La La Church

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Photo from the movie “La La Land”

Yesterday, the Academy revealed its list of winners for the much-coveted Oscar awards. It also has its share of unforgettable moments especially when the announcement of the Best Picture award gone out of proportion—Steve Harvey style. Moonlight bagged the Big One over La La Land, which is an early crowd-favorite (mine also). I was able to watch the latter when it hit the local theater. I have to admit, it is seldom for me to watch a romantic tragedy—how much more a musical! But for a movie that promised to offer a stark reality about dreams and commitments, well, I think that’s worth a watch. And it was. The cinematography and choreography—accompanied by a string of songs—are a treat for the moviegoers. The film’s plot followed the lives of two budding Hollywood prodigies, Sebastian and Mia. Sebastian started as a fledgling musician who desires to saturate the music scene with jazz in all of its purity while Mia spent her stay to audition for an actress role while serving coffee.

I don’t intend to write a review of the movie but I was moved to write about something that Keith, played by the singer John Legend, said to our lead actor which we could connect to the life of the church today. I could barely recall one of his lines: “How could you save jazz if it is dying? How could you be a revolutionary if you insist to be a traditionalist?”

At the back of Keith’s mind, he believes that to tweak jazz is to save it. Change is good if it is done for the better. It is even inevitable given that we are participants to a history that is still unfolding. We should not be afraid of change. It could be turned into a useful tool; the church has profited from the boom of technology. Martin Luther welcomed the advent of the printing press and utilized it to distribute his writings widely. He also employed it to produce Bibles in the local language so that all could read God’s Word. In the same manner, we use social media, blogs, and podcasts to proclaim the gospel in every language and nation.

Eventually in the movie, Sebastian started to embrace the change since it helped him boost his career as a band pianist. It has reached to the point that Mia confronted him and said that this was not his dream; success has diverted him to what he truly loves. But he is unmoved; people loved him in what he does. That’s all that matters right now. The church may suffer with such pragmatic philosophy—change is always better. However, when change becomes the end rather than a servant or when it becomes the controlling factor rather than faithfulness, the church loses its identity.

Instead of being a witness to the world, we just become a choice among other options for the world. Instead of being not of the world, we blend with the world. Instead of being guided by biblical principles, we adopt the philosophy of the world. Just look on how the modern church resorts to gimmickry just to draw multitudes. Worship services are suited to the outsiders’ preferences and every sermon becomes an entertaining talk. Some even employ pop psychology in their sermons to make themselves more appealing to their hearers. Just look on how best-selling “preachers” put a smile on their faces and tell their audience “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” There is no call to repentance. There is no doctrinal substance. There is only a “Christianized” mix of health-and-wealth prosperity gospel. All of these things we do for the hope of proselytizing those outside our camp.

While God might use such instances to draw His people, these are not the ordinary means in which He brings His lost sheep to the flock. The church is not called to be trendy but to be faithful. Sadly, much of the efforts to “relativize” the church tend to diminish the value of the faithful preaching of Word. Ministers are called to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and to preach not ourselves but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2). It is through the faithful preaching of the Word that God quickens the unbelieving heart for “faith comes from hearing , and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The gospel alone is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). This should take preeminence in our mind as we engage the outside world. This should be our main concern—the center of it all. We leave the results of our preaching and evangelism not in our well-devised programs but with God.

Also, we must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24). We honor God by honoring Him according to His Word and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). Finally, we are called to make disciples by teaching the Bible, administering the sacraments, and fellowshipping (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 2:42). These tasks seem to be boring and ordinary but God chooses the weak over the strong of this world. Change should be a servant to the Word, not the other way round. We don’t need to dress the gospel with the cloth of contemporary gloss. The gospel remains relevant, in and of itself, all throughout history.

On the other hand, just as Sebastian initially thought that the good ol’ jazz is much better, the church may also catch the “nostalgic bug.” She might think of the “glorious days” of Christianity. Just think of the time of Reformation, or that of the English Puritanism, and you might say “Oh, gone are those days!” or “How I wish we’re same as before!” There is nothing wrong with setting up models of the faith but I think that when we turn this into a golden-age mentality, it does more harm than good to the church of today. Nostalgia usually brings into us those things that we only chooses to remember, thus creating an image of a “more-to-be-desired” state. By this, we turn a particular age as an embodiment of the ideal. We might get ourselves enamored by the past and forget to appreciate the contributions of the present church. We might also forget that the church of today has its own problems and issues that we need to attend.

However, there is no golden age. In this side of history, the church remains to be a body of flawed sinners dependent on God’s grace. The church of the past also shared a list of problems and sins. Just look at the accounts of Israelite nation, and even at the times of the apostles, immorality and arrogance waved their hands at the corner. Prophets arose to prosecute the people and call them into repentance. In light of the disturbances and infidelity, Paul and John wrote to the churches. And boy, the Reformation is not a walk in the park. You could see Luther calling those who didn’t believe in His view of the Lord’s Supper as unbelievers. Even Puritanism wasn’t able to lead England into its full potential; we shake our heads with regret at how secular Europe is now. However, God works through this broken church. Just look at the growing churches in Africa and in Asia and be amazed on how God is calling our lost brothers into the fold.

Yes, there is no golden age. The antidote for this unhealthy view of church history is a right understanding of God’s providence. At times, the Old Testament prophets recalled the prosperity of Israel before the exile. How they wished the days weren’t gone! But they believed in the outworking of the sovereign Lord, the Lord who called them out of Egypt and will redeem His people. We could also recall Augustine’s The City of God. He wrote the book partly in response to those who fault the Christians for the fall of Rome. However, he wrote the book mainly to give comfort to the weary church—Rome in all of its glory, a “golden age” if you like, is not the triumphant Church. The only golden age we should look forward to is the age that will come.

The tides will change but the Lord who has authority over all things, in heaven and on earth, is the same Lord who said that He will build His church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it (Matthew 28:18; 16:18). What brings us more comfort and strength to persevere is that He is also with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). We respond to this truth by being faithful to what God wants the church to be, that is, humbly submissive to His Word.

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