the baby and the bathwater

ready meal
October 27, 2007, 11:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

ready meal: prepackaged, frozen or chilled meal which usually comes in an individual package. It requires very little preparation and contains all the elements for a single-serving meal.

Is it just me?

Am I the only one who never wants to see, read, watch or listen to another ‘resource’ in my whole life.

Maybe it is just me. But the word ‘resource’ now just leaves me twitching, stressed, running for cover in need of a large whiskey. It used to mean something that helped us, taught us, inspired us. Unfortunately it now, more often than not, means something that confuses us, disappoints us, lines the pockets of some-of-us. We are largely confused by the sheer quantity-of-it, disappointed by the poverty-of-it, and suspicious of who is gaining-because-of-it. If I look back over recent years, I am struggling to think of more than a handful of books, cds or dvds that really really helped me in my role as a worship pastor. So much so that I’ve almost stopped buying and reading most populist Christian books, and stopped listening to most mainstream worship cd’s (even the one’s I happen to be on), and now positively avoid the dvd-of-the-course-in-ten-easy-steps. And probably I’m missing out. But actually I generally find more substance in a Jeremy Clarkson book or a Yes Minister DVD. Sorry.

O.K. so maybe you think I’m going a bit over-the-top-with-it this time. And I probably am.

But I am slightly confused.

Our bookshelves are full of more books than ever before. Our cd cases are filled with more worship cd’s than ever before. You can’t blink without another DVD being produced. As the church in the west, we are in total resource overload. And yet I have to ask the question ‘is the church better off?’. And I need alot of convincing that it is. My observation, generally, is that whereas it’s never been easier to find a book, cd or dvd for our own particular circumstances, it’s never been harder to get anybody to lead or serve the work of the church. Whereas we find it easy to get someone to buy a book, cd, or dvd, we find it hard to get them to give money to fund the vision of the church. We are supremely over-resourced in terms of materials, but supremely under-resourced in terms of people and money.

That’s why I’m confused.

Is it really just me?

Maybe it’s just another symptom of a largely consumeristic church culture.

Anyway, my point is this. I think we spending too much time trying to resource people, and not enough time trying to lead people. We are teaching people to stack their shelves with stuff of every size shape and colour imaginable but at the same time we are breading a generation of people who just don’t seem to be able to think for themselves, create things for themselves, lead themselves.

It’s like, instead of teaching people how to cook, we’re creating an ever increasing number of ready meals for people to nourish themselves with. You know, those meals that, whatever supermarket you get them from, they all taste pretty much the same – meals that probably have roughly the same ingredients, use approximately the same recipe, are more than likely all made by the same producers, but then just packaged differently and sold as ‘own brand’.

Just like most worship cd’s really.

Whoops! There’s the ultra-cynical Bennetts emerging again. I must try and control it.

There’s that old phrase ‘give some one a bowl of rice and they will eat for a day, but teach them how to grow rice and they will eat for a lifetime.’ Well in terms of worship songs, maybe we could re-write that as ‘give someone a song and they will have something fresh to sing for a season, but teach them how to write songs and they will have something fresh to sing for a life time’. If we resource people, we give them a range of options to choose from, depending on their circumstances. If we raise up leaders, we teach people to listen to God, to interpret the community and culture around them, and be creative for themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some very original, theological, thoughtful, helpful books out there. There are some incredible songwriters producing some wonderful songs and music. I’m not sure about DVD’s, but otherwise some of this stuff is truly inspiring. But there is also a huge amount out there that just seems to either recycle the same ideas, or appears to have no connection to the real life of doing church.

But rather than just rant, let me try and suggest some things that could make a difference. Let me just ‘put them out there’ and see if they resonate with anyone. My focus is really on the whole worship industry, but I think these things could equally apply to other arenas.

Firstly, the business models that those of us involved in producing resources use may need to be adjusted. If our business model has, at it’s heart, a need to create new product just to be viable, then it may be the wrong business model. In my mind, this means that generally we are too driven by the need to produce something – anything – rather than the need to be responding to fresh and new moves of the Spirit.

Secondly, and this is related, we need more of the intellectual and creative ownership of resources to be based within the church. It doesn’t mean that there is no room for strong partnerships between churches and distributors or service providers. But in my mind, this move would bring a creative edge back to many of our songs, books and cds. There would then be less pressure for writers to conform to a standard, other than the one that God is laying on their hearts.

Thirdly, we need to amend the way we train and invest in people, which needs to be far more relational based, and far less program based. Too often I fear we are teaching that one size fits all. The big worship conferences have their place, but I fear that, whereas they may be increasing our general skill levels, they are maybe not producing more creative, risk taking leaders.

And then I think we may be surprised. I think we may find that the baby is capable of a whole lot more than we currently give it credit for.

Anyway. I Must go. Top Gear is just about to start, and my Tesco Tikka Massala is just about done.


October 20, 2007, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

real: true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent; existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary; genuine; not counterfeit, artificial, or imitation; authentic; unfeigned or sincere;

Time and time again when I’m discussing issues about worship, I come across this plea: ‘we just want our worship to be real’.


It’s got a nice ring to it, hasn’t it?

And everything in us wants to agree. Surely our worship has to be real. It can’t be anything else. It certainly shouldn’t be false. It certainly shouldn’t be imaginary. If worship is worship, it has to be authentic, unfeigned, sincere, genuine.


But what does ‘real’ really mean? What does real worship look like, sound like, feel like?

Well, let’s start with some things that real worship is probably not.

Firstly, real worship is probably not about a certain style of music. Even if it totally floats our boat. We all have likes and dislikes, and musical likes and dislikes are some of the most passionate we come across. And we may find certain styles help us to worship more than others. We may also find some styles of worship are more accessible to those outside the church. And that certainly is important. But certain styles of music in themselves do not make worship more real.

Secondly, real worship doesn’t depend on our state of mind, our emotional circumstances, our social status. Worship is not more real because we happen to be sick or suffering, living in a deprived area, or going through a heartbreaking personal tragedy. It may hurt more. But does that make it more real? I’m not sure it does. Conversely I don’t know if you have ever watched some of those satelite religious channels where the band is awesome, the choir all look like models, dressed in sparkly and black uniforms, the songs are all up-tempo and happy-clappy, and every one has that o-so-perfect smile on their faces. Have you, like me, ever questioned the authenticity of their worship? But actually, I’m not sure that we can – certainly not just on the basis that ‘surely no-one can be that perfect’ mentality. Just because a bunch of people are that happy does not make their worship unreal, does it?

Thirdly, I’m not convinced that worship is more real purely because the band is cut back, more acoustic, more ‘sit in a field of mud round a camp fire and earthy’. And likewise, it’s not more real because you have a ten piece band, a 100 strong choir, the psalm drummers and the national philharmonic orchestra. All of these may be appropriate in certain circumstances. All may speak of God in different ways. But I’m not convinced that either in itself makes the worship more real.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just trying to be clever here. I’m certainly not trying to undermine people’s creativity. Anything but that – in fact, one of the biggest challenges to the church generally is how to release more creativity – not only in worship – but in the widest possible activity of kingdom life.

But what I am saying is that many of these things in themselves do not make our worship real. And in fact my biggest, biggest frustration is that, so often when I hear people say ‘I don’t think that the worship is real’, what I am really hearing them say is ‘I don’t like that worship’. So often I sense a consumerism underlying a plea for realism, and that is so disappointing.

Let’s have a look at some worshippers in the Bible. David for example. accompanying the ark back to Jerusalem. He engages in a very extravagant act of worship. It cost lots of money. It was very public. And when you read the Psalms, you don’t get the impression this is something necessarily in character. Elsewhere David comes over as very intense, thoughtful and, ultimately, broken. Maybe this act of worship was more reflective of what God required than what David naturally would act like?

Let’s look at Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son as an act of worshipful obedience. Hardly easy. Hardly fashionable. But he was willing to go with what God required.

Let’s look at Mary. Worshipping with tears, pouring perfume over the feet of Jesus. Hardly dignifying. Hardly financially prudent. But judging from Jesus’ words, seemingly that was what was required of her in that moment.

And let’s hear the words of Jesus, who says that the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and truth. Those who will worship with all that they are and with all that they have. People who don’t take themselves too seriously, but take God very seriously.

It seems to me that real worship means living with our hearts set on God – loving mercy, acting with justice, walking humbly – and then engaging in worship with our hearts set on God: singing to Him with all we have, singing to Him because of all we know and have seen of Him. Regardless of personal circumstances, regardless of the style of music, regardless or the size of the band. And we who are mature in Christ should be those taking the lead in this. We should be the ones that should worship with all that we are whatever is on offer in terms of style or variety. We should be the ones who are worshipping with everything we have, regardless of our own personal circumstances.

Yes we should grow in creativity. Yes we should be relevant. Yes we should be accessible. Of course we should. But no amount or creativity, relevance or accessibility will in itself make our worship real.

There’s someone in our congregation at Trinity Cheltenham who comes every week to church, and throws themselves into every song, sometimes with exuberance, sometimes on their knees, sometimes with hands held high, sometimes with tears flowing, often with a huge smile on their face. Outside Sundays this person talks to people on the street about Jesus, and then serves some of the poorest communities you can find around the world. And then this person comes back to church and sings again.

For me, this is worship.

Real worship.

October 13, 2007, 2:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

together: into or in one gathering; in union; into or in relationship; into or in a condition of unity; at the same time; simultaneously; in cooperation; with united action; conjointly; with mutual action

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25)

Together, together, together everyone. Together, together, come on lets have some fun. Together, we’re there for each other every time. Together together come on lets do this right. Everyone is special in their own way. We make each other strong. We’re not the same. We’re different in a good way. Together’s where we belong. (High School Musical 2006)

It seems that even in the earliest years of the church, people sometimes gave up on coming together to worship, and needed encouraging, needed reminding of the huge gift that gathered worship is to the church. And we are no different today. The pressures maybe different, the culture is almost certainly very different. But the fact remains that, as ever, the desire to come together to worship in church today is sometimes under threat. Not so much due to political pressure, or persecution (though this may come one day), but through something far, far more dangerous and potentially terminal: a misguided theology.

There are some elements of the church that are currently, ever so subtly, backing off from attaching the highest of priority to meeting together for worship. It’s wrapped up in some ever so appealing language promoting community or mission, but it’s inference is worrying. It can give the impression that joining together and singing is not really so important after all. And this makes me sad. Because when a church comes together, a church that is made up of a diverse range of people from a wide range of backgrounds and a huge variety of personal circumstances – when that church comes together and joins with one voice in singing songs to God, they are making one of the most important, counter cultural statements imaginable. In a society that is increasingly individualistic and consumeristic, that statement is ‘we are better off together’.

I understand why some are devaluing worship in the life of the church. We all desire to be relevant to our culture. We all have a huge longing to see our friends, our neighbours, our work-mates come to know Jesus. And we are slightly afraid that this thing called worship may put them off. And the concept of a worship ‘service’ feels slightly, well, old-fashioned. Certainly not very post-modern. I remember some time ago when a whole load of our friends came to the morning service when one of our daughters was being dedicated. When I got up to lead worship – singing – I suddenly felt slightly exposed. I could sort of see how they would relate to the dedication, and the kidz actions, and even the prayers. But the singing? In a very real sense I felt uncomfortable at expecting my friends to do this.

I do understand those who are backing off.

I understand why they think this way.

But I don’t agree with them.

When people come together to worship, they experience the manifest presence of God, they hear the voice of God, they see Him break into impossible situations, they see people come to know Him for the very first time, and they themselves become satisfied as children of God.

Yes, I know that worship is a lifestyle. Yes I know that we need to act justly day by day. Yes I know that we need to give ourselves wholeheartedly in service. Yes I know we need to develop ways of expressing community. All these things are hugely important. But it is misguided to say that they can in any way replace gathered worship: The truth of the matter is that God still wants us to come together and sing.

It is a command.

But it’s a command that, like every command from God, has a heart of love at it’s centre. A heart of love that knows who we were created to be, and knows what we need for this life. God has designed us with a deep hunger to worship Him, encounter Him, be intimate with Him. And He has given us this gift – singing together – to help us do just that.

I passionately believe that coming together to worship as his people – yes after living a lifestyle of worship, acting justly, serving wholeheartedly, living in community – but coming together as his people to worship, to encounter Him together, is fundamental to our identity and purpose as his church.

It maybe that our gathered worship needs refreshing, making it more accessible, making it more relevant. The bathwater may need changing in this respect every now and then. But the baby will begin to die if we throw it out altogether.

Because we are stronger, better together.

October 6, 2007, 5:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

local: pertaining to or characterized by place or position in space; spatial; pertaining to, characteristic of, or restricted to a particular place or particular places; pertaining to a city, town, or small district rather than an entire state or country

I was chatting to a musician friend a couple of years ago. He played in the band of a worship leader who often travelled the world leading worship. For one particular event he travelled with the aforesaid worship leader to Australia. The flight for the band took a whole day and night and cost a whole lot of money. Then one evening during a time of worship my friend said this thought came to mind:

‘surely someone up the road could have done this’

And he’s got a point.

We are dominated in our world and in our culture by internationalism; whether in business, in entertainment, in politics. Networking tools such as facebook mean that we can keep in touch with people all over the world at the click of a mouse. Many high streets in many countries, especially in the most developed parts of the worlds, look quite similar, and are often dominated by the international brands of Macdonalds, Next and Starbucks. (Although actually, Starbucks is a specific gift from God to worship leaders, and so probably stands out on itself as acceptable and honourable). And in recent years, the church has seen the rise to prominence of a number of worship leaders that also have an international presence.

Now I have to say at this point that this isn’t one of those ‘if I can’t be an international worship leader, then no one should be allowed to’ sort of rants. In fact, personally, I can’t think of anything worse than travelling around the world on a cramped tour-bus, losing sleep, eating badly, playing and singing night after night, venue after venue to the hoarding masses. The fact that I can’t sing in tune and my guitar playing is really pants, so no one in their right mind would ask me to anyway has absolutely nothing to do with it either. And I also have to say I have been significantly helped by some very high-profile worship leaders along the way, for which I am truly thankful. To have had one-on-one time with worship leaders who have such a greater wealth of experience than me has been awesome. To observe, even be-it ‘from afar’ worship leaders with considerably more skill and anointing than me, has helped inspire and urge me on in my own worship leading. I would count many of them as worship leaders with an apostlistic gifting. And I hope, that for many years to come, I will still be able to benefit from them in this way. Our church sings their songs and it’s worship is enriched because of them

And yet.

And yet there is something about the growth of internationalism in our worship that also leaves me slightly dissatisfied. You know, I think you could go to most churches around the world and still expect to sing the songs that you know, with bands all sounding much the same. One of my good friends, David Gate, calls it ‘McWorship’. In one sense it’s great to be able to get a sense of unity in the church in this way. But after a while, I just feel like I want things to be different. To be a bit more fresh.

A bit more local.

So let’s step sideways for a moment.

I love seeing my two young girls develop their creativity. Elizabeth, my eldest (actually, she will get cross with me if I call her Elizabeth, rather than Lizzy as she now like to be known) plays the flute. She recently passed grade 2 and is now moving on to grade 4. Just recently I’ve noticed a change in her attitude. We used to have to tell her what to do, note by note. Sit with her and work through each piece of music. We used to have to explain what a crescendo was, and a staccato and so on. But now, she is doing much more of it all herself. She takes much more of the initiative. And that makes me proud, because it shows she is growing up. In fact generally in life I am finding that Lizzy is less and less likely to take my own views and likes and dislikes on for herself without challenging them. She is growing her own character and mind and heart and soul. Sometimes that is frustrating, in that part of me longs to have a daughter who just gazes longingly into my eyes and hangs off my every word. But it just doesn’t happen. And actually I’m glad. Our lives as a family are so much the richer for her difference. She is growing up, spreading her wings, and beginning to fly.

Growing up, spreading her wings, and beginning to fly.

And this is what my longing is for my church.

My local church.

In a rather unsightly looking set of buildings opposite a car park in the center of Cheltenham.

When I look at the birth of the church in the New Testament, I see the first apostles moving from place to place, planting churches, and encouraging them, before moving on. New churches got ‘the best’ help when they were at their most embryonic, when they were starting out. Over time we see those churches grow and develop, and new local leaders take on more and more local responsibility.

As a church here in Cheltenham, we have just sent a group of people into another church in the town which was on it’s last legs. The vision for that church is to grow, to raise up it’s own leaders, to make a huge impact in that area of the town. Initially, as the ‘mother church’ we are having to invest and support and encourage. They are getting a significant investment of our time and resources and people – some of the best we can offer. Over time, whilst links will always be strong, our involvement will surely diminish as that church spreads it’s own wings and begins to fly. It’s our first (but hopefully not last) venture such as this, and I’m sure we have, and will make many mistakes along the way. But I sense that we are bumbling, in our own imperfect way, into something that resonates, al-be-it faintly, with New-Testament times.

Someone, who was involved in running a conference, once said to me that hopefully, a few years down the line when the conference got big enough, it would be able to attract higher profile worship leaders, but for the moment they would have to make do with more local unknown people. And I sort of see what they were saying.

But something about this feels up-side-down.

Surely the aim of a church or conference or whatever, over time, should be to have less and less reliance on the ‘high profile’ itinerant leader or worship leader. Surely it’s aim shouldn’t be to get strong enough so that it can attract the ‘high profile’ people, but that it becomes strong enough so that it doesn’t need them so much. And surely this is what apostlistic ministry is about: not to develop resources for the church – providing an ever increasing volume of book, songs and cd’s – but to develop leaders of the church, so that they can do it themselves.

So it can become truly local.

Grown up.

It can then place more emphasis on developing it’s own creative mind, heart and soul. Write songs just to serve it’s own congregation. Record albums just to serve it’s own membership. Write books that speak into the lives of their own communities. Spread it’s wings and fly.