Sufjan Stevens: The Savior of Christian Music

What Christians and the Church can learn from an artist and his art

If you’re lucky, you have a friend like my buddy Nathan. Since meeting him in 1995, I have had my music collection triple because of his recommendations and gifts. From Soul Coughing to Tool, Nathan has turned me on to some of the best bands of the last twenty years. For a while, before he became a father and I became a minister, we used to get together regularly to walk our dogs, cook food together, have marathon Parcheesi sessions, listen to music, and drink wine. A lot of wine.

On one night of particularly copious imbibing, 10 years ago, Nathan hit play on Sufjan Steven’s masterpiece, Come on Feel the Illinoise. From the opening chords—so reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band without being derivative—I was in love. I think I made Nathan play the track “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” five times, tears streaming down my face the whole while. I’ll admit, I was in my cups, but that song still has the power to reduce me to a sobbing mess with just the opening lines.

7 Hopes for the Church this Easter

There are many reasons to be down on the church. Prominent church leaders appear regularly in the news, too often in the midst of a scandal. Some churches have aligned themselves with political forces, making demands of others veiled in the language of freedom. Religious affiliation and church attendance are trending downward at an accelerating rate with no end in sight.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful for the church. We are Easter people who remember that only a few faithful souls remained at the foot of the cross. We take heart in the example of the mustard seed. We know that the church desperately needs reformation but we believe that God is capable of providing that and more when people stand ready to co-create a new future.

In watching, listening for, and experiencing the challenges and opportunities I see in the church today, I have the following hopes for the church:

7 Reasons Your Church Should have a Front Porch

Do you know your neighbors well enough to realize whether something horrible is happening in the house down the street? To call them if you need help? To trust that they’d put themselves at risk to help you?

Author Peter Lovenheim asked these questions in an opinion piece he wrote for The Washington Post following the rescue of several individuals who were held captive for a decade in a Cleveland home. It’s a great article worthy of your time and consideration.

The neighborhood my family lives in is pleasant with well kept homes, lawns, and its fair share of high fences. It is also quiet and you have to be quite forward, and most certainly extroverted, if you want to get to know your neighbors. It is typical of many neighborhoods built in the late 20th century where the privacy of a backyard and interior comfort trumped the desire to create shared communal space.

Trick-or-Treat by Matt via Flickr, CC 3.0.

In contrast to our neighborhood is a different one just down the hill. While backyards and fences still abound, a commons with a playground is central. Most of the homes also have a feature that the ones in our neighborhood don’t; a front porch. When Halloween came around last Fall, this neighborhood was frenetic as the act of trick or treating became an all ages street party. In contrast, our neighborhood remained quiet.

While we might be tempted to overlook the value of a front porch, where one spends their time seems to make all the difference. My wife grew up in an older neighborhood where porches were common and I am regularly amazed at the information one accrues through impromptu encounters while porch-sitting. Years later, and thousands of miles away, she is still more likely to recall the names (and sordid details of the lives) of those neighbors she grew up with than the ones who live around us today.

The same thing is true for churches; each chooses, intentionally or unintentionally, a direction to orient its corporate life. Some churches spend their days lounging about on the front porch, developing a real awareness of, and becoming known by, their neighbors. Others spend their energy, almost exclusively, hosting weekly meals around the dinner table (worship) and the occasional social barbecue in the backyard (potlucks).

In this era where so many churches are struggling to grow and connect with new people, I wonder if it isn’t long overdue that we reevaluate where we spend our time and energy. Some churches already understand the value of connecting with their neighbors, deeply listening, and letting ministry flow from what bubbles up. These churches have done the hard work of shifting their orientation from inward to outward.

Churches that reorient themselves outward tend to develop some unique characteristics that stand in contrast to those experienced in churches that focus inward. Here are 7 reasons your church may want to move toward an outward-oriented ministry on the front porch.

The Church Needs More Innovative Pastors like MTV Needs More Twerking*

The next time I hear a consultant argue that what the church really needs is more innovative pastors I may go ballistic. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against innovation or against innovative pastors. The church certainly needs transformation and we desperately need folks with new ideas. My problem is with the tendency to locate innovation with the clergy and the way that perpetuates a savior mythology, one that oppresses them as much as it does us wee lay folk.

Everett M. Rogers is famous for popularizing a theory explaining the technology adoption lifecycle within his book, Diffusion of Innovations. While the theory was originally developed studying farmers, it has been applied widely to other fields (no pun intended) to help us understand how innovation occurs. Rogers visually presented the adoption of new technology with a bell curve similar to the one accompanying this article.

A Modern Reworking of St. Patrick’s Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Lorica, more commonly referred to as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, is an ancient Christian incantation attributed to Patrick of Ireland, the Romano-British missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland in the second half of the 5th century. As they are prone to do, scholars debate whether the historical Patrick actually wrote the Breastplate with some dating its creation to the 8th century.

Patrick would become the country’s most famous patron saint. In popular folklore, he taught the pagan Irish about the Trinity with a shamrock, grew trees from his walking stick, and magically banished snakes from Ireland. The date of Saint Patrick’s death became a widely celebrated holiday, a day of Irish pride, and occasion for drinking beer with unhealthy amounts of green dye.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate has found its way into Christian practice in a variety of shapes and forms. A number of translations can be found with a quick internet search. In some, portions of the Lorica that are incomprehensible, or even offensive to some today, are left out without mention.

What follows isn’t an attempt to faithfully transcribe the author’s original intent. Some of that is lost to the ages and most certainly burdened with the baggage of primitive belief and druidic superstition. Instead, while seeking to be appropriately referential (and reverential), this reworking seeks to provide a prayer that can be understood within a modern context. I hope you find it helpful.

Swinging for the Fences

Is your church really preparing people to play the game Jesus is calling them to?

I recall playing a season of tee ball at some point during my elementary school career. I only remember a couple things about that experience. One, I was older than most of the other kids and two, despite that fact, and the whole ball-sitting-still-on-a-tee thing; I wasn’t very good.

I was in a meeting recently and we were asked to list the things that were necessary for discipleship to occur. We tend to talk a lot about discipleship nowadays, largely because we know that something is amiss in our experience and practice of it today. We sense the sharp difference between the common experience of church membership and the call to discipleship Jesus makes in the Gospels.

Our conversation veered toward the challenge in many churches where people seem more intent on receiving services, and with keeping up appearances, than upon giving or serving in risk-taking ways. As we talked, it struck me that the people in the pews might not be the problem. Instead, isn’t it actually true that pastors and other leaders are changing the rules of the game on them?

Community and the Things Trolls Kill

If you aren’t overly concerned about relationships, there is a good chance you could be a troll.

The word ‘troll’ is used on the Internet to describe a person “who posts a deliberately provocative message with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.” If you’ve never seen a troll in action, find a provocative topic on a popular blog or news site and work your way down to the comments section. In and among the people seeking to engage in genuine conversation are the trolls who poke, prod, and bully others, quickly stifling the possibility of any real dialogue.

In the religious world, trolls come in all shapes, sizes, and theological perspectives. Researchers at the University of Manitoba released a study late in 2013 showing that internet trolls bear strong correlations to sadists, or as Slate puts it, they really are horrible people.” These are the people who are quick to judge and carefree in their naming of heretics worthy of the flames of hell.