What kind of smoke fills the temple? Some thoughts on modern worship environments

Recently I got the chance to lead musical worship at a much larger church than I normally attend and was introduced to something called ‘in-ears’. These are basically fancy headphones that cut out most sound and instead give you the option to create your own mix of your own instrument and the others in the band. It was much more disconcerting than I’d imagined.

You see, I was grew up learning to play the guitar by strumming with all the teenage forearm delivered enthusiasm you’d expect in a side church room to a youth group. No amplification, just me and my guitar and the voices of the folks I was growing up in Christ with. With no amplification you could hear my poorly timed strumming, a guy called Jim’s off key voice, and the girl who fancied herself as a pop star and experimented with harmonies. The point was, we could hear one another.

Once a year we would whisk ourselves off to a huge national youth conference and have the times of our lives. Our poor singing and off beat strumming was replaced with excellent musicianship and the ethereal experience of singing alongside 1000’s of people. There was lights and occasionally even a little fake smoke.
And I loved it.

It is no exaggeration to say that attending that conference and the impact it had on my meagre but sincere youth group through the year was life changing. After every year we would buy an accompanying songbook of the new songs introduced that year, head home to our small side room of our church with the youth group and sing our hearts out. Close our eyes, and If we couldn’t quite ascend to the heights of John’s vision in Revelation, we imagined ourselves back in that big conference tent and our hearts were strangely warmed. We escaped.

More recently a well-known international mega church had their worship band tour through our city. Lots of excitement enused, living in the southern tip of africa that has a perpetual inferiority complex to the rest of the west, people were clambering over one another for tickets. I didn’t go, but the reports were abundant. Much what you would expect, light were low and the bright ones were focussed on the visiting worshippers. They played well-practised swelling tunes and lead prayer that the church in the city would be unified. The only challenge was, the church in the city couldn’t see each other, they were in darkness, literally.

Although we are involved in a church planting ministry that predominantly seeks to plant simple house churches amongst the neglected parts of the earth, I don’t ever want to take cheap (and honestly easily come by) shots at large church ministries and the attractional mega church movement. Partly because, I’m a recipient of God’s ministry through the conference I attended that ran down these same tracks. I honestly can’t imagine where I’d be without those existential, emotionally charged experiences from my teenage years. All that being said, I’ve often been very attentive to the words or theology of particular songs but until recently fairly unreflective of the mode or environment of worship itself. It turns out that not just the content of worship is formative, but the very layout and context of worship. This was wisdom cathedral builders and stained glass window artists were well aware of, but it has been forsaken.

I’ve wondered if certain worship environments are helpful or harmful depending on the phase of life or ‘felt-need’ in a certain season. In most peoples teenage years there is an incessant and haunting self-obsession. Teenagers are constantly aware of what they are doing and saying, how they are being portrayed. They are terrified someone (normally their parents) or something (an activity that has fallen out of fashion within the last 30mins) will embarrass them. In psycholgical language they are hyper-vigilant. When you are in a hyper-vigilant, hyper-self-aware state, the greatest gift you could receive is the self-forgetfulness that comes with the existential crowd worship times. It is, I’m suggesting often why young christian people love large worship gatherings, why unbelieving people love rock concerts and why business executives often love transcendent meditation. The greatest gift is to escape. To escape the busyness, the painful self-awareness, the sense of not being enough.

As I grew a little older in Christian faith I didn’t discount these large and transcendent experiences but I started to realise that they didn’t fulfill all of the needs of the Christian life. When things are difficult the conference is still months down the road. Who is there? Well out of tune Jim and the harmony girl from the youth group. Suddenly their additions to worship times and your life in community more generally, although quirky, becomes the very ministry of God to you. In 1 Corinthians 14:261 the writer is giving us a normative reflection of worship in the early church. One has a song, a word, a prophecy, a psalm, a teaching. Each one delivered by someone with a name, a past, maybe even someone who you have unforgiveness in your heart towards. But they are there, and you know them and see their face. They are not the stranger in the dark at your side as you gaze as the well-lit group ahead covered by wafts of smoke.

Later in life, my motivations are not so much to escape but to inhabit. Inhabit the community with the off-key singers and the embarrassing parent, because every spiritual quest to escape requires us to wake up. And we wake up alongside people with names, people with quirks and part of the journey of discipleship is to realise that those people are God’s gifts in our lives. They are the peole with the songs, the psalms, the prophecies and the lessons. Admittedly the songs aren’t well performed and the lessons might not be as well polished as the platform speakers, but they are our people. In my youth I often believed I had to ascend to heaven by shutting my eyes extra tight to see God, but now I am realised the good news that, as is popularly repeated from the message translation, “God has moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1) and He is living inside off-tune Jim and all his quirky friends.

...every spiritual quest to escape requires us to wake up Click To Tweet

Much of this escapism can be traced back to a cult that threatened the message of christianity from it’s early days. The cult of gnosticism, believing God to be perfect and pure and recognising that our bodies and creation itself often wasn’t. Gnostics believed only the pure part of us, our soul, could dwell with God. It’s a familiar story, change a few key words and it was the gospel many of us were told. This is our ‘great escape’ gospel. Does this sound familiar, “put off your flesh” “saving souls”, “going to heaven” – all biblically rooted things to be sure, but they became the gnostic impulses that were distilled from a God-story that is in fact very earthy and embodied.

A God created matter and called it good, A God became flesh and dwelled amongst us, He resurrected in a new body, He ascended in that body, and He is coming back to establish his new kingdom on this earth remade. His plan has always been to inhabit, to dwell, not for us to escape.


  1. 26 What should be done [during worship times]then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 

Everyone gets to play – A short thought on God’s mission in the World

Normally in evangelical circles we think of mission as something that we do for God, or at best with God that helps communicate the message of God’s forgiveness of sins. While I don’t disagree with that description, it is not as rich and as all encompassing as the biblical narrative frames it. In the first description, mission doesn’t make much sense any time before the cross, and arguably before pentecost. But God has been on mission all through His story and although we won’t get far without being saved from sin and death, God’s story, focuses on what we are saved for more than what we are saved from.

Often we think of mission as something we do to obey God and win the lost, evangelism and church planting. But the bible shows us that in fact God was engaged in mission long before we came on the scene, He has a plan and a purpose for creation and He chooses to include us, He chooses to ask us to come along and co-create with Him.

Chris Wright1 helps us see the larger scope

“God’s purpose is to bring a broken creation, spoiled at every level, that is at the level of individual human hearts through culture and societies, nations and brokeness at an international level, right through to the brokenness of creation itself. To bring a world like that, that we see in Genesis Ch 1-11, to a world that is being renewed, restored and purged of evil in the new creation at the end of Revelation.”

In this scope, God is doing things in His world, through His people to the end of the redeeming of everything that God has created.

So being involved in God’s mission is not just the realm of evangelists and church planters. Skye Jethani says the three things that characterised Eden were beauty, order and abundance. Certainly those things take place first as right relationship with God and others, but once we are included in the very life of Christ the outflow of our lives that contribute to the re-newing, re-ordering, re-generating of all of creation is activity that is on mission with God too.

This means that the value of making art, of working for rightness and justice in a work place, and creating jobs are not just useful to God to the extent to which you can witness in those places, but they themselves are part of God’s work through His people to renew the world.

Is God interested in your co-worker at work or co-student at art class hearing about God’s invitation to new life with Him? Certainly, but He is also working through your work to the extent to which you are contributing to the increase of beauty, order and abundance of society and creation.

That’s good news for followers of Jesus who feel left out if they are not involved in the erroneously named ‘full-time ministry’.


  1. Author of The Mission of God 

John Wizards – Muizenberg | Music Mondays

Friday Link List | 16th September 2016

Now and again I’m posting links to things I’ve read recently that I think you might find interesting too. But I just checked and recently and I haven’t posted one since April. That is mostly because they actually take a good bit of time and don’t tend to get lots of feedback, but still it allows me to scratch my strengthfinders input strength;

“You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information — words, facts, books, and quotations…Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly [Who,] when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful?” read more

What I posted recently

Images; still and moving

  • Ornitographies“Xavi Bou focuses on birds, his great passion, in order to capture in a single time frame, the shapes they generate when flying, making visible the invisible.”

  • Annual Drone Photography Winners – Some pretty incredible photos to look through here since taking photos and videos from these small flying objects is en vogue.

  • Been watching Chef’s table on netflix recently. It’s a six-part food documentary series that follows one world-renowned chef and their lives outside the kitchen. The series is directed by David Gelb, who also made Jiro Dreams of Sushi – an amazing sushi documentary. Incredible to see the type of focus and artistry that is involved in creating this food, but simultaneously heart breaking at times to see the cost that exacts on their surrounding relationships. We become what we worship.

Coffee

  • The Style Wars: Italian vs. Third wave – If you haven’t noticed there is a lot of renewed enthusiasm around coffee these days, in what has been called the ‘third wave’ rather than the ‘second wave’ – which is italian / starbucks variety – this is a good article that explains some of the differences.

  • Wondering what difference it makes where you coffee beans are grown? Here are some flavour profiles by country from one of my favourite Cape Town Roasters.

Technology

Poetry

Society and Cultural Comment

  • One of the greatest gifts of living outside of a predominantly western context is to be able to begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of my own worldview with a little distance. With globalisation and and immigration pushing different cultures together, gaining humility and understanding in the way we view the world is something for everyone, not just those who choose to live in another culture. Our friend Brandon Jones posted a superb introduction on honour and shame cultures that lays out the differences superbly.

Theology and Christianity

  • Is Priesthood Abrogated (abolished) in the New Testament? from Think Theology is a helpful short summary of ways that Priesthood is radically redefined in the new convenant rather than abolished.

    “The reason is simple: priesthood isn’t abrogated in the NT (Rom 15; 1 Pet 2; Rev 5; etc). What is abrogated is the Levitical priesthood as a means of mediating between God and man within the tabernacle/temple setup, which clearly is abrogated in Christ (Heb 7-10 etc).”

  • Rethinking: Kingdom from Jesus Creed – I’ve been in a number of conversations about the use of the word Kingdom – Scot McKnight offers an NT scholar’s perspective on the ‘faithful’ use of the word.

  • Skye Jethani doesn’t hold any punches when he exposes of the false comfort of simple absolutes. This was the type of simplification I was trying to push back against on this post on homosexuality.

“We’ve been conditioned to think God’s view on every matter should require no more than 140 characters to communicate, or even better—a single emoji. Those of us who refuse the false comforts of simple absolutes, like Paul, are branded as sellouts, wishy-washy, or the most insulting label today—elites. We now celebrate unthoughtful and unnuanced opinions as the hallmarks of a strong faith when they are, in truth, clear signs of immaturity and spiritual retardation.”

  • Pokemon Go and Kingdom Eyes – A great reflection on how our kingdom vision of the world should haunt us in similar ways to how our world is currently haunted by pokemon go!

  • No Salvation outside of the Church – But don’t worry, I didn’t say building or institution. Here is some theological musings related to my conviction that Christianity is a team sport.


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“Another thing: to minister fruitfully (and God does not call us to anything else) we must minister as those who have died. This is really the same point as the last, but it has total ramifications in the… Read More

William Still, The Work of the Pastor

The Brilliance – YHWH | Music Mondays

How we can overcome pride for the sake of our relationships and for the sake of God’s world

APOLOGIES: Somehow in the busyness of last month I missed that the blog had not been updating with new posts and that the email newsletter hasn’t been going out. Thats all fixed now!

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Last month I wrote about the intense harmfulness of pride, this originally was one whole post, but far too long – so this post needs the one before, so you can read part one here.

Although it is self-affirming, it doesn’t do much good to simply diagnose the problem without an attempt at offering some part of a solution. So here is my best attempt at how we might begin to confront pride in ourselves. 1

Can you imagine being immediately grateful for a confrontation?

4 years ago, our church community invited a lady to speak to us who was a qualified life coach. She came to teach our church community how to ask questions that would help us grow. While there were many good tools shared in that week, it was a story she told that made the biggest impact on me. She described a co-worker who naturally rubbed her the wrong way in most interactions. She described it such a way that made it easy for everyone listening to put themselves in her shoes and imagine their own ‘grace-grower’! She then spoke about how she began to develop a consistent point to pray for this person and at the same time was developing a very strong desire to be transformed by any means possible into the likeness of Christ.

Can you guess what happened next?

This same co-worker approached this lady and confronted her about a pattern of behaviour she had noticed. The co-worker did not communicate it perfectly and there may have been plenty of justification for push back. But she was so motivated towards transformation that she was able to sincerely thank this co-worker for the confrontation as her first response.

Now many of us can imagine saying the right thing as a response, through gritted teeth and then later bad mouthing the person to some others in a way that reassures us that we were in the right. But that was not the testimony of this lady, she literally had a sincere overflow of gratitude for the confrontation that she was able to respond to. In that moment I was struck with my absolute inability to do that.

I was imagining the very equivalent person in my life and thinking, “sure, I could muster enough self control to say the right thing”. But the idea that I could have a sincere response of gratitude that overlooked the way a confrontation came to me was as foreign as the idea of being able to laugh upon being stabbed. Many of us in the christian life have cultivated enough self-control to do the right thing, but what does it take to feel the right thing? I intended to find out.

In the following months I considered during times with God, how much value did I really hold in becoming like Jesus. Did I really value it above all else, like the many songs I had sung, enthusiastically described? Or was I secretly committed to be just nice enough to get by with my pride in tact. I realised that deep down I was committed to how people perceived me more than about who God knew me to be.

Although I didn’t have a marked story within those months to illustrate the growth I began to experience, I felt assured that this season shifted something in the foundations of my inner life. The power of pride was in some way broken down and that made many of the following decisions easier and more felt than before.

Now of course my intention is not to present a somehow finished work in this, but simply to encourage us that we can take steps forward, steps which make responses of spontaneous holiness possible. Would I struggle over someone harshly confronting me? Im sure I would, but instead of confronting them back in self-protection, I feel more assured that I might be able to take on the ‘meat’ of their confrontation and leave the bones to the Lord to deal with.

The good news is that we are wrong

Often the good news of God has been compressed into simple phrases like “God loves for you” and while I believe that, the gospel also offers and maybe even begins by providing a way to say “I was wrong”. In fact to be renewed, reformed and resurrected into the kingdom of God, somewhere we have to have a deep revelation that “I was wrong”. This is the good news, that we get to be wrong and it doesn’t have to annihilate us.

We have to realise we are wrong about God; God in Jesus is nothing like the God we would have imagined. The trajectory of our imaginations outside of God would have never given us the story we were given. It would have never revealed the ‘right’ in a way we could have anticipated, and so we are left with an invitation, an invitation to say “I was wrong…”.

Of course, just like the prodigal son returns to the Father to say ‘I was wrong’, the Father bounds over with an embrace. That is the good news, that (if I can risk sentimentalising the process a little) that the Father squeezes the wrongness from us in an embrace and welcomes us into a vocation that will even further transform us2.

Our ability to recognise we were wrong and the humility and request for forgiveness that flows from this is essential to the gospel impacting our lives, and it is not just a one-time thing. For those of us that follow Jesus it actually is like a circadian rhythm in our stories that follows a pattern of being wrong, revealing our wrongness3, being forgiven , being renewed. This is the pattern of the person who is truly changing, truly reforming, truly transforming, again and again.

Saying we are wrong helps us receive God’s forgiveness

There is something else that I’ve observed; that our relationship to God is characterised by the same things that characterise our human relationships. I have observed enough to believe it to be true, that those who refuse or feel unable to forgive others are unable to forgive themselves. This is a big problem because the same place that forgiveness flows out towards others is the same place that God’s forgiveness and release flows in. God’s forgiveness is the very foundation for our knowing and experiencing God in all other ways. I have painfully observed that as people allow their inner lives to become increasingly filled with small unforgivenesses they find it increasingly hard to relate to, experience and participate in God’s life. Alot is at stake in this pride and forgiveness dynamic.

So to return to a biblical image of our lives, we are made to be like clay in the potters hands. God’s intention is not just to let us in the door of salvation, but to transform us over a life of salvation. Pride and unforgiveness do not contribute to God’s intended human flourishing, its made us like hard clay. Hard clay can not be loving moulded but has to be smashed into softness on the potter’s wheel or more terrifyingly set aside altogether. God intended us to be able to say “I was wrong” in order be transformed for God’s sake, for our sake and for the sake of the World.


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  1. I spoke shortly about the type of understanding and heart-posture that would be required to confront this in our loved ones at the end of the last post
  2. I wrote about that a little more here 
  3. or having it revealed. God is not picky about this part! 

Benjamin James – Beggar | Music Mondays

Joel Limpic – Psalm 1 | Music Mondays

Psalm 1 – If you can’t see a way to play the music below this, click here

Why the inability to be wrong is destroying us, our relationships and our world

No one likes to be wrong, and often admitting we were wrong seems like adding insult to an injury, yet it is an absolutely crucial ability for humans to foster. When we consistently refuse to cultivate humility we instead cultivate an inner person of pride.

The true impact of our pride

When we observe pride within ourselves and often more easily in a family member that cannot easily hear truth about themselves, we play it down. We say, ‘well so and so is just like that’. They then give non-verbal cues and passive aggressive attacks towards those in social situations who conversationally risk moving towards those areas in their life, character and relationships. Our pridefulness must increasingly hold a mask of our own faultlessness up until we have tricked ourselves with our image consciousness and cannot discern the real from the imagined.

When our pride is in a room everyone becomes aware that conversation must stay in the shallow end of the pool of life. Anyone who attempts to venture into the deeper end of things will be met by the abandonment of silence or a short harsh yank back to the shallow end again. While we make excuses and explanations around nature and nurture for the way pridefulness acts, it destroys a sense of connectedness in a room, and more painfully in our families and friendships. It creates disconnection and isolation that leads people to talk about us being there but not actually ‘present’.

I’m wanting to break the mirage of harmlessness that we pick up about pride, it is not harmless it is endangering our very souls and shared abundant life. I believe the outbreaks of fear, anxiety, depression and suicide in our societies trace themselves to the relational disconnections and aloneness that result. Pride is not harmless.

Interpersonal pride is one thing, but we increasingly live in a world where there is an epidmeic of pride that characterises the very institutions that govern our societies. As fear dominates the international politcal landscape we see leaders engage in brinkmanship and insist on their often self-deluded image of themselves and their nation. Their pride and the corresponding lack of ability to admit any wrongness is literally leading people to their deaths in wars, coups and riots.

The person of pride is not a bad person but a pained person

Now, as you consider the ones you love, not least yourself in this diagnosis of pride I do want to keep something before us. The person of pride is not a bad person, they are a pained person. This person will not be served by purely rebuking them in some fire and brimstone fashion. People retreat into pride as a mechanism of self-protection, what these people need is to be loved. But loved enough not to swerve the invisible road blocks that are put into place but to be engaged.

Again, I want to excercise caution in how you engage the person of pride. Very often we have built up a great deal of resentment to the unspoken tension the person of pride creates and engaging them can very quickly become letting them have it and that will causes even deeper levels of retreat.

If you are going to confront someone in a moment where you observe pride rearing it’s ugly head, you have to be motivated for the person, their transformation, and for the liberation of their relationships that are in bondage to this pattern of control.

A person with pride is not a bad person, but instead someone who’s pain has overcome their ability to do the necessary work on the inside. So what does it look like to overcome the person of pride in ourselves? That’s the good news and what I’m writing about next week!

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