C3 Blog

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

When I began this series, I looked for a series of paintings or pictures based on the seven deadly sins that would illustrate each sin and help connect the series. The one I liked the most was a modern sketch series that had unique images. I chose not to use it because of the image for lust. After weeding through hundreds of images depicting lust, this one burned itself into my memory. It was a sketch of a man’s seated lap with a little boy sitting on it. The image was too powerful and too controversial to use, even though it impressed upon me the pain of lust more than any of the other images.

If you were on campus today and attended chapel, you heard Bill Young, author of The Shack speak. His book, though fictional, is written from the pain of the type of lust displayed on the sketch I couldn’t use. After having struggled for a couple days to make sense of how lust impacts our worship, chapel reminded me that the connection wasn’t mine to make. It had been made for me.

Harold Best was the Dean of the Wheaton Conservatory and is one of my models for leadership and thought. He once wrote, “show me how a people worship and I’ll show you what they believe.” He’s not only wise, he’s right. At its heart, lust is our attempt to satisfy a holy need with an unholy thing. The compounded tragedy of the image on the sketch is that the “sins of the father” can tear through future generations. The pain can be felt by yet nameless futures unfortunate enough to lie in its path.

We are a people created to worship. Prewired with the holiest of desires. We are also a fallen people. Though we lay our sins before the Father as we gather for worship, we cannot lay our sinful nature on the altar. It too is prewired within us. God, show us where we fill our holy desires with unholy things.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Wrath points to a deeper issue. It’s often the “tell” that surfaces when envy or pride run deep. Though it is more visible, I suppose it may be better than disengagement. Whether that is sloth or an eighth deadly sin is debatable. At least wrath is a sign that someone still cares deeply about something.

I doubt many worshiping communities have escaped the sin of wrath in the past two decades. The landscape has fundamentally shifted below our feet, and buildings designed as symbols of permanence have found themselves on unsure footing. Challenged or even replaced by warehouse-inspired boxes of multi-purpose. Just as the strength of these older houses became their weakness, will the same be proven of the newer ones? Unlike the impractical, single-purpose buildings that are so hard to repurpose (especially if they house a cemetery along their property), will these big boxes be repurposed into community centers when or if financial hardships come?

In some ways, this time in the American worship story seems a little like the small talk that follows a major fight. Things have been said. Wrong things. As much as some of us hoped for reconciliation as the emergent generation sought to reconnect with something more permanent and timeless, that reconciliation did not come. No matter what side “won,” whoever they are, whether they fought for organs or electric guitars, they are likely thinking the same thing right now. “What did we really win?”

Maybe your community isn’t there yet. Maybe you’re still fighting. If so, you have an opportunity to avoid the hurt from which other congregations are recovering. Learn from their mistakes. We’ve squandered so many opportunities for reconciliation. Will we squander this one as well?

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

There was a time when in order to hear music, you had to create it yourself or be in the company of musicians. When you study indigenous cultures, you see that there were often songs that were used to accompany all kinds of daily events. There was a song for planting, laundry, cooking, etc. Over time, music has become a more and more passive experience, easily subcontracted and easily replicated.

Music is not synonymous with worship, though we can tend to closely link the two. But I think the analogy of music being a “work of the people,” which happens to be the loose translation of the word liturgy, makes for an interesting connection. It could be said that the worship experience has become more and more passive (despite becoming more and more musical). As a worshiper, what expectations for yourself do you embrace when you come to worship?

When I was in high school, I worked for a grocery store called Publix. One of the training videos used the tagline, “Publix will be a little better, or a little worse, because you are here.” That stuck with me. Anonymity is not possible. I think that attitude from the worshiper is something to consider.

As for the worship designer, the call to sing to the Lord a new song is pervasive in Scripture. It is probably the most common phrase related to worship that appears in scripture. The expectation for creativity and constantly revitalizing our song, be it newly composed or a newly conceived tradition, is clear. Worshipers are called to expect and support this new song as well. This new song is the work of the people.

I have a saying I use with church music students that reminds them of the need for sustainable leadership and creativity. I tell them that a Sunday comes every week, but it will feel like it comes every three days. We can get lost in the constant demand. Never get past the breakers to enjoy a swim. The effects of this are often burnout, low creativity, poor sense of accomplishment, and a lack of fulfillment.

Having said that, one of the best ways to combat that is to expect to be somewhere different at the end of a gathering than you were when it began. How are we different for having been in worship today? How are we closer to one another and to Christ as a result of a sermon series? Expect to be somewhere new. Otherwise, why are we going through these motions?

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Within a worship context, envy and greed feed one another, especially from church to church. By their very nature, both fix their eyes on what other have or what we wish we had. They are grounded in an unholy discontent. Both question the providence and timing of Christ. Neither celebrates what is good, but rather they greet that good with discontent for what is not. Envy seems to have an element of sloth or laziness to it as well. Envy doesn’t seem willing to do the work of making things better. Envy seems content to complain. So how does this apply to worship?

As you read these characteristics, how have you seen this attitude manifest itself in attitudes and perhaps even practices of worship? Maybe the envy is less for the present than envy for the past. Nostalgia flavored envy.

Envy doesn’t get it. It misunderstands the reality of the present. It is blinded by want and unable to see where God is at work. How have you seen this in your own worship life? How have you separated your holy discontent from your unholy envy?

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

I heard it said once that Christianity began in Jerusalem as a movement, went to Greece and became a philosophy, went to Rome and became an institution, went to America and became a business. It may be one of the most cynical statements about our faith that I’ve ever come across, but it can’t be entirely dismissed. It’s easy to point to the church growth movement and megachurches for evidence, but the roots of those practices began much earlier.

Truthfully, the revivalists of the Great Awakenings employed marketplace ideals to design experiences that would eventually make their way from mid-week tent meetings to Sunday morning worship practices. One could even say that the Wesleyan (and others’) emphasis on personal conversion, which was a natural fit for the rugged individualism of the New World, ground much of our national faith identity in a focus on our personal needs as followers over a community or institution to which we belong.

Without this perspective, we can tend to point a finger at the praise and worship revolution as the root of all evil. It simply isn’t true. However, given how recent the megachurch movement is, and how spectacularly it flexes its marketplace muscle, it has to be included in the conversation. The attractional model of church growth puts worship at the center of its product line. What other service of the organization has such potential to generate revenue?

I won’t waste your time rehashing diatribes against the greed and excess of megachurch worship. Keep in mind, they don’t have the market cornered on that by any means. To me the greater question is for how worship is designed and how it is placed within the organization’s identity. Is the net impact of our worship an inward satisfaction or does it force us to confront questions that can only be answered by a deeper commitment to those around us? When we leave worship, which thought is louder, “That was moving,” or, “I need to get moving.” Maybe a better choice is, “That was so moving, I have to do something about it.” May our worship not simply feed the beast of self-satisfaction, but touch us so deeply that the only response is to open our eyes and care. Great art does that.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

I planned on writing the last Worship Food post today, entitled “Gluttony + Starvation.” The more I thought about it, the less compelling the ideas seemed. I’d also planned to wrap that series and take a break from posting next week. Both of those plans are out the window. I’m dovetailing these two series together today, and I’m starting gluttony. It’s the sin that often gets lost in the long shadow of lust in a lot of sermons. Even when the physique of the messenger suggests that his priorities are reversed.

I’ve taught an approach to worship as a stream of consciousness experience that constantly flows through our reality, ebbing between personal and corporate identities. There’s plenty of scripture to support the approach, and it helps reduce the consumer expectations we bring to corporate worship. As you read in my first post, I seek meaningful engagement where others advocate abstinence when it comes to the arts and media. I bristle at the “media and technology are rotting your brain” platform. Media and technology are tools. Like a plowshare, they can be fashioned into swords. Even self-destructive swords. But today I want to see this from a different angle. I’m avoiding what Emerson called “a foolish consistency” and speaking in hard words what I think today.

I wonder if worship and some of its components (scripture, music, sermons, prayer) are so readily accessible that we become not so much connoisseurs, but gluttons. Not only that, but we have every encouragement around us to eat more. Eat more, and you be fulfilled and attain righteousness. O Taste and see... The song “Thrills” by Cake is running through my mind. Great song. Then we find ourselves on a mission trip and experience people who have to fight for all four of the things I mentioned that are ubiquitous for us. There is no Hillsongs channel on their iPhone. We are changed when we come home, for a while. Until we slowly drift back to sleep.

The interesting thing about gluttony is that (in the case of food) it is an abuse of something that is necessary for life. But when taken for granted, when used to fill a hole that something else is designed to fill, the tool becomes one of self-destruction. I’m not suggesting we stop worshiping any more than the solution to gluttony is to stop eating. But maybe we need to rethink or renew how we approach the table. Slow down. Breath in the smell of the meal. Be present enough to taste what is now. The food is the very body of Christ. Sustaining. Universal. Timeless. Simple.

As I write these words, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegl im Spiegel is in my head. No note is wasted. Nothing is over-produced. Simple triads and sustained notes. Yet I am undone by the piece every time I hear it.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

We all have moments from our distant past that have somehow crystallized in our memory. Somehow the “save” button was pushed and the hard drive was on. A lot of these probably come from pictures we’ve been shown from those times. When I try to recall anything beyond the frame, my memory fails me. Then there are those times we recall solely because the moment made such a deep impression. Those memories are brighter, more vivid for me. I remember feelings, smells, and thoughts, not just images. Another fascinating thing about those times is that we’re often unaware of how memorable the moment is until it has stood the test of time in our recollection.

One of those times was a vivid memory I have of seeing my great uncle eat sardines during a visit to Tennessee one holiday. It was one of the most disgusting things I’d ever seen. It was also confusing. I probably still had the after taste of some candy or cookie in my mouth, given that trips to Tennessee were filled with the two fundamental elements of Southern holiday cooking, gravy and sugar. Why on earth would any human being eat a sardine? It occurred to me that I’d only seen old men eat them, never kids. No doubt, these slimy creatures were clearly an acquired taste.

We have acquired tastes in so many things. People, food, music, you name it. When you study classical music, you develop a distinct awareness of acquired tastes. Composer’s whose music at first makes your stomach turn, over time, can touch your soul in ways that few others can. Stravinsky and Bach are great examples of these types of composers for me. On the other hand, my musical training also ingrained a certain elitism in me that, for a while, kept me from appreciating some of the best songs ever written. Thank God for the gifts of Bach and James Brown.

Things we digest and like immediately can fade more quickly. We use words like accessible or immediate to describe these. They play on our pleasure centers. They are exhilarating and one of the great joys of life, like sugar and gravy. We need them. But we need more. We need the depth of acquired tastes and the work of slow digestion. Complex proteins.

What acquired tastes permeate our worship? What is still to be digested once we’ve left the table? For some, that will be Bach, for some it will be Gungor. Regardless, may our worship be an active pursuit. A constant journey. May it be story marked by crystallized memories and acquired tastes.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

What questions would you like us to ask Michael Gungor when he talks with us on November 9?

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

This second post about worship and food comes from a discussion we had in my Designing + Facilitating Worship class. We’re approaching worship from a design perspective and seeking to solve the problems that plague several designs. One of the first steps in design is to establish empathy with the client. In this scenario, we were both designer and client. One of the themes that emerged was a distaste for a phenomenon we labeled the “McDonalds Experience.” As you can imagine, the characteristics we listed were things like over-produced, standardized, ultimately dissatisfying, one-size-fits-all, and a few other things that describe our golden arches experiences.

What was fascinating is that each student essentially described the service they regularly attend as having many of these qualities. This wasn’t students pointing to other’s churches with this critique. It described what they considered their “home” church (either back home or at college). You may be thinking “College students can tend to be a tough crowd to reach,” and you’re probably right. On the other hand, many of us are in that category. What I found fascinating was the fact that each student expressed a high degree of dissatisfaction, while their actions demonstrated a high level of loyalty.

It can be tempting to dismiss this based on a lack of options or the fact that some meals are McDonalds and others are El Bulli (OK, maybe Shoepf’s BBQ). But I think there is something important happening here that bears considering. If we have such a disdain for McDonalds, why is it the largest food chain in the world? Why do we keep going back?

The next time you eat there (and we all will), think about chewing. Notice how easily the food can be broken down in your mouth with minimal effort. Notice the law of diminishing returns in play. The first McNugget is always the best one. The physical design of the food is based upon ease and dissatisfaction. The more easily it is chewed and the more it leaves you searching, the more profitable it is for the chain. Notice that the only brilliant colors are on the packaging. The food itself is mostly passive and brown, like the unassuming beige walls and Thomas Kincade-inspired paintings we walk past on our way to worship. The next time you eat an apple, consider the life lesson and model for worship design it represents.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

This is the first of a series of posts about worship using food as an analogy. As with most of my thoughts about worship design, it strives to answer the question, “If prophets spoke into our worship, what would they say?” I cast a wide net when it comes to prophetic voices. The first one has a show on the Travel Channel.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations has to be one of my favorite shows to watch while I’m eating. It just makes my food taste better. If you don’t know the show, he travels all over the world to experience the culture and food of some fascinating places. The show is a way for these people to tell their story they way so many of us do, over a meal.

One morning he’s standing in line for a street vendor’s fish taco, the next evening he’s in the kitchen of some of the most innovative chefs on the planet. Somehow he manages to seem right at home anywhere he finds himself. He pulls off humble, discerning, and irreverent like they were three strands of a guide rope that manages to keep you alive and shows you sights that will change the way you see the world.

My favorite episodes is the one on the Bayou of Louisiana, where he spends the entire time in a backyard where they slaughter a hog and divvy up the parts to a community of cooks who each prepare a their best porcine dish. Bourdain has a special love and defensiveness about pork, so he’s in his element. There is a moment when he tastes this stew that a quiet, unassuming cook has prepared and exclaims that not since El Bulli has he tasted something so mind-blowingly good. That line sums up his view of food and, probably the world he’s traveled. This guy can celebrate a backyard pork stew with the same respect as the most celebrated restaurant on the planet.

I have a doctorate from USC in Sacred Music, and trust me, there was no lecture on the Bourdainian Model of Worship Theology. Maybe there should have been. For most people, worship is almost defined by the music that it involves. We label services based on music styles. It isn’t good, but it’s true. Unlike visual arts, where people like Andy Warhol have crushed the notion of high and low art, music is separated into clearly defined strata. It’s so separated that its styles usually define themselves by what they are not. Classical music, a community I am passionately a part of, defines itself by its higher nature as compared with popular music. Popular music, another community I am passionately a part of, can often define itself with the same prejudice in reverse.

So what does this mean for worship? It means that worship communities mirror the same mentality as the art form that so defines them. We need our Andy Warhol, our Anthony Bourdain. Our worship conversation needs people to follow that guide rope of humility, discernment, and even irreverence across its cliffs and refuse to fall into the trap of prejudice and conceit. Worship is the food of faith, inextricably linked to the story of its chef and connoisseur. Universal and timeless. Every meal connects us to humanity throughout time and space.