Making the Liturgy Sing a New Song

How a retired Anglican priest and a young church music director created Liturgical Folk.

In 2015, when retired Anglican priest Nelson Koscheski shared one of his religious poems with the young music director at his Anglican church in Dallas, he never expected the poem to become a folk song. Koscheski thought the poem, which is about the Transfiguration, might make a good hymn, but would probably end up like most of his others—glanced at perfunctorily and then disregarded.

But the music director, Ryan Flanigan, was so moved by the poem’s beauty that he set it to a simple folk tune, which he incorporated into the church’s Transfiguration Day service.

“For the first time, I realized that my poetry was a form of ministry,” Koscheski says.

Since then, Flanigan, now 39, and Koscheski, 77, have written almost 50 hymns together. Under Flanigan’s direction, the cross-generational partnership has grown into a multifaceted folk music project. The two named the project Liturgical Folk, and in 2017 released their first two albums through the producer Isaac Wardell, who works with acclaimed religious musicians like Josh Garrels and Sandra McCracken. Liturgical Folk released their third album last fall and their fourth this February.

They are not alone. Rather, they are part of a growing number of Anglican musicians who are rearranging traditional hymns, adapting liturgy to contemporary music and writing songs of their own, says Bruce Benedict, the chaplain of worship and arts at Hope College in Michigan and founder of Cardiphonia, which resources the greater church with liturgical music.

“Liturgical Folk is really just sort of one group of folks that have been doing this for 10 or 15 years,” he says.

How did this movement come about?

In the late 1970s, a group of Anglican churches …

Continue reading…

Preoccupied with Love: Lifting High Evangelism Again

One-on-One with James Choung about evangelism and discipleship.

Ed: It’s hard to deny that we are living in challenging times culturally. The church’s influence is fading, and we are struggling to find answers to some hard questions. What’s your take on the health of the church today, especially as it relates to our witness?

James: Can I respond with a story? Just trying to be like Jesus, right?

I was invited to speak at a large student conference in Michigan, and they came from all over the state. As I took the elevator up to my room, I struck up a conversation with a student who told me that he was not a Christian, but that he was at the conference to explore the faith.

As he talked, I sensed that he was bothered by Christian political engagement. So I said, “The point of this conference isn’t so that you can become a Christian, but it’s so that you can learn how to become a follower of Jesus.”

“I’m so glad you said that,” he said, obviously relieved. “I thought that if I became a Christian, I’d have to vote a certain way.”

Before the conference was over, he responded to an invitation to faith, and had given his life to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Of course, I want him to own his identity as a Christian. But for people who don’t yet follow Jesus, the term Christian comes with so much political baggage that it’s just easier to call people to follow Jesus instead.

On campuses in some parts of our country, when skeptics find out that we’re Christians, we are often asked who we voted for. That’s new. It has become the new litmus test: Are these the kind of people I want to be connected to?These are, albeit anecdotal, data points that show that politics has become the new religion.

This story is …

Continue reading…

20 Truths from ‘The Louder Song’ by Aubrey Sampson

A sneak-peek of Sampson’s new book on lament and hope.

1 – “It feels like hell and heaven are having coffee together in my kitchen, secretly laughing about some inside joke. But I have no ideas what’s so funny” (Page 9).

2 – “If God never shows up, if he never rescues me, if he never meets me here in this pain, then my entire life of faith–the solid rock upon which I stand–will have been nothing more that quicksand” (Page 13).

3 – “Suffering is an invitation to stop pretending” (Page 14).

4 – “Lament, a crying out of the soul, creates a pathway between the Already and Not Yet. Lament minds the gap between current hopelessness and coming hope” (Page 15).

5 – “…lament is a godly concept, a spiritual discipline, and a powerful handhold in our seasons of sorrow. God has given us the biblical language and practice of lament as a way to express our pain and survive our suffering” (Page 15).

6 – “God invites us to express our grief about the unravelling of life” (Page 16).

7 – “What’s remarkable about Christianity is that we have a King who is also a steadfast, loving Husband and friend. He not only permits lament; he gives us the language of lament” (Page 21).

8 – “If we never acknowledge our pain to God, we will never truly know what it means to praise him on the other side of suffering” (Page 21).

9 – “Though we know that God is always good, life doesn’t always feel that way” (Page 22).

10 – “To lament is to speak the reality of our formless, chaotic suffering ad to ask God to fill it with his very good” (Page 23).

11 – “I personally believe protest laments are one …

Continue reading…

Are You More Loving Than God?

Let’s be real. Many of us think we can do it better.

Most folks in the pew wouldn’t say so right out, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we often think we are more loving than God. For instance, when I think about those who’ve never heard the gospel or that great neighbor who just can’t bring himself to believe such a long list of difficult and offensive truths—people I think that I would save if I were God—I’d be lying if I said the thought had never crossed my mind.

Indeed, it did just the other day when I was stopped cold by one of the most arresting lines in the Book of Romans. Beginning at chapter 9, Paul is rounding the corner of his grand argument about salvation history into the question of how to make sense of the current unbelief of his Jewish brethren. Expressing great anguish on their behalf, he says, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Rom. 9:3).

Cursed. Damned to hell. This is what Paul wishes he could trade for the salvation of his beloved people, Israel. The thought hit me like a two-by-four. Martin Luther comments, “It seems incredible that a man would desire to be damned, in order that the damned might be saved.”

How can Paul, Mr. “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), say he is willing to be “cut off from Christ” for them? This is a love and mercy I can scarcely fathom; it puts all conceits about my own compassion to shame.

I’d be tempted to call it hyperbole if Paul didn’t say that he is speaking the divine truth of Christ and that his “conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 9:1). Paul’s love for his people is a “hell and back again” kind …

Continue reading…

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Gospel of Shame-Free Sexuality

We can’t defeat shame by whittling down God’s law to fit our behavior. We need the good news of God’s forgiveness instead.

A few years ago I was listening to NPR while driving, and I almost pulled the car over to a stop, so great was my enthusiasm for what I’d just heard. When I got home, I found a recording of the segment online and insisted that one of my housemates listen to it with me. “A Lutheran pastor just defended the doctrine of sin on public radio!” I gushed. “And then preached the gospel!”

The pastor I heard was Nadia Bolz-Weber, the now-famous foul-mouthed, tattoo-festooned recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who founded Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, a progressive Lutheran congregation that has become known as a haven for ex-evangelicals and other religious or not-so-religious misfits. Here is part of what she said on the air that day:

When [the people of my congregation] come to church, they need a place where they can experience, like, confession and absolution—like, where they can confess the ways in which they can’t manage to fix everything and they can’t live up to their own values and the ways they’ve failed and hear that sort of ringing word of forgiveness and absolution. They need to hear the gospel and receive the Eucharist.

It’s not unusual to hear religious types talk about human fallibility and the need for affirmation or acceptance. But to hear someone say to a largely secular audience that we need to confess our wrongs, admit our guilt, and be absolved—well, that’s much stronger, and usually more distasteful, medicine. Ultimately, though, it’s a message that makes true healing possible because it diagnoses our wayward condition unblinkingly, rather than politely papering over it.

Doing Away with Absolution

Unfortunately, …

Continue reading…

Who Counts? How to Rightly Divide American Christianity

The academy’s debate over black church differences is more than a numbers game.

‘I’m not trying to be argumentative, but there are obvious differences,” says Jason Shelton, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington. He repeats his concern: “I don’t want to be provocative.”

Shelton, 42, grew up in the black church in the 1980s and ’90s. Now he’s quickly becoming one of its most prominent researchers. In 2012 he wrote (with Michael O. Emerson) a widely praised book on how black and white American Christians differ from each other. Now he’s reshaping the way American Christianity is studied and discussed by turning his attention to significant differences within the black church itself.

“As a kid who grew up in the black Methodist tradition and also went to a large Pentecostal church, I can say there’s a lot of distinctiveness between these traditions,” he says. At the same time, he says, shared experiences as black Christians in America unite black Methodists, black Pentecostals, and other black Christians in a special way. As he argued in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion last summer, “For blacks, the legacy of racial discrimination and inequality in America overshadows consequences of contrasting denominational affiliations.”

In that journal article, Shelton (with his UT–Arlington colleague Ryon Cobb) proposed a coding scheme for dividing African Americans into nine religious streams. Half a decade ago, it might have been received as a helpful nuance to the dominant way that sociologists, political scientists, pollsters, and others study American religion. But questions of unity, diversity, and division in the American church are not merely academic at the moment. Asking whether black Christians …

Continue reading…

Infanticide Debate Reflects a New Era for Abortion Politics

As states push for pro-choice protections, Christians have a growing obligation to defend the lives of babies born as “burdens.”

Over the past month, pro-lifers have been compelled to speak openly and loudly about the possibility of infanticide being permitted by our laws.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, video spread of New York’s legislature giving a standing ovation for a bill that, among other things, removed requirements that infants born during abortion procedures receive legal protection as persons.

Those concerns were stoked again last week, as video went viral of Virginia state legislator Kathy Tran saying a similar bill in her state—which was since voted down in committee—would permit the termination of an infant’s life even during labor. A similar bill has gone before state legislators in Vermont.

From the outside, pro-lifers’ claims of legalizing infanticide might seem like hysterical reactions against attempts to liberalize abortion access. Those exhausted by the culture wars might be tempted to dismiss such outrage as conservative handwringing.

Yet our concerns are fully justified. Even Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s attempt to clarify matters ended up conflating expanding abortion access with declining care for infants born in the process.

Defending Tran’s proposal, Northam stated that babies determined in the third trimester to have “severe deformities” or be “nonviable” would be delivered, “kept comfortable,” and “resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

The controversy has since moved on, as Northam is dealing with the fallout from an infamous yearbook photo. But the emerging discussion about infanticide seems to represent a new stage in America’s …

Continue reading…

Our Churches Are Either Sacramental or Charismatic

The Early Church didn’t make a distinction. So why do we?

It is an oddity of contemporary Christianity, at least in the West, that the churches that emphasize the sacraments generally do not emphasize spiritual gifts, and vice versa.

This Sunday, thousands of believers will enter a sanctuary in which all eyes are drawn to the table near the front. They will brush past a baptismal font as they find a seat, sing hymns and recite prayers that have sustained believers for centuries, confess that they believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and receive bread and wine. Spiritual gifts, however—with the exception of teaching—are unlikely to make an appearance. An occurrence of prophecy or healing would be very surprising, if not unprecedented. Tongue-speaking would result in either a baffled silence or an embarrassed cough.

Thousands of other believers will enter a very different worship space, in which all eyes are drawn to the stage. They will expect, and frequently experience, a meeting in which people practice the laying on of hands, spontaneous prayer, anointing with oil, prophecy, languages, healing, and any number of the other spiritual gifts described in the New Testament. But there will probably be no corporate confession, no creed, no psalms, and no shared liturgy. If the Lord’s Supper is celebrated at all, it will appear on collapsible tables, transition quickly into the next part of the service, and take no more time than the announcements.

There are, in other words, churches that are eucharistic and churches that are charismatic (as well as a good many churches that are neither). So it is interesting that the New Testament church about whose corporate worship we know the most, namely the church in Corinth, was both. The Corinthians were apparently …

Continue reading…

One-on-One with Ann Voskamp on Going to Back to School at the Wheaton College Grad School

I recently talked with author and speaker Ann Voskamp about why she is part of a grad school cohort at Wheaton College.

Ed: Why did you decide at your place and stage as a writer and a leader, to go back to school?

Ann: I think there were a few catalysts.

First, ultimately, we are as helpful teachers as we are humble learners. Leaning into a kneeled posture of humility to receive leaves us better positioned to pour out more thoughtfully.

The professors at Wheaton walk in a brilliant humility and to listen and learn from their experiences, their readings, their perspective, and to bring that wealth of wisdom that has been tried and tested by time to our own lives is needful and transformative.

As we are watered by the writings and teachings of the faithful who have poured out before us, the hope is that our own lives would yield far better.

Second, as a mother of seven children, deeply committed to building a community of readers and inquisitive minds, we have always believed that, as it is widely said, “Education is not about merely filling a bucket. It’s about ultimately lighting a match.” That match burns hot the rest of our lives.

Every parent, every person in leadership, needs to model what it’s like to have a voracious appetite to learn more of the ways of Christ, to be intentionally growing in Christ, to be a lifelong learner at the feet of those who have gone before, to be lifelong learner in community.

Third, I think that the Christian life is a life of discipleship, so how are we humbly positioning ourselves to be discipled by great books and great teachers?

How are we, in our limping brokenness, intentionally joining the great cloud of witnesses, to learn from great thinkers, to sit at the feet of spiritual giants?

The body of Christ has historically always been a seedbed of culture-shapers: Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, …

Continue reading…

China: The Continuing Enigma

It is important for the global church to understand that China matters for us all.

I’m frequently asked, “What is the current state of the church in China?” China is big news in the West, on many fronts. Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are nose-to-nose in a global economic poker game. Who will blink first is what pundits debate.

In the U.S. and Canada, major television networks and newspapers have focused on issues facing Christians in China. Of particular interest is the Zion “house church,” also known as an “unregistered church.” Zion, the largest unregistered church in Beijing, where I preached some months ago, was recently shut down.

Such actions lead one to wonder if the church is generally under attack by the government or if these are just one-off events. Of course, churches are always under surveillance. While visiting a number of house churches in five cities, I asked if the government knew of their activities. Mostly I’d get a smile with, “Of course, we’re in China.”

Then recently, I met with more than a dozen house church pastors. I wanted to know if the current government crackdown was simply a ripple of minor religious consequence, a wave smashing about but eventually wearing itself out on the cultural shoreline, or if this was a rising tide.

(Note: what we referred to as the “underground church” is now called “house church,” although very much above ground. House churches are not registered with the government, in contrast to the “registered churches” which, while generally evangelical, are under varying levels of influence and control by the government.)

Be careful

China-watching is dangerous, even for the most informed. Snapshots too easily turn into a kind of movie, as if occasional shots …

Continue reading…