Christian Music & Arts: Creative Licence or Trying Too Hard?

Hillsong

In case you are not aware, Hillsong has been in the internet spotlight this week. In Hillsong NYC’s Women’s Conference, it was reported that a youth leader dressed up and appeared as the Naked Cowboy. Over in Hillsong London, concern has been expressed over a voodoo ritual being used in a segment of the 2016 Easter Special.

It is, as always, very interesting to read the comments, both for and against. In the “for” camp, these would argue for relevance and defend the creative freedom to share the gospel in any way that is effective. In the “against” camp, those who are bold enough to say anything about holiness and purity are promptly labelled as modern day Pharisees.

I wasn’t at either location or presentation so I don’t have the full picture of what really went on or how these came about. But still – Why have a semi-naked youth pastor on stage? Was the ritual just a creative portrayal of evil, or an actual offering of occultic worship? Were these necessary at all?

The side story is equally interesting. Thanks, Dr Michael Brown, for writing When Hillsong Offends the Naked Cowboy.

Apparently, the original Naked Cowboy, Robert John Burck, is an ordained minister; yes, a clergyman! According to a statement issued by his representative, “Mr. Burck is an Ordained Minister & would NEVER attend church in the house of the Lord in his Trade Dress and is EXTREMELY offended by this activity due to his deep Christian beliefs and respect for the process of gathering in the name of Jesus Christ and in the presence of God to worship and praise the Holy Father.”

Although Mr Burck would never appear “naked” in a church setting, he has no problem with being the Naked Cowboy in the streets of New York. I can’t help but wonder: Was he upset that nakedness was displayed in a Christian meeting? Or that the necessary permission was not sought and as a result, he wasn’t paid royalty for the use of his Trade (un)Dress?

This reminded me of something I encountered some years back which prompted me to write No Sports Bras in Church Please. Addressing the issue of modesty in a youth camp, the leader reminded campers to be appropriately dressed. Sounds right and commendable. However, the message that is being conveyed is: When in church or in a Christian setting, it is clear that certain things are out of bounds, not even to be considered. But when you’re out in the world, everything is fair game and par for the course. Sadly, we don’t realise it but we practise this often. No wonder Christians are often viewed as hypocrites.

By this, I am in no way advocating that we bring what is in the world into the Church, that we may appear to appear consistent and relevant. That said, I am all for recovering what has been lost to the enemy, to redeem music and the arts for the kingdom of God. But what does this really mean in practice? How far can or should one go in the name of creative and artistic licence? Is it ok as long as the name of Jesus is proclaimed? Does the Church need to try so hard to make the good news even better than it already is?

Unfortunately, the line has become so blurred that it is not quite as easy to determine when it is crossed. I know that this should not be the case at all, that it should be plain and simple, black and white. However, seeing how everyone has an opinion, and how everything can be justified these days, the only certainty is that the responses will comprise of varying shades of grey.

Note: Brian Houston, Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church, explains in Have You Heard The One About The Cowboy? that the appearance was “unauthorised” and that “It won’t happen again.”

The Lim Tribe: Serving the Lord Together

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This June, I spoke at three church camps (Shekinah AG Church, Bartley Christian Church and Hakka Methodist Church).

And for two of these, Serene and the children came along at the invitation of the camp committees. It was truly a joy for me to have them all serve alongside me in various capacities. Needless to say, I was very proud of each of them as they took to their tasks, desiring to do their very best.

Through their support and contribution, I had a beautiful revelation of the joy we bring to our Heavenly Father when we too serve Him, not out of duty, obligation or coercion, but with love, joy and gladness.

“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

No Worries, My Dad’s Got My Back!

Father and Son on KeyboardsEver since David, my eldest, had a chance to jam and play with the worship team at the tender age of nine, he has always done well and held his own. Gifted with a musical talent, today at 16 years old, he writes songs, arranges music, and plays the guitar, keyboards, bass and drums.

I can’t remember when this photo was taken … perhaps 2006 or 2007? But when I saw this photo again just the other day, it brought a smile to my face. Yet, more than the cute little boy grinning at the keyboards, it was the message in the picture that really warmed my heart and greatly encouraged me … that of a father supporting his son from behind.

I believe it is also like that with our Heavenly Father. He is always giving us the opportunity and exposure to excel that we might bring Him joy and pleasure. He allows us to think that we are doing really well on our own, but in truth, He is always there looking on and looking out for us. For sure, He never leaves nor forsakes us. Should we miss a note or a beat, we can be certain that our Abba Father will more than make up for our shortfalls and mistakes.

This is the grace we enjoy and the assurance we carry in our hearts as we serve Him in the assignments He has given to us. We just do our best and leave the rest to Him. No worries, my Dad’s got my back!

 

Expressionless Worship

If you lead worship from the front of stage, I am certain you would have encountered some of these so-called ‘worshippers’ before. You can spot them a mile away — yes, they are the ones with arms firmly folded and blank looks on their faces. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fast or a slow song, a familiar or a new song, a hymn or a chorus, the expression (or the lack of, more accurately) on their faces reveal absolutely nothing. They look more like in a poker game than in an environment of praise and worship to a Most High God!

It boggles and befuddles me totally! What makes it even harder to understand is that these are the same ones who, just a moment ago before the session started, were spewing Scriptures and encouraging others towards deeper faith and obedience to God! They speak passionately of personal interests and pursuits! And surprise, surprise, they can even laugh when a joke is cracked! But the moment the music starts, a sudden stupor comes over them, their arms fold and their faces grow stone cold. And that posture remains throughout declarative statements like, “How great is our God!”, “How marvellous! How wonderful!”, “Jesus shall take the highest honour!” and “Amazing grace how sweet the sound”. And don’t even try changing keys! It only encourages them to embrace themselves even more tightly.

Please, I am not begrudging anyone of different styles and personal preferences of praise and worship. That is not the issue here! If worship is the ascribing of the “worth-ship” of God, that He is totally worthy of all honour and praise, surely it must involve some expression! What place does expressionless worship have in the lives of believers? Can we call it worship then?

The Bible is replete with physical expressions of praise and worship, encouraging God’s people to shout, to make a joyful noise, to clap, to dance! For sure there are also times to keep silent, to ponder, to reflect. I am no Hebrew scholar but I really don’t think any of these contain nuances that suggest the folding of arms, the courteous movement of lips and the tuning out of minds until the Levites go for their coffee break.

Of course, what we don’t want are professional or religious worshippers who know how to fake it with all the right moves. Jesus warns of these when He quoted Isa 29:13 (NLT): “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” On the contrary, what the Lord is seeking in this day are true worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). What this means literally is that God desires that we worship and praise Him from the depths and the honesty of our hearts. In this regard, what is in our hearts must outflow into our physical expressions of worship!

And if we have truly experienced the love of God, the grace that cost Jesus His life on the cross, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the faithfulness that sustains us day to day, mercies which are new every morning, how can we but burst forth with great gratitude and deep appreciation? That is why I sing out loud, I dance with joy, I raise my hands in surrender and I bawl uncontrollably. My entire being is involved in praise and in worship because my God deserves everything I can give and more!

Oh, may all the saints encounter afresh the greatness of our God that this oxymoron of expressionless worship be totally weeded out of our midst, that we may all join with David as he boldly declares:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul
And all that is within me
Bless His Holy Name!” Psalm 103:1

Taking Things For Granted In Singapore

I am thankful for the freedom to worship in Singapore. Without having to worry too much about anything, even with today’s sensitive and tolerance issues, we can gather safely in churches, in offices, in homes as Christians to sing, to praise, to preach, to study the Bible, and even to share the good news of Jesus. In case we forget – and we tend to – this is an awesome privilege never to be taken for granted.

Whilst we enjoy this status in Singapore, the same cannot be said of Christians in other countries. Allow me to share a little about what a dear brother-in-Christ is presently going through:

Pastor John [not his real name] had planted a church in the city of Bekasi (about an hour from Jakarta) some years ago. The church grew and things were going well until they had to change their location of worship in July 2012. Just 1.5 months in the new place, they were confronted by a group of Muslims demanding for them to stop holding services in that shop house. When they continued to worship there, the group interrupted the service in November while Pastor John was preaching, shouting for them to close the church. A discussion followed but the group would not accept anything.

The next day, the Police contacted Pastor John and warned him of the group’s intention to use force to expel the church from the shop house. Considering the safety of his flock and family, Pastor John had no choice but to move out. Since that decision, they have been meeting in various places, but primarily in a member’s home. Over time, some have left the church out of fear and numbers have dwindled.

In their search for a more permanent place of worship, Pastor Paul has identified a meeting room that is presently rented to another church in the afternoon. The morning slot is still available but the church does not have the funds to commit to the rent of Rp1,000,000 (approx S$128) per week for a term of one year. But until they raise enough funds, they will have to meet in the home, constantly under the threat of being confronted and challenged by the opposition.

When I learned of this, it really challenged my perspectives and preoccupations in the ministry. In Singapore, we fret about the lack of worship venues and churches in industrial and commercial properties are concerned if they might evicted. Still, these number in the hundreds and worship services continue. In looking for viable locations, we complain about the lack of parking spaces and the distance from bus-stops, MRT stations and food courts(?!). We gripe about anything and everything that does not sit well with our preferences and demands. Perhaps, things would change if a group barged into our services shouting and wielding machetes, you think?

No, this is definitely not what I am praying for. Instead, I am praying that in our affluence and  comfort, we do not become complacent and take things for granted. I am praying that we learn to recognise and seize the tremendous opportunity we have to freely preach and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. For all we know, this might just be the God-given window we have before circumstances change.

For starters, I am praying for Pastor John and his church in Bekasi. And I am going to sow into his church fund.

NOTE: For reasons of sensitivity and security, I have deliberately not named the pastor and the church. If you feel led to contribute, it will have to be on the basis of trust via my account. Please note that I am doing this in my personal capacity because of my relationship with Pastor John. If you need more information or clarification, please email me at henson@covenantvision.org.

UPDATE [20 June 2013]: I am pleased to update that the moment this post was published, a dear sister contacted me about contributing funds amounting to six months rental! A while later, another sister messaged me to contribute — twice. Just yesterday, a couple gave enough to cover rental for another six months. I have already informed Pastor John of the good news, that he can commit to a full year’s rental. I am so thankful to these who gave as prompted and led by the Lord. Surely, they shall reap as they have sown. Indeed, our God is faithful and His arm is never too short! All glory to Him!

A Positive Church Experience Is Nice But Not Enough

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This has become a concern as I interact more with various Christians facing challenges and difficulties in their situations and spiritual walk. In the course of our conversation, I would always ask them where they worshipped at. This would indicate at least three things to me: one, if they belonged to a local church; two, if they are regular in their attendance at this community; and, three, if they are actively involved in the life of this community.

Without prompting, these would proceed to describe their church experience, and it would usually sound like this: “Oh, I enjoy the fellowship. The worship (referring to the time of singing) is wonderful and touches my heart. The messages are really good and I am always blessed by the preaching of the Word. The pastor is very nice and friendly.” In other words, on the surface, everything sounds ok to me … you are blessed and having a great time in this church.

And so, I ask the next question, “Why aren’t you talking to your pastor or church community about this problem you are facing right now?” And almost always, the reasons given do not necessarily line up with the positive church experience described, ranging from “I don’t feel a connection or belonging,” to “I don’t think it would be right to discuss this with my church,” to “My church doesn’t teach us to handle such challenges.”

As I thought about this, I realised something about this rather common occurence: All these may have had a nice, positive church experience. But the main question that must be asked is, “Have these grown in the Lord at all?” Sadly, from what is shared and observed, I don’t think so. This may sound overly harsh, but it is the truth. The scary thing is that these can quite readily quote Scripture and spew Christian slogans as well as any other believer. But they go on living compromised lives, basking in the feel-good messages of God’s love and grace. They are deluded and deceived into thinking that as long as the church experience is positive, they are ok. NO, IT IS NOT!

I believe these are not isolated cases that I have come across in my limited sphere of ministry. Given today’s consumer culture that has crept into the Christian community, more and more are going to church for that feel-good factor. This explains the musical-church phenomenon that is so prevalent amongst believers as they scout for the best speaker, the message, the ambience, the experience, the goose bumps, the worship team, the children’s ministry, the youth ministry, and the menu for Sunday lunch. If they feel good about it, they stay. And if they don’t feel good, it’s time to be ‘led by the Spirit’ to look for another church.

In case anyone misunderstands me, or the point of this article (rant), I am not begrudging anyone of a great time in the community and fellowship of believers. As a pastor, I definitely do not wish for my congregation to be dragging their feet to church, or dreading another Sunday morning, or another sermon preached by yours truly (God forbid!). But more than just a positive church experience, my deepest desire is for each to grow and mature in Christ.

To this end, I am challenging and provoking us all to reflect and ponder more deeply what our faith is really about. Is it just about having a good time, being entertained and feeling good about ourselves? I think not! We have been saved from sin and judgment for a plan and a purpose! Hey, Jesus paid a high price for that! The spiritual journey is about growth and maturity towards the image of Christ. Along the way, we must be meaningfully engaged in the ministry and mission for the sake of Jesus and His Kingdom.

Don’t be fooled that everything is fine just because your church experience is fun and happy-clappy, or if bank accounts are full and life appears good. The Pharisees and the rich of Jesus’ day were all deceived into thinking they were the ones more favoured and blessed of God. We could as easily fall into the same trap.

All said, praise God if you are really enjoying church and Christian fellowship! But don’t stop there. Ponder the following questions, and allow the Holy Spirit to search deep to reveal what is truly in your heart …

  1. Is it primarily all about you, your emotions and your desires?
  2. Have you placed church experience above your relationship with God?
  3. Do you worship God for who He is, or only for what He can do for you?
  4. Is worship defined as a good song that brings tingles and tears, or a response to the awesomeness of God?
  5. Do you know and agree with the vision and mission of your church?
  6. Are you contributing, with God’s help, to the fulfilment of this vision and mission?
  7. Is it just between you and God, or are you connected with others who truly love Jesus?
  8. Are you willing to be held accountable, allowing others to speak the truth into your life?
  9. Is confession and repentance something you do regularly?
  10. Are you a taker or a giver?
  11. Do you ask “what’s in it for me?” or “who/what/where have you called me to serve, Lord?”
  12. Do you enjoy church only for yourself, or do you derive joy from serving God and others?
  13. Do you get upset and think of leaving when things don’t go your way in the church?
  14. Are you following the crowd, or truly being led by the Holy Spirit?
  15. Do you read your Bible? Do you know and abide in the Word?
  16. Are you a hearer and a doer of the Word? Are you applying all you are learning?
  17. Are you one who professes faith with no works to show for it?
  18. Do you only talk Christian but not live Christian?
  19. Are you growing and maturing spiritually?
  20. Are you pursuing a life of holiness by His grace, or presuming upon His grace with a life of compromises and excuses?
  21. Do you love Jesus as King and Lord of your life?
  22. Are you one of the multitude, or are you a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  23. Are you willing to surrender, to yield, to deny yourself, to take up your cross and to follow Jesus?

Water from the Wells of Salvation

My impression of the book of Isaiah is that it is one l-o-n-g book of 66 chapters.  It surprised me this morning when I “stumbled” upon Isaiah 12.  My eyes fell on Isaiah 11 first and I began reading it, moving on to Isaiah 12.  I found myself drawn to the beautiful words of this “hymn of praise” (NKJV).

To my surprise, I discovered that there are only six verses in this chapter – the shortest chapter in the entire book!  And yet, it is packed with such wonderful truths and promises.  In these six short verses, you will find themes of praise, mercy, grace, comfort, strength, trust, salvation, joy, worship and exaltation!  What wonderful material for meditation!  What truths that bring joy, comfort and strength!

And in that day you will say:

“O LORD, I will praise You;
Though you were angry with me,
Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me.
Behold, God is my salvation,
I will trust and not be afraid;
‘For YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song;
He also has become my salvation.'”

Therefore with joy you will draw water
From the wells of salvation.

And in that day you will say:

“Praise the LORD, call upon His name;
Declare His deeds among the peoples,
Make mention that His name is exalted,
Sing to the LORD,
For He has done excellent things;
This is known in all the earth.
Cry out and shout, O inhabitant of Zion,
For great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst!”

My favourite line is found in verse 3 … “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  This is a promise for every child of God.  And yet, there are so many who are parched and dry.  These are either not aware of the wells, or have forgotten to draw daily from the rivers of living water.  I will be the first to admit that I often fall into the latter category.  In my busyness and hurriedness to do the work of the ministry, I find myself “dehydrated”.  My intentions may be good, desiring to serve the Lord and give my very best, but good intentions are not enough.  Over time, I dry up and burn out, even very possibly serving out of drudgery and not with joy and gladness.

Isaiah 12:3 is a reminder for me, as for many others I believe … “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  How refreshing!  How revitalising!  Verse 1 & 4 declare, “In that day you will say …”  That day can be today!  Lay hold of these six verses and the promises in them!

My brothers and sisters in Christ, and fellow ministers, may you be encouraged by this as you continue to serve the Holy One of Israel!