March 31, 2009

Music and Mission, part I: Terra Nova, part 2

It was through the course of our fundraising that I started to wonder if I really wanted to be a pastor; after all, the church wasn't exactly on top of things when it came to postmodernism, and besides, I was starting to wonder how much Christians in general actually cared about Jesus or what He had to say. Church started feeling a bit bitter to me, with every disappointment another confirmation that I might be barking up the wrong tree. But Ruth had the same discontent, and our church plant was the chance to do something about it.

So off we went. I had delusions of grandeur in my head, about how all my theories of postmodernism were going to come in handy, how I was the expert, yadda yadda yadda. Naturally, this was all obliterated in the first month when I realized that I had no clue what I was talking about. Theory is, after all, nice and tidy only until it's actually put into practice. So since I had the chance (how many times was I going to get to live in Australia?), I enrolled in the FORGE missional training program to get some perspective on Australian culture and maybe learn a few things about being a missionary at the same time.

It turned out to be a life-altering decision.

If you've never heard of FORGE, I'm not surprised - most Americans haven't. However, some of you may have read The Shaping of Things to Come, by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, both of whom happen to be the co-founders of the FORGE program (the book was actually written as a textbook for FORGE). In any case, FORGE is based on the principles of "action-reflection" learning, the opposite of most seminary educations. The idea is that one must participate in an internship as the cornerstone of the program and thus praxis, action, and activity are the basis for learning; one then reflects on the actions to garner the theory, which is then put into papers and then reapplied back into the internship. It is supposed to be a holistic model of education, and it seems to fare rather well.

I was placed in a social-poverty agency in the inner city called Urban Seed for my internship, which changed my perspective on a lot. In fact, what I hadn't expected was that the whole cross-cultural experience in the inner-city showed me more about being an American - and an American Christian in particular - than I learned about Australian culture. Take consumerism for example: we in the west, and especially in America, are prone to it because our culture is founded on acquisition. I was once asked if "Desperate Housewives" is what suburban life is like. I laughed it off as ridiculous and said no, but started to wonder how much of a charicature it really is. I wondered if our worship services hadn't become much the same, weekly (or more often, several times a week) performances to be consumed, dramatizing an otherwise mundane and selfish culture. In the first six months, this persuaded me that my dreams of being a worship pastor may have been misplaced, that maybe what American churches needed were not more worship pastors, but more people who were missionaries in their own culture, people who were more concerned with being a positive influence in their local communities in the name of Christ than with tauting the party line or overworking themselves to maintain their steady salary. Worship without relationship is meaningless.

The Gathering during lunch at Credo Cafe (part of Urban Seed) messed with me a lot. The lunch is a time for people of any stripe - housewives, prostitutes, lawyers, heroin addicts, and anyone in between - to gather together as one community for a meal and fellowship. Everyone learns an awful lot from each other, the ultimate liminal experience (as the sociologist says), and, for the most part, is better for it. But the Gathering is their once-a-week worship gig just before lunch, and everyone is invited to come. But let's face it, the group, while mostly artists, is not full of professional musicians. They take whoever they can get to lead singing, and to someone like me who had been usd to much more professional sounding music, it was ... harsh to the ears.

But it was also passionate in a way I'd never expected.

By the time we came home, I had no idea what to do with my life, once again. The Gathering made me wonder how necessary worship arts staff are in a church; if they could worship without the "show" part of it, maybe it wasn't something in which I should invest my time. The time at mimos, too, was a time of less-professional worship, a smaller community gathering in the back room of a pub and playing quiet, reflective music for singing, but also providing times of reflection over scripture and candlelight and holding communion as a meal bought from the pub. Let me tell you, they had wonderful french fries and a fantastic Kangaroo dish that melted in my mouth. I've missed it since I've been home. The community was genuine - everyone wanted to be there and felt no obligation to it; people even volunteered to pray on a regular basis, negotiating with others for the chance. With a church like that, who needed all those paid positions? Worship was as much participation as it was singing, and the dawning realization made me frustrated with my chosen career path.

But seminary still seemed important for some reason, if only because I had no clue what to do next. If anything, at the very least it meant I'd be able to influence people in the church because I had "MDiv" on my resume, and, after all, people listen to other people who have that sort of thing. Naive, I know, but it was my first ESJ class that began to get me thinking again. On a whim, I took a class called "The Change Agent in Missions" with a professor named Mike. Mike is an anthropologist, a student of humanity through the ages, but more importantly, he's also a missionary. Mike talked a lot about culture, about how we view culture, how we participate in culture, and finally, how we change culture. But his views on this were once again participatory - we are to change culture from within, as "change agents", rather than as outside directors. We are to be with the people, living as they live, eating as they eat, but using our growing understanding to show them in terms they understand how their decisions could be better. His rationale? Jesus was like that.

What if worship was like that?

(to be continued ...)

March 26, 2009

Update

Just a quick update, for those of you waiting with baited breath (weirdest phrase ever, by the way) for the next post in my series on music and mission. I've been in the process of re-vamping my entire laptop because HP programs were slowing it down ... a lot. You might say I gave it a personality transplant; I obtained Vista Ultimate from a friend and have since been installing it and formatting hard drives and installing drivers and all that. But in the process, I may have lost the text file I'd saved for all of the work on this series. So it may be a few days before I'm back up and running again, but at least the lappy is working faster.

March 24, 2009

Evasion Stratagem

Jeff found these pictures on the interwebs this week and ... let's just say you ought to view them before you drink anything.


March 23, 2009

Question of the Day

What, to you, are the most pressing social issues facing the Church today?

Post your thoughts in the comments section!

March 19, 2009

Music and Mission, part I: Terra Nova I

This is a story of discontents, of how one discontent after another led me to where I am now. I know it's a long story, but if I'm going to get to the bigger picture, this is necessary material. I hope it's not TOO boring, but bear with me.

I suppose I should start by saying that this is not exactly the path I had planned. I know that everybody says that, but in my case, it's pretty easy to tell. See, when I was a kid, everybody knew I was going into science. I excelled in all of my science courses, pursued science on the side, ate, slept, and breathed science. Biology, in particular, became my biggest obsession; living systems fascinate me. I couldn't decide between biochemistry, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology - they were all fascinating. Eventually, however, neuroscience won out, and I enrolled at the University of Rochester, one of few universities in the US with an undergrad neuro program. Everyone expected great things.

Somewhere in the midst of my freshman year, though, I started to have doubts. I know everybody does, but these were on a more fundamental level. I was doing pretty well in my classes until my advisor, a geologist (who knew nothing about neuroscience) advised me to enroll in an advanced biochemistry course in my second semester of college, a course that required organic chemistry, which I had not yet taken. Needless to say, I tanked it with a D, something I'd never done before. It threw me for a loop, but it was the wakeup call I needed. I had always enjoyed working labs for science, but they were controlled labs with predictable results; I started wondering if I really wanted to do true research, the kind where I had to invent the experiments myself, the kind where I had to spend my every waking moment in a white polished room in a jacket with goggles on.

I hated the goggles.

By my sophomore year, when I realized how terrible I was at memorizing chemical formulas in organic chemistry (using them was easy, but remembering what they were to use them was another matter), I realized that R&D wasn't my thing. I briefly toyed with the idea of changing to Evolutionary Biology, but my parents convinced me I shouldn't do that (although I still don't know why it was such a big deal to them). My music minor suddenly started looking more and more promising; I've always been a musician, but never had it pegged as a career simply because everyone told me it wouldn't help me earn a living.

Apparently, artists only get paid, like, a dollar or something.

Still, the idea of excelling in something that might not earn as much money beat trying to be mediocre in something that might pay more. I changed my major a week later. But something was still missing. It was when I realized that I play too many instruments that I couldn't focus exclusively on music; I'm sort of a "jack of all trades, master of none" sort of guy; I'll play what I play decently well, but I'm not exactly Dave Matthews on my guitar, Kenny G on my saxophone, etc. I can't even name a famous horn player, but I wouldn't be him either.

But I really, really liked leading worship. I had started a worship team for Campus Crusade in my sophomore year at the urging of my friend Rob. I'd never realized how much I liked it, how much the glove fit, as it were. I signed up for an internship that summer at a local church, and after that summer, I was hooked.

Sort of.

So I'm wishy-washy. Fine, I'll admit to being occasionally dissatisfied with the status quo, but it's worked in my favor so far. I wouldn't be where I am without what I hope is a healthy discontent with mediocrity.

I loved my music theory classes, but the history courses were tailored for music education majors; I wasn't one. I finished two of them before I couldn't take it anymore - and not for want of a good professor either, Dr. Meconi was a wonderful storyteller and very encouraging of my interests. Still, something just didn't sit right, and it was then that I "happened" upon a unique program at the University of Rochester: the Department of Interdepartmental Studies.

That's right, it gets a whole department.

Basically, it's a cross-disciplinary program that allows students to build their own majors. The idea is that since the world is becoming increasingly specialized, the students shouuld be allowed to pursue specialized interests from the start and not "waste" time on parts of majors they don't need. For example, if one wanted to major in music recording, one need not waste time with a lot of music history, and can instead take extra courses in recording; my friend Steph did that.

In my case, I decided to build my own worship arts program at a secular university. I called it "Music in Christianity" and it combined courses in Christian history with music theory, and tied it all together with an eight-credit thesis project. In the course of my study I'd come across a word that I couldn't shake from my mind: postmodernism. It kept cropping up everywhere, but nobody seemed to know what to do with it, especially my Christian friends. So I decided to do my research thesis on this "postmodernism" idea, and since I had to talk about music too, I decided it was the perfect chance to talk postmodern music in the Christian sphere - where did postmodernity come from, and how has it influenced Christian music.

I graduated with a 95 page paper in one hand and an honors diploma in another. I had every intention of going to grad school somewhere with a worship arts program, when God once again stuck his nose in the mix. This time, it came in the form of an invitation from a friend of my wife. Ruth wanted to know if Liz and I wanted to take a year and help them plant a church in Melbourne, Australia.

And how do you say no to something like that?

(to be continued)

March 14, 2009

Music and Mission: Introduction

They've been called the worship wars for a reason. Congregations have split because of differences of opinion; new churches start because they don't find a style they prefer; relationships have been broken, people have been hurt, and worst, fewer people are shown the love of Christ, but are instead shown the malice of the humanity of his followers.

Music is a powerful tool. It provokes the deepest passions in all of us like little else can. Even the ancients knew of this; the Celtic Bards and the Greek Eunichs told stories through song. In the middle ages, music was what kept the hope of the peasants alive. The great composers of the renaissance and baroque were the celebrities of their day. In modern times, the best composers are no longer sought for their live performances, but for their ability to pair video with a soundtrack. And through the ages, music has been used to express the adoration of every ethnicity and nationality on earth to their respective deities.

But music is a cultural phenomenon. The music of one people, of one generation, of one composer, does not necessarily evoke the same response in others. The gregorian chant will quickly put a modern music history class to sleep, while the tones and rhythms of U2 or Coldplay will keep their attention riveted for hours. Most Americans have only heard a didgeridoo in movies without ever realizing that it is an Aboriginal storytelling instrument. Few even know what a Zither is, and none could replicate a 12-tone scale - but many Indians could. Every culture has their own form of audible art, and thus every culture has a language of worship entirely unique to themselves.

But have Christians been paying attention?

Rather than take the more traditional seminary courses, I studied anthropology, sociology, and psychology in preparation to be a worship pastor. I've decided it's time to explain why.

Missionary Networking

One of the ideas that has been increasingly fascinating to me of late is the idea of the "network." Basically, a hierarchy, is like this:

CEO -> SVP -> VP -> Peons

It's centralized at the CEO, who makes the decisions and communicates them via peons to the SVP, and so on.  Instead, a network has no leader, no "center." It is "decentralized," and yet for some reason, it works. Think of a flock of birds, who for no apparent reason all decide to change direction mid-flight - all at once. Or a school of fish. Or a protest rally. Or a protest rally that turns ugly. Or Al Qaeda. Human nature is more complicated than was previously thought; we don't need to have a solid leader to do things together, it seems, but rather we need some sort of idea that can be easily "sneezed" from one person to another, a guiding principle that motivates action. Sometimes, we will even do things in groups that we wouldn't do otherwise; we get caught up in the moment, a sort of "collective-consciousness" that nobody can quite explain.

It's amazing.

Obviously there are plenty of negative applications, but what about positives? The internet is a good example, one that has been used for both. Similarly, over time, the church has been just such a "decentralized" structure; no matter how many denominations pop up with a CEO-style visionary at the top, there are always enough others that make up for the deficiencies of the others. When one denomination suffers a major setback - say, one of its leaders gets frisky where he or she shouldn't - there are always others to pick up the slack. It's like having a spider-web; even if one node in the web breaks, the rest still hold it mostly together. Sure, they miss the one, and the web doesn't look quite as nice, but it still works.

What if this idea could be harnessed for beneficial means?

I was talking with a missionary friend the other day, and he was telling me about the environment he's working in. It's a hard place he's working in; high rate of unemployment, lots of poverty, and a culture quite at odds with the larger culture that surrounds it. And he's struggling just a bit, trying to figure out not only how the culture works and thinks, but what he can do as a missionary to help improve things in a way honoring the people and their heritage.

And it occurred to me, I know a few people who might have something to say for him, but just happen to be involved in missions in cultures around the globe. And then I thought, surely there must be other missionaries who I don't know that could help him, or at least give him some good principled advice that he could apply to his situation, stories of "well this is what WE did ...".

And then I thought, hey, this is that networking stuff.

The more I thought about it - in the shower, at my desk, during sermons at church (sorry Mike), before I fell asleep - the more I thought "this could work, we just need a place to start it." I've talked to a few friends, professors, and the like, and they all agree - a place for missional networking is desperately needed. Missionaries have so many stories that have good, practical solutions for everyday problems, stories that can help other missionaries in other cultures with solving the everyday problems a mission agency or a sending church is not equipped to think through.

We've had a few ideas; but I would love to hear yours, especially if you are a missionary. We talked through the idea of using a centralized office, but that was too impractical in this time of financial crunch. We talked through the possibility of each seminary having a small office and networking - this is, I think, the best option, but sadly a ways off. We talked about web forums and a database ... but it seems like too little, especially for missionaries in places without web access.

So that's where we are. I want to open it up, ask for some creative help.

Who out there has a good idea?

March 7, 2009

Milestone

I just happened to notice that my blog had 499 posts ... before this one. It's been five years of randomness, and this is post number 500! Not only that, but my little tracker-gizmo says I've had over 20,000 hits to the site since year number two (when I discovered the tracker-gizmo). That is a lot of people with very little time on their hands, but thank you to each of you for taking the time to read at least a little of my rambling.

So where do I find myself? Still job-hunting, of course, but feeling like an end may be in sight. I don't know what that end might look like, though.

I gave up, temporarily, the recording I was working on for "Prophesy" to try working on something a bit easier for my first time; it turns out that recording vocals is extremely difficult, and I picked the hardest song I'd written to try first. Figures, right? So I started a few "test-projects" to experiment, giving the vocals to a more ... experienced singer (my wife) so I can focus on the intricacies of recording without wondering why I sound like ... that.

Anyway, thank you to all of you who've read this long; I promise, I'm t
rying to think of some new topics to write on. Perhaps suggestions are in order from you, the readers? Just leave them in the comments section.

[The Management]