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Substituting today for Jim Bratt is Josh Banner. Josh is the Minister of Music and Art and a teaching professor in the ministry minor at Hope College.
I have watched snatches of the event as it’s been streaming on 268generation.com the past few days. Some old friends of mine led the worship music for one session. It has been fun to see their faces and hear a few of their new songs. Yet my feelings about the proceedings are complicated. The truth is I’ve been conflicted about the Passion worship movement since I attended an early event in Ft. Worth back in the ‘90s. These same friends of mine were leading worship for some 13,000 in attendance, a number that was shocking at the time.
It was my first experience worshipping with a worship leader’s face projected on several 50-foot screens hung from the ceiling around the room. Charlie, my friend who leads worship, wears a goatee that protrudes several inches off his face. When projected on the screen, his scruffy chin whiskers must have been 15 feet in height. It was a surreal experience to see the face of someone so familiar transformed into something so incredibly public.
More than a decade later, concerns about the cult-of-personality should be so glaringly evident. Apparently they aren’t. Video screens are everywhere—in the lobbies and worship spaces of larger churches today.
The cult-of-personality around worship leaders and celebrity preachers is only part of my concerns. Yet tearing apart an arena rock worship music extravaganza is easy. Add sensationalism, emotionalism and sentimentalism to the cult-of-personality and it is easy to check the Passion movement off your list of things to bother paying attention to.
I am prone to disparaging certain sections of evangelicalism. I am guilty of gross cynicism, of being dismissive and condescending. Yet the Passion movement continues to pique my interest if only because it has such a large reach. Whether some of us like it or not, the Passion movement and its counterparts like Hillsong of Australia and Jesus Culture of Redding, California—these movements are shaping the spiritual lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world.
So I log onto the live stream of Passion 2013 conflicted. My charismatic self is drawn in. I imagine that if I were in attendance I could lose myself in the enormous, collective worship catharsis. I listen to Louie Giglio encourage the gathered to wait in God’s presence. I want that. I want to experience the tangible presence of the living God.
My reformed self is overwhelmed and distracted by the spectacle. Why are there so many people singing and dancing with hand-held microphones on such a large obstacle-course looking stage? Can these smiling faces and raised hands sincerely be that eager to worship? I don’t want that. I don’t want to force a smile and participate in a circus.
My charismatic self hears Louie Gigilio rehearse the story of Passion 268. How he’d learned about thousands of young South Korean Christians filling the Olympic stadium in Seoul. How he and his ministry began to pray that this kind revival might spread in America.
My reformed self wonders, if a large revival is happening, if millions of young people decide to follow Jesus, which churches will teach these young Christians how to go to school and work, wake up in the morning and keep track of the details of their lives with integrity and wisdom?
My charismatic self wants to witness God do something beyond anything I could ever ask or imagine.
My reformed self wants to rest in the witness of what God has already done in and through the church that is beyond anything I could have ever asked or imagined.
My charismatic self considers that with such a large number of voices, this might indeed be a glimpse of what heaven’s eternal worship will be like.
My reformed self hopes that there will be no video screens in heaven.
I think this is a good place to post? I'll copy these to Josh's personal blog (with addendum) as well, and try to tailor them if addendum draws additional thoughts.
It's so quiet here too!
Anyways, the prolegomena: I am a friend fo Josh's, collaborator, and one of the musicians on stage with Charlie at Passion this year, and since 2005 (I attended the One Day gathering in 2000 as a student).
I often share some of the very same reservations Josh (and many!) have about not only this extremely influential event, but also many more that are like them, and myriad small conferences and evangelism events we have participated in over my 10 years of playing with Charlie. I am of a contemplative nature myself, not very extravagant in expression, though I am often around those who are and I don't despise it nor find it too suspect. Except when it seems institutionalized. So I do feel out of place at times at Passion, if only because I get the usual introvert whiskey with a theological chaser: "maybe I'm just not free in my expression of worship/maybe I'm not really overjoyed by God's grace to me through the work of Jesus on the cross…!?!?!?!"
So my addition to the conversation, first of all is no contra to Josh, nor a tacit defense of my friends in Atlanta. It's maybe to keep asking these questions, and to share a bit from "the inside" which is a phrase I hate as I type it. Anyways.
The issue can arise when we travel to different local churches, to smaller conferences and gatherings, and encounter what such events can cause in the aesthetic/liturgical minds of everyone influenced by them. Namely, the Passion single event becomes an archetype of "what Heaven's worship will be like" and naturally, local congregations want to enact that, regardless of venue. Our expectation of local liturgy, which happens every week, with familiar, often less smile-prone figures, becomes almost helplessly seduced by the grand vision of media driven pomp and spectacle. We face the pressure as songwriters, preachers, small group leaders, liturgy writers, to meet the high bar set by such production.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention, as a band and songwriters, we have had plenty of moments of questioning our value to Passion, as we tend to write music that tends toward introspection, a bit more prolix, and often less anthem driven. We're no Radiohead, but for the way CCM radio, promo, and even our label (whom we are no longer with) treated us we might as well have been. Mind you, these are friends and they not once did so in ignorance, spite, or selfishness, it was just genuine confusion as to how to fit our vision into theirs, which tends to be much more driven by the idea of writing songs with as wide a congregational arc as possible, and this often means composing-wise going for the popular, simple, and instantly memorable elements. This often comes under criticism for being fluffy, but bear in mind, it is intentionally meant to be quickly singable, to build unity by song. And at times it is fluffy. All this to say, we sorta fit in oddly, but have come to real peace about where we fit in the larger Passion vision.
I spoke with a friend attending this year for the first time, who I know is as skeptical as I am about large whooping gatherings, and he said he resonated a lot with our music (and a few other songs and artists) and it sorta saved the experience for him. When I'm playing up there, mostly I'm nervous and trying not to fill my arms with lactic acid from playing too hard or hyped (causing me to lose a healthy stick-grip and play like I have clubs instead of drumsticks), but I am also thinking about the small remnant of skeptics, introverts, distracted people, agnostics (well…I'm with on this…) and others who are perhaps feeling dismayed, rather than buoyed, by such grandeur. I'm playing my prayers via the drums for them, as well as for the folks who are jumping about in joy. I really am. Yet I always have the Gutierrez-for-Introverts thing of God's Preferential Option for the Taciturn. Passion surely wants those folks to help them in their vision, and I hope/trust that our even being a part of things (we don't sell many records, don't hype at all (or poorly), and aren't in the ATL community per se) exhibits Passion's (albeit partial) commitment to the quiescent as well as bombastic.
To maybe close this way too long conversation starter, I'll illustrate in what might be a bit dangerous considering my neighborhood here…well.
For most students at Passion, for the past 8 years or so, John Piper has been the sole "academic" theologian they have constant introduction and engagement with. My quotes are not meant to be sarcastic, btw. Of course, they will go on to hopefully read widely and deeply in various streams of the Church, but it perhaps illustrates a problem close to my heart at the moment. Not being particularly Reformed myself, theologically, it can be troubling that Piper is both treated with intellectual (absolute, I mean severely absolute) reverence and as the main gate through which most, if not all, theological inquiry and biblical interpretation flow. This is not because Piper is wrong, nor wrongheaded (I think he's quite sincere), but just simply that whoever so entereth the U2-type stage gains canonization far more powerful to a media/informational polis than any musty literary/historical canon could give. It is a celebrity thing. I bet Piper abhors it (though his penchant for pronouncement viz. natural disasters and God's judgement/having the wrong theology mess up your marriage make me wonder a bit lately). I bet Louie abhors it. Yet it remains. The medium hasn't changed (it continues to expand) and it continues to proffer the message that "this is how it is supposed to be: big and bold and loud and bright, incessantly." So take a non-Calvinist, Lindbeck and Dostoevsky tutored (via books…not that old, nor smart) language/biblical studies guy like myself and I tend to feel a bit lost as to how to contend with such power (though I really do like and amen LOTS of Reformed thought-I promise). There's little else but the one interpretation, just as musically, the interpretation seems to be: wider rather than deeper. And whether we can practically produce it (a local megachurch) or not (a local PCA church), we fall short of the singular vision of God's bombast. I will say, Beth Moore's presence as teacher (and often excellent exegesis-she's for real) makes me excited just in it's subversion of , not to mention her excellent preaching.
I cannot shake the thought that a local parish, a fitting liturgy, and a robust theology generally loses more than gains from such a hype-driven vision. I'm also unsure just how we avoid it, and I know the hearts of these men and women to some degree. And they are absolutely sincere, and quite visionary.
For I end with this challenge to my skeptic self and to us: I remember clearly when Passion began the "Do Something Now" interactive experience at the conference. It consisted of about 15-20 social justice groups (Safeworld Nexus, Bloodwater, IJM, The Seed Company, et al) and invited students to walk around a giant hall and donate to the causes, while getting an immersive and very aesthetically driven primer on the issues at hand. I remember it vividly.
I left the conference that year with the usual mix of: skepticism at the pomp and glamour, gratefulness at accomplishing that venue musically/career-wise, ambition to be better next year, and joy at being with my friends, which includes some of the bands creating the glamour and hype. They are part of my family, or I am of theirs more likely. I would take a bullet for any one of those folks and defend their honor even to my own dishonor, even right now. We might disagree on things at times, yet
we are not adversaries but brothers and sisters (even Piper!).
I also left with this thought: individually, these college students would likely leave such ambitious justice goals and problems un-attacked, as the need is massive. The economy supporting oppression is, as we all know, robust and robuster. Yet together, these college students broke the giving ceiling of each company. They had to invent larger goals (i.e. one well dug turned into 5 wells dug).
Sure, 20,000 (now trebled) kids sang a bunch, got hyped, and felt good about themselves and God for a bit. And real, actual stuff was done on the Earth far from an arena, lights, etc. The bombast of the gathering might be irksome to us bookish folks, but the real mercy God does through this is not. Not to mention the mysterious work the Spirit did and does in the aesthetic realm that enacts some real change in individual and groups of believers who then commit entire lives to suffering, to generosity, to Christ-mindedness, because they saw a celebrity do it, and God redeemed it all the same to His ends. I've been to some houses and churches built outside of Kampala, Uganda by these events. I've seen Ukrainians, my fellow slavic skeptics and introverts, get very open about the joy of Jesus via these songs. I've seen Louie and Co. not intimidated by the typical southern evangelical fear of "the secular North" and spend tons of investment in NYC, Boston, and Vancouver.
So now, how do we grow in this? How do we criticize well, to continue the real good being done, while mitigating the celebrity, the Cool, the media-gaze?
Thanks for your time-and Josh, thanks for your words.
I should say…"I'm with David Dark on agnosticism" being a universal, in a way, to every Christian…not with David Bazan on it, though I continue to always cherish his critiques. Also, my link to why I'm glad for Beth Moore should mention her subversion of "masculine Christianity" proffered by Piper. A nice bit of irony. But I'm terrible with html. Sorry!
I am as thankful for Dustin's comments as I am for Josh's posting.
Dustin, I'm thankful for you as a friend and learning counter-part personage. I might not be able to do my prayers with a koine greek New Testament in the morning like you, but I think I've read at least as much Jeremy Begbie. Ahem….
Your comments on The Twelve guest blog are generous and thoughtful. If anything, you demonstrate to those outside of the contemporary worship and evangelical circles that there are some inside who are self-critical and wrestling to get it right. I fear that most on the outside assume the contemporary evangelical scene is a loud, popular-culture-acquiescing monolith. You burst that bubble. I pray I do too.
And I hope that your candid reflections also demonstrate to some (perhaps the students I lead) that my initial reflections on Passion 2013 are not as heavy handed as they might seem. As I've said before to you, how can we love the church enough to critique it?
Thanks again for reading and sharing. Much love!
Josh-thanks for sharing these thoughts, again, and I hope I haven't posited a false idea that only via large gatherings can such monetary mercy be shown, and that that is the highest end of it all. I do lean in the (sometimes not well-Reformed) direction of economic justice, whether or not it has the content of Christianity in it, but in the most basic place, I see it as a tool of the Church, to enact the mercy that belongs only to Christ. Nor do I think acts of justice and mercy are sustainable without Jesus' power in the midst, without it being from the Holy Spirit as fountain, and not accessory. This includes those acts within the Church itself, and that's where I kinda see, even if the aesthetic realm/liturgical realm is "getting it wrong" a little (or a lot!) the Church can use it to make actual changes for the poor.
I could easily fall into the idea that once we get our worship a little more right (all gradations this side of the eschaton) then we are good. The challenge comes when I ask of my "correct" worship: "have the poor been fed? the lost sought out from the 99?" as well as "does this seem like a scriptural, fragrant incense to the Father?"
I'm happy as a bug (?) praying the BCP, singing hymns with fervor (mostly), celebrating Eucharist every week (I don't get to at Bway), confessing the Nicene (my Greek prof. still rags me about creeds-he's a baptist tho), and generally being reserved. So having to interact constantly with very different forms of worship helps to preserve the good baptist critique of "high elements" that serve only themselves. Likewise, I relish the Reformed critiques (and indeed amen alongside them, if I'm honest) of most contemporary worship. I am always caught in between them, and ask for God's wisdom in discernment, and in the gift of conversation with the folks on here, and of course with friends.