The first ten days of October found me in Australia. It was my first time there. Hopefully not my last.
I was hosted by Dave and Emma Taylor and their three charming kids, Josh, Amy, and Lydia. Dave pastors Sovereign Grace Church Sydney, now about one year old. It’s a church that evidences love for the Savior, for God’s Word, for each other, and for reaching their community with the gospel. Pure joy to hang out with them.
I shared my itinerary in a previous post. Briefly, I spent time at Dave’s church, TWIST (The Word in Song Together) conferences in Brisbane and Sydney, a TWIST pastor’s conference, Moore college, an EMU Music songwriters dinner, Church by the Bridge in Kiribilli, and a RICERegenerate rally. Oh yeah. And I had a faceoff with a kangaroo.
Here are a few thoughts on my time down under.
Our co-laborers for the gospel don’t always look/talk/think exactly like we do. That’s okay.
Being in another country causes me to think more carefully about what I have in common with other Christians. Differences abound. Accents, cultural sensibilities, common phrases and words, ideas about acceptable standards of godliness. But our bonds of unity in Christ far outweigh our differences. We’re sinners who have been forgiven and reconciled to God through the substitutionary sacrifice and merits of Jesus Christ. We’re seeking to know God through his sufficient and authoritative Word, and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to live for God’s glory. I want that understanding to affect how I relate to Christians in my own country.
Emotionally engaging and physically expressive singing is meant to go together with theologically rich, gospel-centered teaching.
I spoke with numerous people around Sydney who said Christians there often attend two churches. They go to a church with solid Bible teaching but subdued singing in the morning and a church with passionate, physically expressive singing but weak teaching at night. Christians shouldn’t have to make that choice. And I said so in two of the messages I gave. Those who know God most deeply through his Word and want to honor him most sincerely with their lives should present the most compelling example of praising God with their whole being, in and outside our gatherings.
Reacting to what other churches are doing wrong is not the same as pursuing what is biblically right.
It’s one thing to say we don’t want to be as wild emotionally or as dead liturgically as the church down the street. It’s another thing to say we want to promote biblically informed, natural, whole-hearted responses to God’s glory in Christ. Reactions don’t necessarily lead us in the right direction.
Pastors and music leaders need to teach more on the place of music, affections, and expressiveness in our gatherings.
I’ve spent the past 14 years in my present role trying to understand more biblically how music functions in the gatherings of God’s people. I discovered early on that my views were primarily rooted in my own experiences and what I’d seen in others. Of course I used scattered Scriptures to support what I did and believed. It wasn’t until I read books like Engaging with God by David Peterson and Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best that I saw my own short-sightedness and pragmatism. God has said quite a bit about how he wants to be glorified in His people when they gather and what role music plays. It’s our joy to listen and seek to apply what He’s said. Music is too powerful a medium, our culture too musically addicted, and people too concerned about what others think, for pastors and leaders not to speak directly to these issues.
God delights to work through small, faithful churches.
Most people connect Sydney with Hillsong Church, whose weekend attendance runs around 30,000. But I spent time in Sydney with many other pastors, including Dave Taylor of Sovereign Grace Church and Paul Dale of Church by the Bridge, who faithfully preach the Word of God, love and pastor their people, and reach out to their communities with the grace and truth of the gospel. You might not have heard of them, but Christ is being exalted and lives are being changed through their faithful labors.
There’s an increasing desire in Sydney to bring together doctrine and devotion, academia and affections.
I was encouraged by the number of people who thought more leaders and churches were seeking to learn from one another rather than simply critique and fight each other. Let’s face it. No church has it all right (although I think it’s safe to say that some have it more right than others). So people leave theologically rich churches because natural expressiveness is absent or even discouraged. Others leave expressive and emotionally engaging churches because the Scriptures are minimized, distorted, or ignored. There are signs God is raising up churches that believe both sound theology and whole-hearted engagement should be valued.
I’m grateful for people I had never met who share a vision for producing gospel-rich, Word-saturated music to serve the church.
While in Sydney I got to spend time with folks like Trevor Hodge, Garage Hymnal, Rob Smith, Philip Percival of EMU Music, and a number of folks who lead music in their local churches. All of them want to produce music for the church that enables the word of Christ to dwell richly in people’s minds and hearts (Col. 3:16). They strive for a healthy tension of biblically faithful lyrics and emotionally impacting music. It was a joy to meet them and know that long after I was gone, they would be continuing to faithfully serve God’s people through song.
In coming posts, I’ll share some of the audio and outlines for messages I gave in Sydney.
Glad to hear you enjoyed yourself.
These are helpful and constructive insights.
“Emotionally engaging and physically expressive singing is meant to go together with theologically rich, gospel-centered teaching.Those who know God most deeply through his Word and want to honor him most sincerely with their lives should present the most compelling example of praising God with their whole being, in and outside our gatherings.”
Bob, this quote is RIGHT ON. It’s exactly the struggle my husband and I have in our town. The church where we are members is very strong theologically but lacking in the kind of worship through music that enables me to really engage with God. We’ve attended other churches that have a more passionate worship experience, but the theology is lacking. It’s so frustrating.
We were blessed to attend Covenant Life Church during a visit to DC earlier this year – it was so refreshing to see a church so committed to both the Word and the musical aspect of worship. Both my husband and I wished we could move to Gaithersburg after that service! If there were a Sovereign Grace church in our area, we’d be there in a heartbeat.
Thanks for sharing your experience and for spreading the Word through music.
Once again thanks for visiting us ‘down under’.
It’s interesting that you met a number of people in Sydney who stated that, “Christians there often attend two churches” in order to attend “a church with solid Bible teaching but subdued singing in the morning and a church with passionate, physically expressive singing but weak teaching at night.” While evidently (according to your conversations) there are people who do this in Australia, I believe they would be the minority. Anecdotally I don’t believe this is a widely practised mode of church attendance in Australia; though one cannot be entirely sure outside of a purpose-built enquiry. Incidentally, I note that you have also recognised this practice by some American Christians when you commented, “Some Christians have so separated worship and the Word that they’ll attend one church to experience the Spirit during the music, then visit another to get good teaching” (p. 89) in your excellent text, “Worship Matters”.
I join you in your desire for us (modern Christendom) to mature beyond the polemic which causes an either/or approach instead of a harmonious ‘God with us’ (transcendence and immanence) understanding. May it be so!
Thanks so much for that post. I live in Sydney, and attend church with a small Anglican congregation near the Sovereign Grace Church at Normanhurst.
I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear you speak, as I have been greatly blessed by your writing, this blog, and the music Sovereign Grace produces (‘Oh Great God’ is one of the prayers of my life!).
I really appreciate these comments a lot, and I love the humility and graciousness with which you’ve spoken about the church in Sydney.
Thanks for your ministry to our city, and reminder of the unity of the Body of Christ – even across oceans!
When I was in the Marines I occasionally heard the phrase: “Work hard, party hard.” I believe there’s some truth to this. People who are zealous in their discipline tend to be zealous in their celebration of it. So, Christians who are strong in their spiritual discipline tend to desire a strong outward demonstration of it in worship.
But you have the Barney Fifes and Otis Campbells of the world: people who either rely only on their discipline or find solace only in their gratification as thought discipline and gratification were ends unto themselves.
For the well-centered Christian, however, discipline and celebration are means to the ultimate goal: the glorification of God.
The question is now how to foster this goal in churches that tend toward Barney Fife-ism or Otis Campbel-ism. The admonition you give is correct – good teaching. The wall erected against it is most often by leadership whether by the pastors themselves or by non-pastoral leadership (elders/deacons/councils). That’s the pattern I’ve seen the most in my area.
I just got back from our Church’s (Antioch Community Church in Elon, NC) annual men’s retreat. We sang “Behold Our God” from the Risen album. It was powerful all the men singing together. We did it this morning (all the guys) at church. Thank you and the SGM crew for the song. I hope to upload it soon.
Link didn’t work.
http://db.tt/CfQR0V5R Recorded at Antioch Community Church’s 2011 men’s retreat on my iPad. Behold Our God by Sovereign Grace Music from their album Risen (all right belong to them.
Hope to visit Australia next year. Your words only spurred our desire.
As a aussie, it is always interesting to read of peoples impressions of the australian church. Though you have had a limited (and no doubt a specific angle presented) I think I see similar things.
I would not say the practice of two churches (one for teaching and one for expressive worship) is entirely common. I would say it is far more common than some here might admit.
I have a friend who leads in an anglican church who admitted that probably 2/3 of their young adults attend Hillsong at some point because of the expressive worship and community. (He also noted that now there are some good teachers in that environment especially a guy called Robert Ferguson – he is a gun)
Australian Culture, somewhat like american tends to contain stoic elements from its western european background. You will hear people describe anything with hands raised, tears, dancing, or frankly much sense of joy as subjectively ’emotionalism’. I am skeptical of such a phrase because that is culturally founded and was essentially what Michal accused King David of being.
What would you describe as ’emotionalism’ from a Biblical perspective? Is there such thing or is it subjective and emotionalism is more an internal focus?
Josh, thanks for reading and for the comments. I define “emotionalism” as pursuing emotions for their own sake, regardless of the source. Getting excited about how excited we are. That’s different from allowing our emotions to engage and respond naturally to the biblical truths and realities that we’re singing about or being reminded of or learning at any given moment during the course of a meeting. I find that too often the church puts a cap on what would otherwise be a normal emotional/physical response to something that is the extraordinarily good news of Jesus securing our redemption and conquering death and the powers of hell!
:) – we are on the same page regarding emotion. I guess my concern is about the often ‘word drop’ of ’emotionalism’ which is framed through conservative western culture.
I remember watching a lady sob in the midst of worship and arrogantly presumed her to be a flake only to find out later that she had been through a serious recent loss and she told me about God working on her heart in the moment.
Let’s just say I felt small, stupid and humbled. Anyway, great to read the blog