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Letters to the Editor (Why I Didn’t Sing, Public School Teachers, Suburban Sprawl)

The topics I’ve written about over the past couple of weeks have ranged far and wide. Therefore, so too have the letters to the editor. Here are a selection of highlights.

Letters on Why I Didn’t Sing When I Visited Your Church

This article assumes congregational singing is the ultimate goal (or that congregational singing is always a good thing). And, for churched people, this is largely true. But a significant majority of unchurched people that are polled say they do not want to hear themselves (or those around them) sing. It’s awkward and off-putting for them and, therefore, becomes a barrier.

There’s also a theological issue here that is being lost. “Sing to the Lord a new song” says nothing of style whatsoever. Just that there is something inherently good about “new”. Not exclusively, perhaps, but the very fact that someone is unfamiliar with songs could be a GOOD thing.

I appreciate the article, but I think it largely depends on the perspective, and how we define the ultimate purpose of worship (and its role in the kingdom).

—Matthew B, Mount Vernon, OH

Tim: I would contend that the worship service is primarily for the church members. Unbelievers are welcome to attend and we ought to be careful to ensure that the service makes sense to them, but we should not fit the service to their preferences. Believers want to sing (and to hear themselves sing) and are commanded by God to sing. Therefore, this should be our priority.

I’m a worship pastor and am quiet accustomed to hearing comments, critiques and constructive criticism from people. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had an opinion about how music should sound. As you said in your post, I to have little desire to rekindle the worship wars, but wanted to make two points about what you wrote.

First, you were answering the question of why you didn’t sing. I completely understood your point about not knowing the songs or being familiar with the melodies. Completely understandable. However, I have had many people visit who stood and observed in a rather critical way, I’m certainly not accusing you of this on your visit, but I know that for me, someone who has a deeply worshipful heart can stand, listen, and meditate on the lyrics and be moved to worship because of the truth being sung. How I wish more Christians had a heart to do this rather than to criticize why the service doesn’t suit them.

Second, culture. I think Westerners go into church with certain standards and expectations. I grew up charismatic, where ad libbing, loud music and bold expression were the norm. I became reformed in the early 2000’s and subsequently substance became more important than style. My point is this, I think that your criticisms were cultural. Ad libbing vocals help me to worship, they don’t distract me. Loud music makes me want to sing (shout) louder. I too have learned to love hearing the congregation sing out (one of the sweetest sounds I know as a believer), but I am in the process of leading my rather conservative church to move from a polite, gentle singing to a passionate exclaiming that would make a visitor to our church imagine they mean it.

So, this response isn’t in disagreement with many of the points you made, just maybe the spirit in which they were made.

—Kevin D, Rapid City, SD

Tim: I chose not to say this in the article, but I did not write about one experience as much as a collection of them. Wherever I go, I do my best to sing and to enjoy the service on its own terms. I know that Christians have different preferences and different convictions, and I wish to honor that. So this was merely my way to express how I believe Christians are meant to worship together.

In spite of the fact that I am from the age of Rock-n-Roll, I find that I feel very disconnected when I attend worship to be met with a band that drowns out the congregational singers. In all fairness, I feel the same way about churches that have large pipe organs that overwhelm the congregation’s voices during hymns. There is supposed to be a deep sense of community-of everyone being a part of the body of Christ that isn’t present when we have bands singing at us rather than blending with our voices and enhancing the communal expression of worshipping God.

Having said that, there are many hymns that have a difficult time finding a place in worship today. My husband refers to them as the “dirges”. The plodding, depressing melodies full of words that we don’t understand in today’s society. I’m not suggesting that all worship music should be a dirge, but certainly there are hymns that celebrate the various centuries of worship without being a painful plod that could be incorporated into “contemporary” worship music ministry. I am a fan of moderation in all things, and that includes a diversity of music in worship services. When you exclude the traditional hymns that are shared across numerous denominations, you lose something as a church body. Nothing brings the Holy Spirit flooding my heart more than a beautifully harmonized Amazing Grace, or It Is Well With My Soul. To think that hymns like these are excluded from worship and lost to the newest generations of believers is just as sad as thinking about all traces of the Mona Lisa being lost to the world. They are both important forms of artwork.

They also, in many cases, provide history lessons, if you are fortunate enough to learn about the origins of many of the hymns contained in mainstream Christian hymnals, you realize that many of them mark milestones experienced by people who were instrumental in the advancement of faith. Some of them celebrate faith in the form of admiration of nature, and the glorious landscape that God gave us on Earth.

Just as the Mona Lisa, many hymns are wonderful works of art, and all, in their own way, express our love of God and the blessings He bestows upon us. There is room for both – I applaud you for being bold enough to state that you felt disconnected where the only music offered is a rock band format. Sing with me, not at me. Worship that joins our voices is much more meaningful than worship that drowns my voice, because then I suspect that you may value your voice more than mine (not just in the context of singing). Being inclusive means being aware of everyone in the congregation, and providing something that can connect everyone to the body of Christ.

—Reba L, Plano, TX

I think we may be in the middle of Worship Wars 2.0. I read the title and I imagined the response from the two different sides of the “war” would be something like:

Those that agree with your points would nod and say, “Exactly!”

The group on the other side would read the title and with a baffled expression say, “Well you aren’t on the worship team so what’s the problem?”

We recently moved so over the past year we’ve had ample opportunity to visit many churches. They all seem to either have singable music and be extremely backwards in every other possible way or have unsingable music and be vastly more up-to-date with everything else. Just this past Sunday I didn’t know any of the songs. They were all way out of range except the last one which was In Christ Alone. Just kidding! The last one started off like In Christ Alone and then went off the rails ad libbing or something weird.

—Andrew B, Atlanta, GA

Letters on Stop Slandering Public School Teachers

In January I retired after 39 years teaching history in Troy Public Schools. The last 16 years of my career I was one of several teachers who supervised Student Bible Study before school. I worked under 3 different administrators during that time. All were very supportive. The school district never raised an objection with what we were doing. Over the years fellow believers were stunned that the schools allowed Bible study. It was encouraging to see you voice your experience with public schools-it is consistent with what I experienced.

—Gary M, Troy, MI

I am a home-educating Christian mom of four, and I just want to express my appreciation for this article. I agree wholeheartedly that there is never, ever a time when we should slander public school teachers. There is a way to express genuine concerns (not attacks) about what seems like a broken or flailing system without attacking the individuals who are part of it. I will confess to having done that in the past and I’m saddened to think of who I may have injured in the process.

I also genuinely appreciate seeing public school parents like yourself who recognize that it is the parents who are ultimately responsible for the training (both spiritual and academic) of the children. This doesn’t mean that the parent must directly teach the child all of his or her academics, but it does mean the parents must be involved and oversee the process. I get the impression that you and your wife do just that, while also taking seriously the responsibility to train your children spiritually. I’m glad to see so many like you doing this.

Thank you for the reminder to be careful how I speak and to continually pray about the right educational path for my own children.

—Danielle N, Knoxville, IA

I so enjoyed your article on public school teachers, and your support for public school teachers, particularly since public schools, and especially teachers, are not always respected by either Christians or the general public. I tell people that I went into teaching to give back to the community that gave so much to me and that if I could change one person’s life after a long career than it would all be worth it. I get the great joy of seeing lives changed and put on different courses with each graduating class. It’s a great responsibility and an even greater joy to interact with the future on a daily basis.

I got the rare opportunity in 2014 to share with my students and their families my brain cancer diagnosis. It was a wonderful opportunity to place my Christian faith, as best as I could, out to a witnessing world. I saw wonderful support from my students and staff, many of whom are not Christian or interested in Christ. The Lord used my cancer and now my book, Anchored in the Storm, to start conversations for Christ and his kingdom. And though I cannot explicitly discuss Christ, I can certainly live it out, and it’s an incredible joy to do so.

The public school system in the US is broken and needs mending, but I will say that I see each day so many wonderful teachers who want the best for their students and commit themselves to many hours of their own personal lives to create lessons and grade student work. I can speak of hundreds of hours of my own to provide the best education I can for my students. Most teachers are sacrificial people, giving up so much for little pay and even lesser respect, but they are a tough group continuing on their pursuit of the best for the students entrusted to them.

I often tell Christians that the public school system is one of the best mission fields we have, and I admit I’m not necessarily a big fan of homeschooling or private schooling. Public schools provide Christian families opportunities to engage the culture, to meet other families and influence them for Christ, it allows parents to take a role in their own child’s education in helping their children live in a world that is hostile to Christianity, and either we can shelter them away or we can look at it as an opportunity to train our children in the way they should go so they don’t embrace the world, but change the world. The Lord is using many teachers and families to lighten this darkening world. So many people say they’re not fit for the mission field, but our educational system is a mission field right on our doorstep.

—Adam H, Los Angeles, CA

Letters on Suburban Sprawl and the Dying Dream of Community Churches

Simply put, you’re right, Christians are more than willing to commute to church. We see it everywhere, and I myself did the same throughout university, carpooling with friends 40 minutes to a now mega-church, eschewing the many gospel-preaching congregations in Hamilton because they didn’t have quite the quality of music or programs that our distant church offered. I look back on those years with great sadness now.

In all my years of passionately sharing the gospel with my friends, not one was willing to join me in the 40 minute commute (longer if we were taking public transit). Why? It was too far. They would join me at the weekly gatherings hosted by Power to Change, the Christian ministry I was involved with, but it takes a very curious, extremely open individual to drive nearly an hour to attend a worship service they don’t believe in. I learned then what is very clear to me today: commuting to church is no skin off our backs as Christians, but it severely stunts our evangelism and keeps our neighbours away.

This is also one of the reasons that the church has been so poor at reaching urban areas. Urban people are not like their suburban counterparts. We don’t drive almost anywhere, many don’t even have cars! We shop at the nearest grocery stores. Our kid’s schools don’t even offer buses as everyone lives close enough to walk. Population density is so much higher in cities, such that urban people create their own worlds, usually within a subway stop or two. To reach the city, churches must become local.

Our church, Église du Plateau, has done just that and about 50% of our members live in the neighbourhood (which has 100,000 people, 4 subway stops, and now two evangelical churches). To reach these people, we knew our people needed to be their neighbours. Having a large percentage of your church in a close area is amazing for evangelism and fellowship. The church has a robust community because we see one another throughout the week-without the burden of commuting. Our non-Christian friends know our church friends, and now we aren’t the only gospel presence in their lives.

I understand in the suburbs there may be nothing strange about commuting to church, but I warn you not to be too confident in this approach. It doesn’t work in cities, and I wonder if it’s more damaging than you think in the suburbs as well.

—Emily M, Montreal, QC

This is a matter of great importance to me, having pastored for 21 years in the inner city environs of Rexdale to which you commute in order to get to church. I know that your article is not only addressing people who drive from the suburbs into the city, but as with you, it is my frame of reference and these comments are mostly addressed to that situation.

I found it surprising that you would give as a justification for not worshipping in the community in which you live that it is just a way of life in suburbia, a part of modern suburban life that we should just reconcile ourselves to. I cannot think of what else you would ever promote on the basis that it is the way the world is going so we should just jump on board. But you are part of a good church and you love your church and its work and it would be far too big a thing to conclude that leaving it for something close might be the better thing to do. No one is exempt from this and it may very well be that I write in opposition to what you wrote because of my time pastoring an inner city church where geographical closeness was crucial to ministering to the community in which we worshipped. But I believe it is simply wrong to conclude that a practise is proper because it is the way that modern society is heading. You would say that about almost nothing else. Is this the one area where we should not seek to be counter-cultural? Is this the cultural equivalence of “putting our pants on one leg at a time” just like the world does, an unimportant, irrelevant matter that we should not bother to search the Scriptures about? Why should we think that this accommodation to the way the culture does things is less condemnatory than accommodating on the matter of some other things that we have no hesitation to condemn? Should we conclude that geographical matters are irrelevant to the whole concept of community?

I wonder if our willingness to avoid geographical matters in defining community is due, at least in part, to our almost complete failure to touch the local communities in which churches find themselves. What needs are there in the community that a local church made up of people from the community could more legitimately address than a church made up of people who parachute in every weekend? Why would anyone from the community in which a church meets ever go there on a Sunday morning? What do the people who live in the environs of a church building or meeting place know of the church? The one thing that they do not know is that the people who go there care a fig for the community in which they meet. Of course we do not believe that we do not care for the neighbourhood in which we worship. We do care that there are problems and hurting people and needs crying to be met. The usual way to try to show some genuine care about such things is to get involved in some projects that will help the community. So we parachute in for community events as well as church events. But a local church comprised of people from outside the boundaries of a community cannot experience the concerns that a people who live in that community have regarding the issues in it, no matter how well intentioned they may be. And no matter how much they voice solidarity with the issues, their concerns will ring hollow. “We are very concerned about this matter and we will come and visit whenever we can to try to help.” In the time I lived and served in Rexdale I learned that many people who live there look with a jaundiced eye at people, no matter how well intentioned they are, who treat their community like a place to come and visit and throw some charity around before they head back to their suburban fortresses of safety. When I first started pastoring at Thistletown our family lived in Woodbridge and I learned that it was a detriment to our efforts to reach out to our community. So we moved to Rexdale and we eventually bought a townhouse in a part of the community that was, shall we say, less than desirable for the average middle class believer. In our first week there, there was a murder. There were at least two drug dealers in the townhouse complex in which we lived and we befriended a man who we would never allow our daughters to be with alone. At least one couple left the church because of the house we bought in the part of town we bought it. But I was told by a community worker that the thing that amazed people in the community about me was that I lived in it. This should not be amazing. Living where we worship is simply part of the call of God upon us to reach people. But evangelicals, for the most part, do not transmit a message that touching the community where it meets, is a matter of importance. Where our places of worship stand is where we are called to minister. We cannot do that properly if we do not live there. If we cannot do it then we should either move the worship place or move back in to the community.

Ask the average member of a church about the concerns of the community his church finds itself in. Most of them will not know. They do not need to know. They live schizophrenic lives detached from community. The only community they know is the one consisting of people who are like them, believe the same things, have the same hopes and desires. They cannot be as involved in their own communities because they are too busy rushing off to church, or not coming home before they go to a church meeting during the week. They cannot get involved in the community where they worship because they do not live there. They get involved in church projects or macro community events which, while important, are anonymous. The community involvement they do get involved in demands time and between time in the community they live, time in the church they travel to, time at work and time with family there is no time for even thinking about the community in which they worship. And that is just wrong. It is a sad fact of modern suburban life that helps disengage our churches from the communities in which they meet.

This breeds churches that do not care about people in a particular locale. We cannot. We do not know them and we do not care to get to know them, because really knowing people takes time and effort and concern. And our lives are too compartmentalized to add to it another compartment. Knowing people is more than inviting people to events or getting involved in a project from time to time that benefits the community. It is a matter of being able to say “This is our community. These are our stores, our children who need to be kept safe, our women who need to be protected, and this is our church. This is the neighbourhood which, if it prospers we will benefit and if it does not prosper we will suffer. But we will suffer with the others who live here and we are staying here because this is our home”. The culture will never say that. And I think it is one crucial area where the church needs to be more counter-cultural and not simply surrender to preference, rather than proximity as a fact of modern life.

Your article is for the upwardly mobile. There are people who live in cities who do not have the ability to move to the suburbs. They take the bus to work and put their children in schools that others never would and who move to the suburbs to escape. Why would these people ever attend the church that is closest to them? No one who goes there is “them”. They are outsiders who need a building. So the community folk go to churches in the community where others from the community go. Places like, to use Rexdale as an example, the Prayer Palace or “Mountain of Fire and Miracles”. They go to who knows how many modalist churches and prosperity Gospel churches in the area of the church I used to pastor and the one you currently serve in. The communities where our churches meet are in communities that are dying spiritually. They are being hustled by spiritual snake oil salesmen who profit from the hope and naivete and ignorance of people longing for a good word from the Lord. And we allow them to do so by letting our churches remain in these communities while being unwilling to live there ourselves. We do not show these communities that we care for them. We seem to think that as long as we evangelize, it does not matter where. Evangelism now becomes part of the individualism that defines our culture. People who leave a building and disperse to their own homes where they are expected to witness to the Gospel on their own and somehow convince those they may reach that they should add another day in the week when they will climb in the car and go to something else that has now become part of their lives.

Why not live in the area of the church you attend? Why not move back into the city where your church is seeking to minister? Why not give up some of the perks that living in a distant community brings for the sake of the Gospel and the sake of the reputation of the church that is called to represent Christ to its community? Why not preach to people that if they travel more than twenty minutes by car they should at least attempt to find a church in their own community where they can invite their neighbours to walk to church with them? Why not maintain a church life that connects church with community, where the local merchants and coffee shop employees and police officers and community workers who slave away trying to help the locals, know the people who go to the church and know that they are committed to making the world a better place where God has enabled them to worship week by week? Why not? Move-In is a mission that is seen to be innovative in its approach to evangelism. They recruit their missionaries to live in inner cities and government housing so that they can show people they care for them, materially, socially, spiritually. They can baby sit the neighbour’s kids, feed the dog when the neighbours are away, help the senior with their shopping, walk their female neighbours home from the bus stop at night and be known as people who do this and much more as followers of Jesus Christ. It is a shameful thing that this is considered novel. How is it that we can put Mez McConnell on a pedestal for doing what he does and not see that this is what all churches are to be doing? No, not work in disadvantaged neighbourhoods necessarily, unless that is where they meet on Sundays. But there is no such thing as a community that is absent of horrifyingly bad pain. Behind the doors of suburban homes are stressed families, parents wondering where their teenaged daughter is this weekend, prescription drug abuse, divorce, abuse, neglect, and such horrifying emotional and spiritual pain. We do not see them. We do not know them. We live our lives away from them. They are alone. They have reconciled themselves to the facts of modern life. They will find community elsewhere than the church – because the church is just another option and sadly, one that rarely ever demonstrates that it is the best one.

So, I do not believe that the concept of a community church should die. I don’t believe it needs to die. It dies at the expense of sacrificing for the sake of the kingdom. It dies because of accommodation to the culture. It dies needlessly because even in our rapidly changing culture, people still need what a community church made up of community people can offer, a hand that is close enough to reach them and touch them and help them up and see Jesus, who just happens to live in the community as well.

So much more to say. So little time and space to communicate. I think I did a dreadful job at leading our community church in Rexdale to reach the community we lived in. But it can be done. You are so gifted and intelligent in a gifted and intelligent church. Go back, all of you, and make Rexdale a place where sound evangelical theology exists again. Live with these wonderful, hurting, Scripturally ignorant, people and stand back and watch what God can do as you rub shoulders with them on a daily basis.

—Ken D, Moffat, ON

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