Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time - Tom Sine

Challenged by an imaginative view of what the Church can be

The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time
Author: Tom Sine
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 304

When I asked to review The New Conspirators by Tom Sine I thought I was getting a critique of the emergent church and its related expressions. I had just finished a book that was extremely critical of reimagining the church, and I thought that I was getting another that might validate or modify the concerns raised in the first book.

I quickly discovered that Tom Sine is not only sympathetic to a new kind of church life but is a key player. This book is like a primer for the emerging, missional, mosaic and monastic movements. He introduces the dominant thoughts of each group and some of the most influential people. Those already immersed in this worldview may not find a lot that is new, but the material is so comprehensive that it is a valuable resource for those on either side of these issues.

This book is well-written, but it is not formulated as a defense of these movements. It does not delve deeply into doctrinal concerns and does not provide an in-depth Biblical basis for what is taking shape.

The focus is on encouraging people to adopt a lifestyle that is consistent with the manifestation of God’s reign here on earth. Sine sees his book as an invitation to a simple but radical lifestyle when he writes, “This book is an invitation to a part of something ‘really, really small,’ a quiet community that is destined to change our lives and God’s world. We will particularly focus on what God is doing through the emergent, missional, mosaic and monastic streams of the church. But we are all invited to the join the creative edge by more fully discovering how God might use our mustard seeds to be a part of this conspiracy of compassion and hope.”

In many ways this is a challenging read. Anyone reading this with an open mind will have to think hard about the repeated call to examine whether our way of doing church and living the Christian life has been shaped more by our consumer culture than we may have realized. It’s ironic that in some areas these new forms of Christian expression seem to be more aware than their critics of how the church and the lives of Christians have been shaped by the world.

There is much here that is praiseworthy. The book is particularly strong in advocating a discipleship that encompasses our entire life rather than just segments of it. The author shows how believers can develop statements of calling to help them live more intentionally. The idea is to live in the reality that God’s new order is here now and breaking into our world.

The author frequently touches on issues of global concern, and it’s amazing how relevant it all is to our current situation. It’s as if he was peeking into the present when he wrote this book. He accurately portrays some of the discouraging challenges that the church and the world face today. It’s probably the most sobering part of the book.

Whether you view these new expressions of the church with suspicion or are an enthusiastic participant, this book is worth reading for the ideas and realities that are presented. Christians must grapple with these concepts and decide which way to go.

Hopefully, those leading these movements will be willing to engage their critics rather than just dismiss them. It’s understandable that they have no desire to go about doing church as usual. But for the sake of truth, being accountable to other members of the body of Christ, and for the sake of those they lead, they should carefully weigh criticisms and be open to dialogue with their opponents.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake for critics to say these new expressions are all wrong. How many of us, and how many of our churches, are all right or all wrong? We might like to think we are right all or most of the time, but pride deceives us when that is our attitude.

Whether these movements are faithful in doctrine and practice to the standards of Scripture will remain a source of debate. How much better it would be if both sides could respectfully speak the truth in love. It shuts down communication when people resort to derogatory comments.

It might help if we look for what’s good and right in each other’s words. I wasn’t looking to find fault, and I discovered truth worth considering.

Billy: The Early Years (Official Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Surprises abound on this tribute to Billy Graham’s early years

Billy: The Early Years (Official Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Artist: Various
Label: Essential
Length: 12 tracks/37:04 minutes

You might imagine that the soundtrack for a movie about one of the greatest evangelists that has ever lived would be full of inspirational songs from popular CCM artists. If you thought that way, you are in for a big surprise. Billy: The Early Years is dominated by country artists—including many that I was not familiar with or had never heard of—performing mostly stripped-down acoustic songs. Except for the last three tracks, which are hymns, creative original songs dominate this release. The sparse production gives both the hymns and the new songs a fresh sound.

The only CCM-sounding song is “Amazing Love” by Michael W. Smith and Melinda Doolittle. This is a decent song, but it doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the release. Another curious addition is “In Dreams” by the legendary Roy Orbison. This is not as good as some of his songs like “Pretty Woman,” which have become popular in recent years. It’s one of three love songs.

The love songs pay tribute to Graham’s early relationship with his wife Ruth. Her own words about what she wanted in a husband are featured in “Ruth’s Prayer,” sung by Patty Griffin.

Other songs wistfully look toward heaven as in “Over the Next Hill,” a strong duet between Brooks & Dun and Mac Powell of Third Day.

Josh Turner could pass for a young George Beverly Shea on “Almost Persuaded,” the bittersweet hymn about being close to salvation but still being lost. Turner sings the song with great dignity.

“Just As I Am” starts with a choir of voices that rise above stringed instruments. Sierra Hull adds her voice midway through and at the end she alone is left singing. It’s an effective technique that wonderfully reinvigorates this hymn, which has been used to close so many Billy Graham Crusades.

Brad Paisley does an excellent instrumental guitar version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

I can’t help thinking that the Graham family would be pleased with the artistry and dignity found on each of these tracks. I like the clear annunciation of words and the sparse acoustic instrumentation.

It’s a shame that the movie has not done well. It may mean that fewer people will give this CD a chance.

I had low expectations before hearing it, but this CD was a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Hallelujah - Michael W. Smith

Singing praise to God can be exciting and inspiring

A New Hallelujah
Artist: Michael W. Smith (www.michaelwsmith.com)
Label: Reunion Records
Length: 15 tracks/69:07 minutes

You could say that A New Hallelujah (2008) stems from the release of Worship (2001), which became the fastest-selling album in Christian retail—eventually achieving platinum certification along with Worship DVD (2002). But Michael W. Smith’s (MWS) engagement with worship started long before this. Do you remember, or have you heard, “Great is the Lord,” from his debut recording Michael W. Smith Project (1983)? It was sung in churches across the land.

MWS has always had a heart for worship, but now more than ever it is being fully expressed. With this, his third praise and worship recording—Worship Again (2002) his second—Michael returns to what must be one of his reasons for being.

MWS may be too mainstream for sophisticated tastes, but he brings a dynamic and energy that wins many people over. He has the ability to make worship exciting and inspiring. He demonstrates that there’s no reason why singing praise to God needs to be dull.

The dramatic opening instrumental that starts with what sounds like a ticking time-bomb and machine-like drumming, reminiscent of the opening ceremony in this past summer’s Olympics, create a sense of anticipation. It leads right into “Prepare Ye the Way,” a song that builds in intensity toward an explosive chorus.

Two excellent songs performed with the Uganda’s African Children’s Choir follow. It shows a little of the variety in styles found here, which includes atmospheric rock, African, gospel, piano balladry, choir and congregational singing, and additional special guest performances. The latter includes, Coalo Zomorano, who sings in Spanish, and local crowd favorite, Israel Houghton, worship leader of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, where this event was recorded.

The duet between MWS and Israel Houghton on “Help is on the Way,” is a standout gospel song that communicates comfort. Another highlight is the vibrant choir and congregational singing heard throughout the recording.

One drawback, and it’s characteristic of this genre, is the prolonged repetition on some songs of choruses and simple phrases. I would have enjoyed hearing the verses of “Healing Rain” and “Majesty.”

Some who prefer mostly anthem-like songs may not appreciate the more quiet and subtle moments, but this balances out the triumphant and celebratory nature of the event. You get both praise and worship. The tender “Deep in Love with You” balances the majesty of “Mighty to Save.”

There is a little more depth and creativity than what you find on the two previous releases. You get flashes of MWS’s ingenuity with arrangements and keyboards. It’s always been an asset, but perhaps not as evident on the other two releases. If I had to choose between his trilogy of worship recordings, this would be my pick. Some of the songs are not as strong, but this is more artistic.

This is worth seeing as well as hearing. The DVD is scheduled for release on March 17, 2009.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Christmas Offerings DVD - Third Day

More than a Christmas concert

Christmas Offerings DVD
Artist: Third Day
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 1 hour 13:36 minutes

Third Day continues to impress on Christmas Offerings DVD. Earlier this year they released Revelation, one of their best recordings. The same excellence found on that CD is featured on this DVD.

This offers a fine collection of songs ranging from Christmas classics, a few originals and some of the band’s signature songs. The latter includes wonderful versions of “King of Glory,” “Show Me Your Glory,” “Your Love, Oh Lord,” “God of Wonders,” and a rousing finale of “Creed,” written by Rich Mullins. These songs broaden the appeal, making this something that could be watched any time of the year.

Nevertheless, the Christmas element is prominent. Lead singer Mac Powell frequently encourages the audience to sing along in what the band hopes will be a worship experience. Even so, the music is what makes this a first-class Christmas DVD.

Third Day’s God-directed lyrics are accompanied by a pop/rock sound that is especially engaging on this DVD. They do remarkably strong versions of Christmas songs in their own style. The six-piece band performs against a starry backdrop with lighting and images that evoke the season.

Among my favorite moments are introductions from guitarist Brad Avery and bass player Tai Anderson. Anderson affirms that bass players can do more than generate throbbing sounds.

It all starts with an extremely well-done intro consisting of concert clips mixed with shots of band members off stage. This 2007 concert was filmed at Fellowship of the Woodlands in The Woodlands, Texas.

During the performance Mac Powell states that Third Day never had plans for a Christmas concert, but they were pleased with the results. Those who see this will also appreciate what they have done. Third Day has given us a gift worthy of the season.

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

Christians making music for the many rather than the few Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil’s Music Auth...