did contain practical, relevant teaching for his life, but the rest of the service was completely dead and religious.  The songs and prayers were in a form of Christianese he knew could never be authentic.

The next week Jason looked online for a more authentic community church, but he found that the area where he now lived was a stronghold of denominationalism.  These churches all had belief statements on their websites about their “doctrine”.  Some of them even adhered to creeds. He worshipped by himself for a few weeks, but finally decided to give Woodland Heights another chance.

This time he came prepared. He arrived at the church 30 minutes earlier, found the youth pastor, and asked about alternative worship options. The youth pastor proceeded to ask Jason to join him for the divine service, but Jason asked again for the alternative. The youth pastor then said something quite shocking, “Oh, we worship together as a Christian community here at Woodland Heights.”

After enduring another hour of dead worship, Jason found the head teaching pastor, Pastor Mike, and asked for some of his time. The pastor invited Jason to join his family for lunch and afterwards they came back to the pastor’s office, which he liked to call his study, and sat down to talk.

Pastor Mike knew exactly what Jason was feeling, “I’m guessing that worship here at Woodland Heights is unlike anything you’ve experience before”, he said.

“Yes, that’s right, but it’s not weird to me because it’s new, it’s weird to me because it’s old and dead and religious”.

“And what about worship here seems dead and religious to you?”

“Everything. Why do you use old songs that are so full of jargon? Why do you use old prayers? And where is the praise band? Were they fired? Are they on vacation?”

“Praise bands and improvised prayers,”, Pastor Mike replied, “are things that you would traditionally see in worship, but we at Woodland Heights made the decision two months ago to move to what we call more theological worship”

“Theological worship?”

“Yes, when you look at different churches and denominations, non-denominational community churches have been pretty good at attracting people, and we have nothing against that, but we’ve struggled with teaching our theology.  Looking at different denominations, we’ve decided that the Lutheran church does the best job of placing a high emphasis on their theology. Their worship experiences focus on teaching, from beginning to end.  Traditional evangelical music is inspiring, but it does not teach the faith. The new songs we’re doing at Woodland Heights do teach the faith from a biblical perspective.”

“But we’re not Lutheran” said Jason.

“No, and we don’t teach Lutheran doctrine. We do, however, use their style of doing church. We have freedom to do that.”

It was at this point that Jason noticed the book on the pastor’s desk; it was titled Lutheran style, evangelical substance.   He didn’t respond to Pastor Mike, but gave him a blank, confused stare.

Pastor Mike handed Jason a big blue book and said, “This is the songbook where we’ve been getting our worship songs.  CCLI and the Christian music industry are fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but we don’t see why we can’t use diverse resources.”

Jason took the big blue book home. It was called Lutheran Worship. It contained prayers (which all seemed to be in a stiff, archaic language), old songs, and these things called divine service settings. One of the service settings looks familiar, as he remembered singing a song called, “This is the Feast” in worship on Sunday. He also noticed that many of the pages had been torn out, some verses of songs had been crossed out, and an occasional word was removed with white-out and replaced with another.   He emailed Pastor Mike and asked about the deletions. Pastor Mike said in his reply that they remove songs that explicitly teach something false, but keep everything else. It seemed to Jason that the whole approach and philosophy behind this old blue book was the problem, not the occasional word and song that could be crossed out or deleted.

Things would get worse and worse at Woodland Heights over the next few years. This new way of doing church affected not only the Sunday morning worship experiences, but infiltrated every area of the congregation’s life. The youth group regularly attended Lutheran hymn festivals.  The Sunday school used materials from Concordia Publishing House, the Lutheran publisher.  Most people in the congregation listened to Lutheran radio. It seemed that the only real experience of Jesus was limited to the act of accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.  He even heard a youth talk about regularly receiving sacraments during her testimony after receiving Jesus into her heart.   The small group ministry was replaced by teaching and Vespers at the church.  The worship screen was taken down and they began singing hymns directly from their Lutheran Worship hymnals. An electronic organ was purchased and the pastor, who now called himself Pastor Anderson, started wearing vestments.

Despite all of this, the congregation complained. Some of them visited the local Lutheran church and discovered that they had a real pipe organ, used a new hymnal called Lutheran Service Book, had a choir that sat in the balcony, and even chanted the liturgy.  Jason went to this Lutheran church with friends from Woodland Heights one Sunday.  He sat through the service with patience, only mumbling something at the end about the uninteresting, uninspiring music and dead religious language.  Some Woodland Heights members began leaving for the Lutheran church. Some even joined the Anglican Church.

At the end of his four years of school, Jason felt called by God to return home and get back to Mission Hills. Things at Mission Hills had changed too, but as a larger church they were able to offer what they called a “traditional evangelical” service for people like him.  The worship band had to maneuver around the organ, and the worshippers had to read the song lyrics from a printed sheet, but at least it was better than Woodland Heights.