Church Together 2013 the reluctant review

There are two reasons if you’re a Christian why you won’t like this post. So I thought before I begin I’d try and address each of them.

Firstly I believe that discernment plays an important part in being a healthy Christian. As I reflected on my experience at Church Together and heard many people heap unqualified praise on the event, I couldn’t help but think there is lack of “biblical” discernment in many church circles. To be fair I think this is for good reason. Generally we don’t like to disagree with other Christians. People don’t like to rock the boat. People don’t like to look “judgmental” and harsh. The message that many Christians are taught about Jesus and the Bible is often an overly positive one which leaves little space for discernment, criticism, hell, and other less palatable doctrines.

The problem is that the Bible speaks of all these very things. Testing things (1 Thessalonians 5) holding on to what is good, encouraging others and refuting those who oppose (Titus 1). In 2 Timothy 4 church leaders are called to correct rebuke and encourage. Rebuking is mentioned in Titus 1 and 2.  In 1 Tim 4 we are also encouraged to watch life and doctrine closely. Discernment is commended in Philippians 1:10.

It’s often lost on Christians just how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct false teaching. You can see this in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians, Colossians. That’s before we get to the many serious warnings about false teaching that are also peppered through the Old Testament and biographies of Jesus.

It’s in this spirit and context that I want you to hear what I have to say. It’s ok to say a particular doctrine is wrong, it’s ok to disagree with other Christians, it’s ok to say something is false teaching, it’s ok to say something isn’t clear or unhelpful. It’s important to be open, honest and upfront about differences. As I have argued before this is what true tolerance is. I believe this can be done well and in the right spirit, thoughtfully and lovingly. It’s for this reason that I believe that criticism of Church Together is ok*.

The second thing you might not agree with me on, is how a “sermon” is defined. You can substitute the word “message” or “homily”` if you’re old school. I think generally in most church circles this is rarely defined and often an assumed definition. In the circles I move in usually a passage from the Bible is expounded and taught. The emphasis is on teaching people and helping them understand the text and seeing how to apply it to their lives. Locate, explain, illustrate, apply is a helpful summary. In other words the text itself drives the sermon. For brevity's sake I’ll leave the definition at that

The more Pentecostal understanding of a sermon is different. In my experience, focus is not on a particular verse or passage but usually a theme. Often these are themes that come up in the Bible. Almost all Pentecostal sermons I’ve heard don’t really seem to follow a set formula or structure and some are better with their use of the Bible than others. Now my point here is not to define what a sermon is, but for you to understand that what was “preached” at Church Together, would not fit either my, or a Pentecostal definition of a sermon. In fact I wouldn't even call it a good motivational talk but I’ll get to that later.

The Good
My purpose for visiting Church Together wasn’t to write a review. Those who know me personally, will know that I’m passionate about improving the music and the “church gathering” experience for our church on a Sunday. It was in this spirit that I went along, hoping to learn how to run tighter music and have MCing that rocked. Many of the non-Pentecostal churches I have attended are very sloppy with this kind of stuff. Conversely many of the Pentecostal churches I have visited do this very well. And boy, they delivered.

The music was excellent. All the music was live, no room for lip syncing here. I hadn’t heard most of the songs, but the lyrics were more thoughtful, dare I say theological, most unlike the Hillsong music of old. The tunes were catchy and musicians built up tension skillfully, pulling back quietly in other parts. It was very, very well done. The musicians were well dressed and the stage was free of mess and clutter. The musicians were confident and the music was loud, something I think in my circles we could certainly do with more of. There wasn’t too much clapping and jumping around, and the vibe was energetic rather than frenzied. While I’m sure this is not everyone's cup of tea, it was overall, very well done.

The Sermon
Just before 6pm the main speaker Lisa McInnes-Smith bounded on stage. “Shake hands with he person next to you!” she exclaimed. “Are you fun to live with?” “Interactions are important, smile! Treat people well! Smile look someone in the eye!”

Lisa according to the bio on the event site boasts “Lisa is recognised among the top inspirational speakers in the church and in the corporate world.” and been inducted “International Speaker Hall of Fame, the first person living outside of North America to achieve this recognition”. The promise was of a “real and relevant message”.

Glancing over the page and half of typed notes I took, it is very hard to work out what her message actually was. I think the main point of her “sermon” was “words”. “Words have the ability to bring life but also cut people down... I have been a victim of those words my eye was born closed... people called me ugly, people teased me with words... Life's not fair”. “We need to use labels that lift people up... You're smart. I'm smart. Look at the words you speak over your life.” All of these things she spoke clearly and with passion and conviction.

She also spoke about bad words, that go out of you coming back around to hurt you “like a boomerang”. Someone beside me mentioned that sounded a lot more like Karma than Christianity. In passing she encouraged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, I think alluding to Romans 12, but didn’t really apply or explain this verse properly. Many of the things she talked about were good and helpful in and of themselves...  and while some of her ideas and concepts could be found in the Bible, she only ever really referred to it in passing. Many things she said would have been more at home in a psychology lecture.

Drawing on her background as a sports psychologist she said we ought remove all criticism from our speech. She told us how when she addressed sporting teams they weren’t permitted to be critical for a whole week. We should instead focus on what is good about people. I have some sympathy for this. At times I know I’m too critical (Don’t worry the irony of this critique is not lost on me). The impact and authority of this was then lost as she failed to tie the idea to any Biblical passage.

As she continued, my mind started going haywire trying to find categories to understand what she was talking about. I tried really hard to understand what she was saying and how it related to Jesus. Maybe this was just a motivational speech with words like Jesus, God and the Bible thrown in? Only I didn’t feel motivated. I just felt confused. Maybe she felt it too because she got everyone to their feet then asking them to squat till they felt pain in their thighs. I’m not sure how this fitted with message maybe something about pain and agony. I’m honestly not sure.

It would reactive to label what she said “false teaching”. To the best of my knowledge I don’t think she said anything that was blatantly “false”, but then I couldn’t say she explained the gospel either. It seemed ironic, that for all the talk of “words” she had little regard for clear communication and structure in her "sermon".

After around fifty minutes she stepped down. The MC, iPad in hand, then proceeded to read Romans 8 at length. He spoke of Jesus death and it’s role and function. At this point in the evening it was most welcome. It was the clearest explanation of the Christian message I heard all evening, however I wondered if the MC was tying to make for the lack of exposition and clear articulation of the Christian message in the sermon. The evening finally concluded with the inevitable alter-call to which fifty or so people responded.

Reflecting on the experience, by every measure I can think of her “message” failed. I’ve heard much better messages from other Pentecostal preachers here in Hobart. In fact I couldn’t even describe what I heard as a good motivational speech, I’ve heard better at local footy matches. If the gospel was there in her message, it wasn’t clear, at least not to me and one other person.

There were other minor things that I didn’t like about the evening, but I’ll leave them to one side for now as my original intent wasn’t to critique the event. I can’t help but think, if the preaching had been as clear, and engaging as the singing, my assessment wouldn’t have needed qualification... and my review turn into a critique.

*For the sake of brevity an eloquent and extended argument on why I agree public criticism is over here.


40 minute essay challenge!

“Beauty is only skin deep”

In life it can be hard to define terms that we use everyday. Defining beauty is one of these difficult things. When most people think of beauty they think of appearance, especially what is on the outside and most visible. However it could be argued that true beauty is deeper, more than “skin deep”. This essay will address the issue of true beauty.

Most of what we see and watch around us, reinforces set stereotypes of skin deep or superficial beauty. This includes what we watch on television, the internet and advertising that surrounds us every day. Nearly all of these things reinforce the idea the beauty is only skin deep. Beautiful enticing women are used to sell us everything from food to clothing. Muscular well chiseled men try to sell us underwear, beer and aftershave

Even some advertisements purported to be discouraging beauty myths still reinforce the idea that beauty is is on the outside rather than on the inside. This “skin deep” understanding of beauty is also very pervasive, subtle and widely accepted.

Christian theology affirms superficial beauty. Christians believe people are drawn to a creation made by God as good and visually beautiful. The Christian can praise God for the beautiful muscular body of the man, or the curvaceous body of a woman. The Christian can praise God for the beautiful mountains, sunset, and creation we live in.

Christian theology also understands that our perception of the world is tarnished by our rejection of God as the creator. Christians understand this to mean that our view of beauty is also tarnished and that we end up worshiping the beautiful world God has given us, rather than honouring it’s creator. In failing to worship God first, something in our very nature looses it’s beauty in the process. Christians understand that it’s only though restored relationship with God that we can again appreciate real true beauty and begin to understand it as something that is far more than skin deep.

More generally to argue that beauty is only skin deep is particularly narrow. It’s difficult to believe that the average person on the street would affirm this as being true. Our society often seems torn, on the one hand we surround ourselves with set patterns and stereotypes of what true beauty is. On the other hand people always seem to seek to redefine or reject stereotypes of beauty. One evidence for this comes from the many internet memes that circulate on social media that affirm that true beauty comes from within. These are not Christian in nature suggesting that people understand that something is not quite right when it comes to how our society looks at beauty. They would seem to suggest that beauty is indeed more than skin deep.

The definition of true beauty would include both internal and unseen things not just the external and seen. It could be argued that the order in which our world operates is beautiful even though we can’t visually “see” it. It could also be argued that things from Mathematics to feelings such as love, care and joy are all part of a world which is more than just visually or superficially beautiful.

While valuing external beauty Christian theology also teaches the value of beauty that is also hidden. Christians would argue that internal unseen values such as “love”, “peace” “joy”and are beautiful, when motivated by a desire to follow Jesus. A person may very well be “ugly” on the outside but very “beautiful” on the inside. Conversely a person may be very beautiful on the outside but on the inside very, very “ugly”.

In conclusion what is “true beauty”? This essay has argued that it is an internal and an external thing. Is beauty only skin deep? The answer clearly is no. Beauty in both internally and externally is affirmed both in Christian theology and the society in which we live.


A bit like Hobart all grown up

I've always said that San Francisco feels like a grown up version of Hobart. When I say “grown up” I mean bigger. I really liked that San Francisco’s “bigness”, hasn't come at the expense of it’s eclectic charm. Population wise it’s around eight hundred thousand... Hobart at about two hundred thousand, means we’re not really in the same league. That said, it did feel uncannily like Hobart.

I visited San Francisco three years ago and I loved it, in fact it’s my favourite big city. I’m not really sure why I fell in love with the place. Perhaps it was a welcome relief, after spending time in the characterless stink and heat of Los Angels. Perhaps it was the mix of European and American Architecture. Perhaps it was the hipster cafes, and minimal Walmart and Brittany Spears boringness. Maybe it was that I had a couple of mates to show me around, visiting the most expensive car dealerships you can think of...

...But back to the similarities. Hobart and San Francisco both have a lush cool climate. Both have lots of hills and greenness. Both are politically progressive or "left wing". Politically Hobart (or Denison) is one of the most left leaning seats in Australia. San Francisco is seen as a “Centre for Liberalism in America”, at least according to Wikipedia.

In both places the natural environment and landscape features prominently in peoples mindset. In San Francisco the beautiful whips and flow of fog surrounds the Golden Gate Bridge in early morning and evening. In Hobart we have the Bridgewater Jerry. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two following videos.

This video below is taken from the Marin Headland in San Francisco. I can promise you it’s as hauntingly beautiful in real life as it is in the video below, even in the mist of the traffic and tourists. Visiting it felt a little like making a pilgrimage. That said my attempt to cross the bridge on foot was thwarted by a heavily pregnant wife and young child who seemed intent on throwing a tantrum and herself off the bridge.

While watching I couldn’t help but be reminded of this video below. It’s a time-lapse taken from Hobart’s Mount Wellington looking at Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra (part of the recent dark MOFO festival in Hobart).

I love both San Francisco and Hobart and I think you’d have to agree there are some pretty neat similarities. If you ever get to visit Americaland make sure you go to San Francisco you won’t regret it. It’s a bit like Hobart but all grown up.