pop goes the church

I just started reading a new book titled Pop Goes the Church. It was written by Tim Stevens who is a pastor at Granger Community Church in Indiana, one of the few churches I’ve heard about lately that I actually get excited about because they seem to be connecting people living in our (constantly-changing) media culture with God’s story of hope, love and forgiveness (things that never change) in meaningful ways by engaging pop culture. I don’t mean this to be a critique of most other churches I hear or know about – well maybe I do, but only a little – but I’d like to focus on what is going on here that I think is good. I find hope in the realization that there is a pastor and a church that are passionate about some of the same things as me. Stevens and Granger Community Church seem to share my vision of a church where the “texts” of pop culture (music, movies, tv shows, etc.) are discussed alongside the biblical text — even on Sunday morning during the sermon — without compromising or watering down the message as a result.

Here’s a sample of how Stevens thinks from the introduction of his book…

If Jesus physically entered twenty-first century America, I believe he would do much as he did in the first century. He would hang out with normal people in the real world, and he would reserve his strongest words for the entrenched religious leaders who love their traditions more than they love their people. He would leverage the culture. He would read our books, go to our movies, watch our TV shows, look at our magazines, and surf the internet so that he could better understand our culture. I believe he would look for themes in our popular culture that would help him make a connection between the topics that had our attention and the kingdom life he was offering. He would be encouraged by the lyrics in some of today’s mainstream music. He would see honest searching in the words, and he would use those lyrics to reach and penetrate hearts.

I think, that just as he did in the first century, Jesus would disciple a small team of leaders while at the same time looking for opportunities to attract and influence large crowds. And when those crowds gathered, he would draw upon what he had learned about our popular culture and would use illustrations, props, and analogies that would connect his love to our hearts.

I believe that is what Jesus did and that is what he would do, and I believe he expects no less from us.

I could not agree more with this or have written it any better. I believe that what Stevens is saying is important and true for not only the church and people of faith, but also for the world (inside the church, outside the church, everywhere), and I want to thank him for expressing this so well. Perhaps others do not agree with Tim Stevens, or with me. Maybe you think that letting the values and behavior expressed in contemporary pop culture will corrupt the church (and Christians) to the point where we will erode into some form of moral relativism (not knowing what is right anymore, because everything seems to be alright). I know for a fact that many people feel this way because I have had conversations and received emails from people who thinks this way. The last thing I want to do is keep anyone out of this conversation or make it sound like I don’t agree with them (I actually think there’s some validity in what they’re saying and their opinions should be heard by people like me and Stevens as a legitimate warning/caution), but before anyone jumps all over this with harsh criticism let me first clarify some things.

This is more than just a conversation about whether or not media should be used in churches. It’s less about churches having video screens and projectors in their sanctuaries and more about how they use them. Yet it’s not even about video screens and movie clips during sermons, it’s about pastors and ministry leaders reimagining their ideas of what it means to be the church in a media world. That’s why I think pastors and churches should use wisdom to discern how to most effectively incorporate pop culture into their ministry. It is not good enough to simply force connections between faith and culture, as if it’s a fool-proof equation (pop culture + church = good). I would have a difficult time convincing anyone that there was a meaningful connection between Jesus saying “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) with the movie Dude Where’s My Car, or that the Apostle Paul’s suggestion to “consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) was somehow illustrated in The Big Lebowski, but I can see a powerful example of someone loving others as himself in Patch Adams or selflessly considering others better than themself in Good Will Hunting (coincidentally, the characters I’m thinking of from each of those movies are played by Robin Williams).

What I’m trying to make clear is that not any/every thing from pop culture will be appropriate or effective in communicating the Gospel. In fact, there are some topics or themes where using illustrations from pop culture might even insult or take away from the message. For instance, when I preached at Journey a few months ago about Jesus washing his disciples feet – and then calling them (and us) to serve each other in the same way – I did not use any clips from a movie, lyrics from a song or even a touching story from the newspaper (although I considered examples of each). I chose to give an old fashioned “no frills” sermon because none of the pop culture references or examples would have added anything to the message. Any examples I could have used from pop culture would have been merely an imitation of the original; but Jesus washing his disciples feet along with a few verses of laying down his life for us? That’s a powerful witness and example of what it means to be a servant.

Sorry I started asking for your thoughts and then went on for a few more paragraphs. I really would like to hear what people think about all this. Leave a comment if you have something to say.


Holy Week

Easter comes earlier than usual this year. But in many ways, Easter can never come early enough. As a young boy growing up in church, I remember thinking Jesus lived a really short life. This was during my early Sunday school years, well before I learned that he was probably around 33 years old when he was killed. I was just old enough to realize that we celebrated Jesus’ birth at the end of December, but just young enough to find it confusing that only three or four months later we had another holiday to remember his death and celebrate his resurrection. Luckily, I got the whole story cleared up somewhere along the way, otherwise I’m sure my seminary classes would be much different today (can you imagine an infant Jesus walking on water?). But regardless of the misunderstandings I had about where death and resurrection fit into the overall time line of Jesus’ life, I always realized that Easter was a really special holiday, even bigger than Christmas (although — compared to presents — chocolate eggs don’t make a very convincing argument to children).

How did I realize Easter was a big deal? For starters, my mom made me and my sister dress up more on Easter Sunday than any other day of the year. That meant it was a big deal. We had to wake up super early for church, and when we got there it was quiet and there were flowers everywhere. Flowers are special, and so is anything that you have to wake up early for, so these things meant it was a big deal. The Easter service always started with someone playing a timpani, which is basically just a drum that you can hear at any middle school or high school band concert, but when it’s used to begin a worship service at church, it becomes really special. The timpani at church meant Easter was a big deal too. Finally, our family got together with relatives at my grandma’s house or had a really nice lunch at our house on Easter, and at some point (usually before we could lunch and before we were allowed to change out of our church clothes), we had to take a family picture. This wasn’t the only time of year we had to do this, but every time it happened it meant that whatever was going on was…a big deal.

The church season of Lent started in the beginning of February this year. For the past six weeks, people have been preparing themselves for this “Holy Week” by doing all sorts of things, like abstaining from certain things (that they like) as a way of remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for them. Most Catholics don’t eat meat during Lent, which is why all the fast food restaurants seem to have a new fish sandwich on the menu this time of year. Some people give up chocolate for Lent, with the knowledge that there will be chocolate everywhere on Easter and it will taste that much sweeter after not having tasted it for nearly two months. I know of other people who have given up myspace or facebook for Lent, which is probably a bigger sacrifice to many young people than giving up meat (but probably not as big as giving up chocolate!). I considered giving up my iPod for Lent this year, but then I realized how silly the idea was and decided against it (thanks to Martin Luther and the Reformation, I have never felt the pressure to give up anything for Lent, although I would imagine it’s a worthwhile spiritual discipline).

Holy Week has finally arrived. Churches everywhere are preparing for the largest gathering of people they’ll have in their building all year. Flowers known as “Easter Lillies” are being given in memory of loved ones. Youth groups are getting ready to serve brunch in their church gyms. Moms are trying to convince their sons to wear the new suit they bought them (because they will look so cute in the family picture). Stores are stocking the shelves with chocolate eggs, bunnies and those weird marshmallowy things called Peeps. Many students and teachers are loving this week because it’s their spring break. It’s also the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament, so many people are filling our their brackets and scheming ways to get out of work or class to watch basketball all day on Thursday and/or Friday. Some people, regardless of whether they follow college basketball or have school or work this week, are counting down the hours until they can take a big bite of meat, devour some chocolates or check their facebook again. There are certainly reasons to be excited that this week is finally here. For me, I am excited because not only does my spring break start tomorrow (which means I can watch the NCAA tournament), but I am most excited that in only two days I will pick up my parents at the airport and get to see my dad again (he has been in Tanzania for nearly three months and my mom has been there visiting him the last two weeks).

But in this season of Lent and this Holy Week of Easter, let’s be careful not to let little things outshine the big thing. Perhaps you didn’t grow up going to church like me, or don’t understand family and faith the way others reading this might, and even if you’ve never given up meat for Lent (and didn’t even realize some people did), none of that changes anything about the reality that Jesus gave himself for your sins to rescue you from the evil in this world, and he did this according to the will of God (Galatians 1:4).

In my understanding, this is what Easter is about: Jesus defeated sin and death on the cross and through his resurrection there is hope for all of us to share in his eternal life. Easter cannot come early enough because we cannot hear this Good News often enough. Jesus rescues us. Have you ever heard a survivor say anything like “Wow…that was close, but I wish they hadn’t rescued me so soon”? Of course not, because rescue can never come early enough.

I hope you enjoy this week for many reasons. Have fun watching hours of basketball, eating chocolate, hanging out with friends and family and enjoying some time off from work or school. But I hope you also take some time to remember why this week is called Holy Week. For as the congregation will exclaim at the beginning of the service I attend on Sunday, “He is risen. He is risen indeed.”

(If you’d like to read more about the history, theology, Scripture, or view some art or video about Holy Week and Easter, here are some links you might find interesting).

  • Article on “Holy Week” from Wikipedia
  • Video from The Passion of the Christ mixed with “The Reason” by Hoobastank
  • Famous painting by Grünewald called “The Crucifixion”
  • My video “Broken” that will be used in worship at a church in Stillwater this week
  • Reflections on each day of Holy Week from my friend Bryan’s blog
  • The Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Bible; from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Kid Rock’s gospel song

While wasting some time this morning watching TV (VH1 Top 20 Countdown) instead of studying (Systematic Theology), I didn’t expect to see this guy (Kid Rock) singing this song (“Amen”) — but there he was right in front of me on the screen, the former husband of Pamela Anderson singing about having “faith in human nature, our creator and our savior; I’m no saint, but I believe in what is right…c’mon now, amen.”

Click on “Read the rest of this entry” for the full lyrics to Kid Rock’s song “Amen.”

Continue reading


I created this video for one of my seminary classes on ministry in a media culture. It’s a collection of photographs, Scripture passages and quotes that I find meaningful; set to the song “Broken” by Lifehouse. As a whole, I think the message of the piece is powerfully simple…God enters into our brokenness and offers us grace, hope, healing and strength. I hope you find it inspiring, affirming, comforting, challenging, or whatever other words you’d use to explain how it moved you to feel or think. If you’d like to share your thoughts in reaction to the video, please leave a comment.

(3/11/08): Thanks for all the comments and emails about this video, it has been cool to hear how it has touched so many people. I never expected this to be anything but a project for class, but I’ve now been asked for permission by a church to use the video during one of their services for Holy Week and we plan to use it in worship at Journey in the coming months as well (if others are interested in using it in worship, please let me know). I made a few small changes, so this is now the second final version of the video (the two earlier versions are still on youtube).

Jesus walks

I want to share a few thoughts and video links on Kanye West’s antics and achievements at the Grammys on Sunday. Kanye won four Grammys, including Best Solo Rap Song (“Stronger”) and Best Rap Album (“Graduation”). I thought his mega-production performance of “Stronger” was really cool and his stripped-down performance of “Hey Mama” was pretty emotional, but nothing was as memorable as Kanye’s acceptance speech for Best Rap Album during which the producers of the Grammys started playing the “wrap it up” music, but in a forcefully persuasive tone that only Kanye could pull off, he silenced the music (and got an ovation for doing so) by saying, “it would be in good taste to stop the music” and then went on to dedicate the award to his mother who recently passed away. It was a fascinating moment bring together Kanye’s full-range of personality…respect, arrogance, passion and emotion.

To celebrate Kanye’s big night at the Grammys (only Amy Winehouse won more awards, with five), here’s a video from one of Mr. West’s first hit songs, “Jesus Walks’ (which is my favorite song to do karaoke, no joke). This is actually the third version of the song’s music video, which is incredible since most songs are lucky to get one video, but Kanye is unique like that; I guess two videos just weren’t enough for him. I’m glad he made this version because it offers an interesting perspective of someone’s idea of what it looks like to have Jesus walking with us during our everyday lives.

“I ain’t here to argue about his facial features / or here to convert atheists into believers / I’m just trying to say the way schools need teachers / the way Kathy Lee needed Regis / that’s the way I need Jesus.”


I apologize if any of the links lead to deleted videos. I’ll try to update them if any of the videos disappear, otherwise you can probably find the videos on youtube.

Update (February 18, 2008): I just checked the links to the videos of Kanye at the Grammy’s and realized all three have already  been removed due to copyright issues (in less than a week). I’ll do some searching and see what I can find…

realization through Conversations

I went to the Sara Groves CD release concert tonight. Sara is one of my favorite artists and she happens to be from Minneapolis. It was a great show. She played songs from her new album (“Tell Me What You Know”) and plenty of great songs from her past albums, she also told stories from the last few years of her life (including the recent birth of her daughter and a life-changing trip to Rwanda, both of which have influenced her music). Something I have always appreciated and found refreshing about Sara’s music is its raw honesty about life and faith, and although I have seen her in concert before and have been a fan of her music for several years, while singing along with her songs tonight (either in my head or out loud) I found myself hearing the lyrics for the first time (you’d think I would have heard them before if I had them memorized, right?). I have heard people talk about separating the words from the music, but I never thought that I did this. I realized tonight that I had been missing out on some great stuff in the music of one of my favorite artists. The song that helped me realize this is called “Conversations”; here are the lyrics that I had somehow never heard…

“I would like to share with you what makes me complete. I don’t claim to have found the Truth, but I know it has found me. The only thing that isn’t meaningless to me is Jesus Christ and the way he set me free. This is all that I have. This is all that I am.”

How could I have missed this? I wonder what else I haven’t been hearing in the music I listen to. I get so caught up in things that I think are important. I look at what I have and think one of two things, either I have it all or I need more. In either extreme – depending on when I last bought the new “it” thing – I have ascribed meaning to things that are actually quite meaningless (shoes, iPods, cars –> the older I get, the more expensive they become). I have wasted too much of my life claiming to have found the truth or at least knowing where to find it (and it usually has a price tag attached). I like to think that I am complete, but tonight, while sitting in one of the back rows at a concert, I heard someone sing about what makes her complete, and the Truth of her words found me and helped me realized (once again) that the only thing that isn’t meaningless to me—the only thing that makes me complete—is Jesus Christ and the way his death set me free. This really is all that I have. It’s all that I am, and if I am really honest, it is all that I need (I don’t actually need any of that other stuff, I just really want it and I trick myself into believing it will somehow make my life more meaningful). I would like to thank Sara Groves for her beautiful words that I have been singing for years but finally heard (for the first time) tonight. I think it’s probably like this with God and us most of the time; it may seem like we hear what God is trying to say and often we can even repeat back the lines that we have memorized (prayers, creeds, Bible verses), but we still haven’t heard what God is really saying. I am not sure how it happens or what we can do to ensure that we hear God (and to be honest, I don’t actually believe we do anything, God pretty much does it all), but I think our best option is to open ourselves up to God’s Word and trust that it will find us (and then pray that we will have ears to hear it).