MW: When you say you were raised in the ‘backwoods of Kentucky’ what exactly do you mean? How backwoodsy?

JVD: Haha. The backwoodsiest, man. I’m talking waaaaay back. In the early ‘80’s, my folks picked up out of Atlanta and drove to Kentucky to get away from it all. I think they were tired of big cities and suburbs and wanted to live differently. So they bought a 45-acre forest in the middle of the Kentucky hills and built a house there. Our nearest neighbor was several miles away. And also, we had no electricity. A lot of folks ask if we were Amish when they hear that – haha. We weren’t. My Mom and Pops just didn’t want to be dependent on anyone for their well-being, and they took that idea pretty seriously. They were kind of like Old West pioneers, you know? Living off the land. It sounds weird to most folks that we didn’t have electricity, but it was really no big thing. Probably not much difference between my house and yours, but instead of watching TV, we read lots of books.

MW: Why did you go to the big city for school and not some small rural college?

JVD: For purely pragmatic reasons, I ended up at the University of Louisville – which was a big step for a small-town boy. I actually really wanted to go to Western Kentucky University because my girlfriend at the time was there. But, Louisville offered me a full academic scholarship, plus an art scholarship – basically a free ride and them some. I think I actually made money off the deal. No other school even came close to offering that, so U of L it was. Ended up being a good fit, so I guess the Lord knew what He was doing the whole time. Figures.

MW: What is it about graphic design that is so titillating?

JVD: Ugh. Well, definitely not the word “titillating.”

I majored in graphic design, again, for purely pragmatic reasons. I knew I wanted to be an art major, but the idea of being a “starving artist” was not appealing at all. Graphic design seemed to make the most sense at the time because it was the most practical – generally, there is more opportunity for steady work as a graphic designer than, say, a painter or sculptor. Plus, I am one of those guys who is decent but not great at a wide variety of mediums – drawing, painting, sculpting, photography – and graphic design really gives opportunity to put all those to work for you.

Nowadays, I am able to do design from a pastoral perspective. I really like to serve people, and to me, that is the essence of good graphic design: serving others. Much of what I do is take something in someone else’s head – a concept, an image, a message – and make it visual and (hopefully) more accessible. I love to design because it is a practical way to serve visionaries and leaders within the church and point others to the message of the Gospel. Graphic design is not usually just “art for art’s sake,” which can become narcissistic. Serving others through design helps keep my own tendency toward egocentricity at bay, because I can never take all the credit. So that is like a bonus.

MW: Do you think it is necessary for a church to hire a graphic designer? Why?

JVD: I’m tempted to say “yes,” but in all honesty, I would have to say “no.” So, in general, no. In most cases, I would probably consider a church-staffed designer a total luxury and not a necessity. I realize that probably sounds real odd coming from a guy who directs graphics & communications for a church. Before all you on-staff designers out there start spamming me with nasty comments, let me quantify that answer with some random thoughts on the matter:

If you are a church who can afford your own graphic designer or creative arts producer or whatever the heck you want to call it – by all means, hire away … as long as you are already doing basic pastoral ministry well. Don’t hire a designer at the expense of pastoral ministry.

Realize, though, I am speaking in very general terms because the answer to this question could depend entirely on your church’s size and situation. There could be a lot of factors involved. If you are a passionately missional North American church, good visual design can be a valuable draw depending on your location and culture. If you are a steadily growing church of hundreds or thousands and you think animated gifs and overhead projectors are the hotness … for practical communication reasons, you probably need to think about integrating some nice design.

On the other hand, if you are a church that is not well-staffed pastorally or not functioning with a competent admin staff (i.e. your teaching pastor is also the receptionist, janitor, and bake-sale organizer), your hiring philosophy should probably include addressing those issues first – you need to be doing basic ministry well before you start prettying things up. Otherwise you are, if I may borrow a phrase from one Matthew S. Wireman, “polishing a turd.”

As a side note, if you are going to hire a graphic designer, hire someone who is pastoral in their approach to design. Graphics can easily become overdone, manipulative or overbearing. Good design in the church should always always always ALWAYS point to and support the message, not overpower it and not become the message itself. But I digress…

Seriously, though, in the end, design is just another tool. Graphic designers in the church can be as valuable or invaluable as any other vessel. Design and art can be helpful or harmful depending on how wisely it is used. In the end, broken people need Jesus, not cool PowerPoint slides – so take that into consideration.

MW: Is there another position you see that would have primacy over a graphic designer?

JVD: I think I sort of addressed that in my last tirade. Don’t hire strictly creative arts guys over well-qualified pastoral guys. If you are trying to decide between a good pastor and a good visual arts producer – go for the good pastor. You can always outsource design. If you can find someone who is both wildly creative and qualified pastorally – hire them and double their salary (Hint, hint? Anyone?)

MW: If it were a choice between a puppet ministry and a graphic designer, which should a church hire?

JVD: Pshaw. That’s easy. Neither. If you’re operating at that level, your clear priority should be to find a solid Pastor of Mime Ministry.

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What Is Sunday Worship?

I’m gonna keep this simple, but hopefully not simplistic. As you consider your corporate gathering of believers (typically on the first day of the week), there are three ways to think about it. You can think of it as an event, a participation, or a transformation.

The Event Model can take on two modes: emotionally-driven or cognitively-driven. The emotionally-driven mindset, of course, could baldly mean that you show up to hear some great music and hear a message. You go to watch and experience something. The cognitively-driven mindset could mean that you highlight the sermon so much that it becomes the point of your showing up. You hear this a lot in evangelical churches that the sermon is the most important aspect of the worship experience. The problem with such thinking, though, betrays an onlooker mentality. That is, I go to church to observe and consider and think and have my thinking changed.

In this model, there is an I-Thou expectation of the worship service. I go to that. I consider that. I am separate from and participate in that. In other words, this kind of approach to the corporate gathering is apart from who I am. I go to there. I leave from there. Sure, we talk about taking the message home with us…but come on! You and I both know we forget what was said within 10 minutes of leaving the building. When we are confronted with traffic on the way to the buffet. And then, we get bored. Bored with our lives. Bored with our faith. We find greater joy in our team winning the game than in our eternal salvation won at the cost of the Son of God.

The Participation Model is a little bit better than the event model. This puts the onus on the believer to come to the service seeking to be engaged in other people at church. For all the talk about this being a need in churches, and people nodding their heads in agreement…this does not happen in reality. People cognitively ascend to this truth, but they don’t fully grasp this truth.

If they do grasp a hold of this participation model, it often devolves into judgmentalism (others aren’t as serious about their faith as you are) or complacency (I asked someone how their walk with God is going and they gave me the cold shoulder). So what’s the problem with this model? Write simply it remains in the realm of I-Thou. That is, I bring something to you. I come to serve you. I am apart from and wholly different from you. At its root, it is simply another (albeit more spiritual rendition) of the event model. 

The third, and I believe more biblical model (of course!), is the Tranformational Model. This way of approaching the Sunday morning gathering sheds itself of the event. It doesn’t come in judgment of the service–I didn’t like that song. I liked the sermon. I really engaged with God this morning. Wow, what a wonderful time. Instead, it views Sunday morning as another step in my being conformed into the image of Jesus. It does see it as an event you come to. It is something we participate in. But preeminently it embraces the fact that over time we are being changed by the service itself. 

What does this look like? Well, it understands that every time we attend an event or participate in a service, we are slowly changing. You are much more different from the fifth football game you attended, than the first. You understand the language, the traditions, the cheers. 

So it is with a church service…and this is where it gets a bit thorny. With the typical evangelical liturgy (and it is a liturgy) of two fast songs, two slow songs, a sermon, and dismissal, we are slowly becoming consumers. Or better put, our already-ingrained consumer mentality is reinforced as we observe (and maybe participate). We watch the stage. We critique the songs–or what the song leader was wearing. We sit down and hear someone wax eloquently–or not. 

I fear that much of the problems we see in modern evangelicalism stem from us offering goods and services to people and not inviting them into be transformed. This fact is betrayed in much of the assumptions underlying decisions made on how the liturgy ought to roll. For example, since we need to be engaging and winsome in our communication of the Gospel, we need to play this popular radio song and do a Jesus juke to talk about how real love is only found in Jesus. Of course I’m not saying messages and songs ought to be fuddy-duddy and boring! Stop putting baby in the corner. 

What I am saying is that churches ought to be very clear in what they are shaping their people into becoming. We ought to understand that we are in the business of transformation–from one degree of glory to another. Not filling seats. Not being entertaining and relevant at the cost of depth. 

This is why at Christ the Redeemer, we have been intentional in our liturgy. We believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering is the transformation of people. We have an explicit order to our service that follows the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation. Over time, people’s being is changed. It unwittingly becomes easier to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” because you are trained to confess your sin every week. You more readily accept forgiveness because you are trained to hear God’s Word of Forgiveness to you after confessing. You more readily come to fellowship with God in spite of and because of your sin because you are trained that at the Lord’s Table you find satisfaction and rest for your souls.

Yes, Sunday morning is an event. But not merely so. It is something we participate in. But not merely so. It is preeminently another step in our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The primary goal of Sunday morning is our transformation through intentional liturgies.

Brief Thoughts on Church Membership (altogether incomplete)

I have been reflecting on the subject of church membership for the last few weeks. This stems from planting a church and having folks join who are members of existing churches. This also stems from folks who joined our church plant and have moved their membership–both issues had to do with distance to our new location and a desire to be involved in a more specific way to those who attend another church for purposes of ministry (both great reasons!).

My thoughts haven’t just been a result of circumstances. Rather, they come from a desire to think theologically about this issue.

First, I want to make clear that membership in a local church is the primary means of discipleship in the Christian journey. We make commitments to others to love and serve and be loved and be served by others. It is a beautiful and necessary commitment that we take way too lightly.

BUT too often pastors and church leaders speak about church membership in very unhelpful terms. We speak about it being like a marriage. It most certainly is not. It is not a covenant either. Scripture speaks about our membership in the Body of Christ. The local congregation is a physical manifestation of that reality. Everything we do is in the context of local–geographically and temporally. My fear is that church bodies can begin to assume that members of a local congregation cannot leave. Much like the Hotel California, people are often guilted in staying. People are made to think they are being less committed to the mission of the Church (yes, that’s a large C, signifying the Church Universal).

We have a membership class coming up for Redeemer in a few weeks. I take great pains to help people see that our congregation is one among many faithful churches in time and space. We do not have a corner on the market of faithfulness. We are one very small player on the great stage of history. The more we recite this truth, the more humble and grateful we will become. Every time we say this, we are reminded that God’s purposes are much larger than us. We are reminded that we have certain proclivities and characteristics that may set us apart by way of trends and passions. We are reminded that there are many other brothers and sisters seeking to do the same thing as us–take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus (individually and corporately).

One of the things I make sure to tell people is that if they want to make a commitment to be a member of Redeemer, it ought to be based on it mission and vision. We try to keep it very simple, as you’ll see from our website. How we go about accomplishing these things are called our Core Values. That’s how we seek to accomplish the vision right now in 2018.

But the Church is an organization, but it is also a living organism. As with all organisms, change is inevitable. Indeed, it is desired. As human beings we necessarily grow and change if we are alive. It is inherent to the very definition of life. Change is beautiful. Inevitably, our church will grow as people are added to our congregation. This is beautiful because it enables and empowers people to contribute their gifts and passions to the whole, and for the whole to shape the particular person.

Over time, there may be people who have changes of convictions for how “to do” church. That is, they may disagree with our emphasis on church planting, mission, and mercy. They may disagree with our commitment to simplicity. At the end of the day, as a pastor I want people to be freed to serve and be served by others. If they are staying at Redeemer just because they made a commitment in 2018, that is not healthy. Rather, my desire is that they be involved. Intimately involved in the growth and development of our church. If they cannot do so, it is healthier that they find a congregation where they can faithfully live out their convictions.

This doesn’t have to be an ugly thing. Rather, it can be a very beautiful thing where we are again reminded and remind each other that we do no have a corner on the market of biblical fidelity. Jesus promised to build his Church. I get to be a small observer in that construction project–stone upon stone.

We want people to be a part of Redeemer who believe in the vision and mission and who want to play an integral part in seeing that vision become a reality in our small corner of the universe. So when folks leave, we don’t need to guilt them. Sure, we will miss folks as they leave, but may we depart to meet again.

Less Hype. More Humility.

Please. Embedded in our consumeristic culture, there is the assumption that newer is better than older–though I prefer aged beef and cheddar to new. There is the assumption that grand and renovated and powerful is preferable to meek and lowly and weak.

The church often adopts this form of communicating in an effort to gather people into its doors. “God is doing awesome things here at Church _______.” The fact is that God is doing awesome things everyday and everywhere. He’s sustained your life. He’s given you sight and hearing and legs. And if you have none or only one of these, he’s still given you life and a mind to engage the world around you. Truly miraculous. What is more, is God not also doing something in the old, decrepit church that meets faithfully every Sunday? Is God not at work in the mundane? Is the changing of laundry and washing of dishes and working through an argument devoid of God’s presence?

I see so many churches trying to drum up excitement about the latest outreach or project, when what our culture needs is the staying power and sobriety of faithfulness in the ho-hum drudgery of going to a job you hate or a marriage that is contentious. What we need is not more hype, but more humility. More service and less heavy-handedness. We need more gentleness and less power grabs.

If we don’t, what then becomes of the senior citizen who is tired? What becomes of the baby who is sleeping? What becomes of the unemployed and outcast and burdened? They are forgotten. They are seen as less valuable because they aren’t producing the kind of energy requisite for assumed faithfulness to the disciples’ call.

In reality, we need less loud voices and red faces and sweaty brows and more silence and calmness and a deep well of contentment.