Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Rockin' Preacher

I promised this post awhile ago. And, well, here ya go!

On the surface, it seems like a case of "one of these things is not like the other": the rock star becoming a preacher. And yet, so many times in the history of rock and roll, some of those great rock gods gave their lives and careers over to the capital G God. It might seem like a head scratcher to some, but let's review, shall we?

A lot of those early rockers (Elvis, Jerry Lee, etc.) were raised in church. Raised in church, in the south. Church is the south is serious. Still is. So many of those rockers actually learned their trade in church. Pentecostal churches were, in a way, ground zero for rock and roll: the chaos, the excitement, the music and the movements. It was all there, even back then. And good Christian folk, who otherwise would have eschewed such behavior, were totally fine with it, as long as it was in the name of Jesus.

It's funny that, in its infancy, rock music was protested most vociferously by the church. The early progenitors of the style were sons of the bride of Christ. When they warmed up or jammed informally, they sang Gospel tunes. Many of them were fans of Gospel singers, most significantly Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Blackwood Brothers, who Elvis loved. This was who they were, to the point that they recorded Gospel records at the height of their stardom, often to the chagrin of their management or labels.

What I love about these stories is that, far from being diametrically opposed, the church and rock music are almost the same thing. There's a fervency and urgency to it all. People are devoted to pouring on their adoration. The fans/parishioners are giving what they've got to what they believe in. And let's not forget the preachers/singers. They're the same person: working the crowd, communicating a message effectively and emoting in such a way that everyone gets it, and there's not a single heretic in the place.

Yet, there are differences, and the most marked difference is the perception of the two. The ubiquitous puritanism that engulfed America by the 1950's had framed the argument of morality in the simplest of terms: a conservative, moralistic lifestyle was what God desired. Any deviation from that must be sin, and rock and roll was deviation defined. If you're a church boy who grew up to sing "Great Balls of Fire" or "Good Golly Miss Molly", well, you're conflicted. And these men were, in more ways than one.

Little Richard is probably the most famous of all the rocker-turned-preacher. He grew up in Georgia, attending the African Methodist church. By age 10, he was faith healer. He loved charismatic churches, and the excitement was not lost on Richard. But, like all of us, he was a saint and a sinner. The original lyrics to "Tutti Frutti", for example, had to be edited and changed so that the song would even have a shot at airplay. His interest in orgies, his homosexuality, along with the typical alcohol and drug abuse that accompanied many of the early rock icons have always showed a man conflicted. But in 1957, at the height of his popularity, a plane ride to Australia changed all that. Richard claimed to have seen angels on the wings of the plane, which, after he reached his destination, crashed into the sea. This was all the sign he needed to abdicate that hedonistic rock and roll life he felt it had become, and devote his life to preaching the Gospel. He went back to rock, then back to evangelism, and then found a peace about both worlds.

Wayne Cochran was known as the "White Knight of Soul". His biggest claim to fame is writing "Last Kiss" (last popularized by Pearl Jam). Like Little Richard, he had a huge pompadour and charisma to match. He's now a minister at a church in Florida, and has been for decades.

There are others, too: Sting was planning on being a priest before his foray into the "devil's music". Richie Furay, of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, became a born-again Christian and eventual pastor. And let's not forget the Reverend: Al Green, who became a pastor in 1976, in the middle of the height of his R&B career. Of course, there is also a long list of rock stars who became Christians.

The fervent nature of both a rock and roll show and a pentecostal church service are almost one and the same: people get all worked up over something they believe in, or are excited about. The object of that adoration may be different, but the reaction is the same. The takeaway, I think, might be that certain personalities are drawn to both of these lives. Those people are very passionate and feeling individuals, who feel they have something to say, and also want people to hear it. You could say that it even takes a little ego to think that, week after week, a group of people are going to listen to you. I've known a lot of ministers who preach in spite of their humility, for sure, but there are also more than a handful who are almost made to get that kind of attention.

Some church going folk might be bothered by that. But I'd say that God gave them their charisma to somehow further the kingdom. You'll note that it's very hard for fallen ministers to stay out of the limelight. I think it's not only because they crave it, but that they are also somehow made to seek it. Sure, it's a fine line between being a sycophant/glory seeker, and just being your own charismatic self, but I think those people are naturally that way. The key for those people, and for ministers who stand in front of hundred of people every Sunday, is to know that they are in the service of those they stand before, just like a janitor or an electrician. There is no difference: they are providing a service. And it's a good lesson for rock stars, too. How many famous musicians have been felled by their own hubris? Remember Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol? No one is an entity unto themselves, and if nothing else, that's the lesson from rock stars becoming preachers. And now, rock stars singing Gospel:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Change

I'd always had this nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right.

During my first ministry, I was teaching a class on the book of Acts when I asked the class this question: "We see in Acts 2 that the church had, quote 'everything in common'. They shared possessions, and spent a lot of time together. Given the nature of life today, do you think it's possible for the church to live like this now?'" People thought for a moment. And the answer that the class gave was a surprise to me: "No. I don't think so." I figured that, being good Christian people, they would at least give lip service to the idea. Nope. No dice. "Life is so different now", they said. And with that, my lesson was derailed.

Ministry wasn't that much of an eye-opener to me. I knew, because I was friends with my youth minister, that church work wasn't all pizza parties and prayer services. There was drama. There were conflicts. People got mad. People were jerks. But this class was a turning point for me. Those early Christians seemed like hippies, like a sub or counterculture that the church today wouldn't embrace. It started the nagging question of whether or not we really are like the first believers in the book of Acts, and like the people Jesus expected us to me.

Every once in a while, I'd be studying a passage and see that what the passage said didn't match what the church did. A simple thought. But one that always bugged me. It got under my skin. Flash forward a decade, and I'm in my third ministry. At this point, I had been in enough church meetings, and talked to enough church people, to know that, even in the face of what Jesus said, a lot of Christians will sometimes flat out refuse to follow the example of Jesus. For example...

Jesus had people leave his ministry when he spoke the truth. But we never want people to leave our church, and bend over backwards to placate even the slightest whim.
James tells us to take care of the orphan and the widow. But we have a budget that doesn't have hardly any spending for this, let alone volunteers who do this work.
Paul tells us that we are a priesthood of all believers. But we have ministers who do most of the pastoral work.
Jesus tells us to love one another, and that we will be known by our love. But we get into petty arguments with each other that cause us to disfellowship, and we are not known by our love, but rather have defined ourselves by what we hate.
The Bible tells us that we are supposed to confess our sins to each other. But we don't, either because people will gossip about us, or ostracize us.
Jesus makes it clear that we are to go straight to those that we have issues with. But we write anonymous notes to church leadership instead, and complain about each other to our friends.
Jesus has no political affiliation. But we try to give him one.
Paul told us we are saved by grace. But we give very little grace to those who don't share our opinions and lifestyles.
The Bible tells us to share each other's burdens and to help those who are in need. We judge them, and tell them to get a job, and assume they are lazy if they are out of work. 
Jesus was very blunt with people who did things that were hurtful to others. We bite our tongues (or join in with the complainers) because it's easier and not controversial. And we don't want to lose our big tithers, either.

My change came about over the course of the last couple of years. I used to identify as a conservative. I thought that American conservatism was the political ideology that was closest to the identity of the church. Anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-gun, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, etc. And, in the churches where I worked, almost everyone was Republican. And then I met (gasp!) a democrat in my church.

I talked just a little bit about politics with him, not much. He shared with me that he felt like he couldn't really talk about his politics with his fellow Christians. Even though there should be no political litmus test, and any man-made political ideology will be imperfect, he really didn't feel comfortable sharing his views. He was a pro-life democrat to boot, which meant that he was on the fringe of two different groups of people.

He was also a wonderful, Godly man.

And the more I thought about it...the more I read the Bible....the more I heard the political conversation surrounding both the election of Bush and Obama, the more I saw that this is not a fight that I have a dog in. The more I heard the negative comments about both men (both church goers, by the way) - the racist jokes, the comparisons to Hitler -  the more I realized that I had added to the words of Jesus with my ideology and politics, and it was time to lay them at the foot of the cross.

This post really isn't about politics. It's about how we supplement the Gospel with a bunch of other thinking that is usually contrary to the love of Christ. Americans pride ourselves on being self-made individuals, but Paul tells us that we have nothing without the grace of Jesus, and it's this grace that we can't earn on our own. We're supposed to keep striving to make more money, but the love of money is the root of all evil. In so many ways, we've given up on the ideal of the early church because it was a standard we couldn't attain. And, to replace the ideal, we've got our own set of rules that sound pious. And all our friends have the same opinions, so they must be right. Except that they don't show love, they just make us feel more superior.

The funny thing is that there are so many Gen-X and Gen-Y Christians who seem to have come to the same conclusions. The last ten years have seen church leaders emerge that share this vision. But some corners of the traditional church seems to have very little use for us, even though the goal of most of them is to be more like Christ. How can you argue with that?

I don't think the government should take nearly as much money as they do (conservative) but what money they do have should be going to help people (liberal). I think people should do everything they can to help themselves (conservative) but I think we should do everything we can to help them, too (liberal). I'm in nowhere land, politically and ideologically. And that's alright with me. I don't want to throw all in with any group of people. I want to go all in with Jesus. That's how I roll.