3 Stars Out Of 5
Good Empahsis on Glory of God But Needs More Nuanc
September 3, 2012
Grace for Sinners
What I loved about Vertical Church was MacDonald's emphasis on the glory of God. That theme ran through out the book and for that alone the book was worth reading (p. 300).
I also found his counter-emphasis on the sameness of mankind in its desire for eternity and God refreshing. It's a necessary balance to the over-contextualization that happens today. Says MacDonald,
We are taught to study out culture and contextualize the message to fit the uniqueness of the mass we seek to minister to. . . . Is the church about scratching the minutia of our unique itches, or is it about filling the vacuum of universal commonalty instilled in us by God? (p. 40)
While I say yes and amen, I also say it seems short-sighted to junk all contextualization as improper. Harvest Bible Church contextualizes their worship service. The first of the hallelujah! and head scratching.
However, my main issue was movement from the emphasis of God and his glory ( Hallelujah!) to over specific application (head scratching). For instance, in describing how you can tell if God's glory is present in your church James offers these among other in a checklist: "people line up at the door long before the service starts and rush to the front to get the beast seats for passionate, expressive worship where voices are loud, hands are raised, tears are flowing, minds are expanded, and hearts are moved as Christ is adored," conversion rates in contrast to church size, or small groups meetings (pp. 90-92). Many of these things I am for. I frequently raise my hands in worship, I attend a large church that typically sees lots of conversions, and my church offers small groups but what about people who don't and let's be honest most churches are not large, may not offer small groups, and according to the sovereign will of God they may not see a lot of conversions even though they preach and evangelize fervently and faithfully.
In close conjunction with that was the over emphasis on singing but specifically singing which results in manifestly expressive worship. MacDonald explicitly states that singing that doesn't manifest itself with hand-raising and other outward expressions is wrong (p. 183). He also explicitly reject hymns for having too much doctrine. He contrasts doctrinally deep songs with simple repetitive songs which tend to produce the outward expressiveness.
Intimacy demands simplicity, and with all due respect to hymns filled with great theology, that level of complexity is not what the Scripture reveals as God's personal preference. Yes, God has worship preferences too, and Vertical Church is about understanding those prerogatives and shaping our service plan to fit them (p. 176 what follows is a discussion about the angels singing "holy, holy, holy" as a model for simplicity and a rejection of the complex theology found in hymns pp. 173-79)
Of course, that's a false dichotomy but what's more he's made his musical preferences (his contextualization ironically) binding on everyone else.
Finally, he seems to write with a lot of angst. Not necessarily bad but not helpful either. For instance,
Where rebuke comes from elders in the body of Christ it should be directed against confirmed, substantive error, not disagreement over method or minor variation in doctrine, and it should come from those qualified to give it. Even ESPN realizes that veteran NFL players are in the best position to critique those currently on the field. (p. 126)
He talks about deciding not to send his manuscript off for review by pastor friends who had offered help for fear their push back causing more spiritual warfare for him (p. 305). It was hard to separate the fiascoes of the last 18 months from the tone of Vertical Church. He takes potshots at everybody from reformed, seeker-sensitive, attractional, missional (p. 40, 168), and especially at those pesky fundamentalists (pp. 128-29). The last group takes the most heat which is ironic because as a former fundy one of my biggest gripes was how they often bound people's consciences over preference which is what James does here as well.
The emphasis on experiencing the glory was wonderfully refreshing but would have been more impactful had it focused on the working of the Spirit in church through preaching the word. Preaching was emphasized but it seemed less than singing. A trend which is harmful for the body of Christ since preaching is the only guaranteed, never coming back void method of the Spirit to bring dead people to life in Christ. James says,
We preach so that worship will increase, not the reverse.
How often have we sat in church and heard the platform misnomer that a song will be sung to "prepare our hearts for the message"? Yes, ascribing worth to God elevates Him to His place and lowers us to ours, readying souls for God's instruction, but the phrase can seem to imply a pecking order that should not be intended and is not true. We don't worship so that preaching will be more impactful for us; we preach so that worship will be more impactful for God. (p. 170 the context of the chapter is lifting up singing as worship not acts of service or love see p. 168)
That's a matter of emphasis which is important. James does offer some penetrating cultural observations about the state of preaching (check out pp. 151-55, 220). The most helpful chapter for me was the one on prayer. I realized I don't pray enough or as boldly as I ought and so I do not receive because I do not ask. Vertical Church has some profound hallelujah! but also some of the most puzzling ironic head scratches.