Music Spotlight: Hillsong United // Empires

Hillsong • 5Early Monday evening, Hillsong United dropped their highly-anticipated, heavily-promoted, and widely-acclaimed record Empires. In the past couple of months, the Australian worship band had released snapshots of their fourth studio album’s landscape and yet still managed to maintain a degree of secrecy. Teasing the world’s ears, Touch the Sky, Prince of Peace, and Heart Like Heaven were each released weeks apart from each other leading up to this week’s release.

In all honesty, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this record. 2013’s Zion, their previous album which boasts the smash hit Oceans (Where Feet May Fail), was incredibly disappointing in totality. With the last record’s taste still lingering in my mind, my expectations for Empires weren’t great.

Since Monday night, I’ve listened to the album from beginning-to-end at least fifteen times. Initially, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think nor to feel. After a couple listens thru, I’ve grown to enjoy the record.

On their website, Hillsong describes Empires:

EMPIRES is the story of two worlds. Our prayer and desire has been to simply create the most honest project we could. Songs that seek to listen first, and then with God’s breath speak the good news reality of Jesus and His grace into the dichotomy, tension and hopeful-collision of this broken and fragile world we see here and now, and the unshakeable and mysterious reality of the Kingdom we can’t see, but no-less know is here – and NOW.

The twelve-track album spans just over seventy minutes with a majority of the songs being either medium or slow-tempo and nearly half of the songs being led by Taya Smith, the nine-member band’s sole lady musician.

Lyrically, I found that United achieved their desire to create their most honest project.

While some have critiqued the lyrics for being “too poetic” and “foreign to the common Christian,” I think their words are brave, bold, raw, and real. Reminiscent of King David’s fervent Psalms, tracks such as Even When It Hurts (Praise Song) are courageous in acknowledging the darkness of life while also firm in proclaiming that, regardless of circumstance, God is worthy of our praise.

Though the band has received some criticism for the song due to the allegedly crude line “even when it hurts like hell,” I believe the song is both comforting and affirming for those who are dealing with doubts and difficult periods in their life. This track along with a bulk of the record are narrated by similarly honest and engaging words.

The only lyrics I find to be odd are Prince of Peace‘s “my eyes met yours.” For some reason, these words sound more like a love ballad than a worship song. That may just be me though.

Stylistically, the album is leaps and bounds ahead of Zion. The sound is more similar to Aftermath, my favorite album by United, than it is Zion. Though the sound is much of an improvement, I do think that the technicality of the tracks will hinder the ability for most churches to play many, if any, of these songs. While the tracks don’t necessarily possess many technically difficult parts to fill individually, they do have numerous layers of pads and loops that many volunteer-led bands will have a difficult time incorporating into their Sunday morning sets.

This isn’t an indictment on the band for producing too progressive music. Rather, I think it reveals the seemingly insurmountable valley between one cliff that is the sound of contemporary culture and another cliff that is contemporary Christian worship music. With the efforts of bands like United, Kings Kaleidoscope, Citizens & Saints, and Rend Collective each expressing their worship through music that both allows them be creatively expressive and culturally engaging, hopefully this valley will be filled over time.

Lastly, Empires does’t have that song like From the Inside Out, With Everything, Take Heart, or Oceans that local churches will take and play until it’s nearly dead. Instead, the album is well-rounded and I believe best enjoyed and appreciated when listened to in its entirety.

My favorite tracks are Here Now (Madness), Even When It Hurts (Praise Song), and Empires.

Check out Hillsong United on iTunes, follow them on Twitter and Instagram, like them on Facebook, and be sure to give them some love on their website.

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What the Church Can Learn From Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live turned 40 this year.

Last night, the sketch-comedy show celebrated its four decades on the air thus far with countless stars ranging from Paul McCartney to Justin Timberlake. The three and-a-half hour show took a look back at some of the most brilliant sketches performed while also revisiting renown sketches such as Celebrity Jeopardy, Weekend Update, The Californians and more. The special drew incredible ratings for NBC, becoming the most-watched prime-time entertainment telecast since 2004 aside from the Super Bowl.

Considering SNL’s incredible legacy and undeniable influence up until this point in history, the church can learn a lot from the show, especially in regards to ministry and the development of leaders:

Their Willingness to Fail

Highlight shows and Greatest Hits albums often give off a facade, placing the spotlight solely on the triumphs while negating to mention the failures.

Looking back as an SNL fan of nearly twenty years, I can think of numerous fantastic sketches and characters that I’ve grown to love and that have influenced culture. More Cowbell, Threw It On the Ground, Matt Foley, Stefan, Debbie Downer, Wayne’s World, The Barry Gibb Talk Show. While these sketches and many more have had undeniable success, there have also been that many more failures produced by the SNL team.

Larry David, Conan Obrien, Stephen Colbert. These writers along with numerous others, while notably writing hit sketches have also put forward and produced sketches that flat-out bombed. This freedom-to-fail gives creatives the opportunity to take risks.

Instead of constantly playing it safe, the cast and writers are granted artistic freedom (of course, within reason) to craft and fine-tune two-minute characters and sketches into Twitter-trending sensations. It allows nobody’s to become Eddie Murphy. This culture that has been created at Saturday Night Live predominately by creator Lorne Michaels has helped shape not only the show’s chemistry but western culture.

Counter to this principle of development, often the church fails to give up-and-coming leaders similar opportunities to grow in their skills and flesh out their gifting. Whether it be due to the lack of options that the church has or fear of the consumeristic-driven church culture we live in, we fail to provide adequate opportunities and grace for developing leaders.

What would it look like for local churches to acknowledge, affirm and encourage young leaders in their gifts and callings? How could we provide more opportunities for these young leaders to develop practical skills in their local churches instead of simply expecting them develop often-irrelevent head-knowledge at distant academic institutions?

Their Boldness

Every now-and-then, SNL is blasted for going too far while the opposite can be true of most churches.

Instead of shying away from difficult, raw and controversial topics, the show embraces the cold with a torch of confidence. Similar to South Park, if something or someone graces the front page of newspapers during the week, chances are it’ll be covered that upcoming Saturday night.

And people look forward to this.

They appreciate, if not crave the direct and honest evaluation of and approach to current events and pop culture. Unfortunately, people frequently learn more about the news when watching shows like SNL, The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight instead of the actual news channels because of the their conservative or liberal filters.

Similar to this tactic of engaging contemporary culture, Jesus and Paul often quoted and examined the rockstars and ideals expressed in art, comparing and contrasting their values and truths with the ultimate truth of scripture.

What would it look like for churches to address current events and teach their community how to process and think through how to respond from a gospel-centered worldview? Instead of forty minutes of one person teaching each week, could the church have one person confront current issues for five-to-ten minutes while another person handle the weekly teaching passage or topic?

Their Farm System

A farm system is a term used for semi-professional teams in sports that provide experience and opportunity for younger players. The hope is that the players will develop and move up from the farm team onto a professional team.

Similar to this developmental system, SNL attracts some of the most up-and-coming comedians and writers in show business. If selected to be on the cast or a writer, the hope is that eventually they will move on to bigger and better things because of their invaluable experience on the show. Every couple years, the show says goodbye to their best cast members and writers who eventually go on to do far greater things.

Similar to this method, Luke recorded a moment in early church history when the leaders of the church chose to operate under a similar methodology. In Acts 13, we see the leaders of the local church in Antioch send out Paul (then Saul) and Timothy to expand the reach of the gospel. Few people, if any, have questioned this decision of sending out arguably one of the greatest apostles. Instead of keeping Paul and sending out someone else, the church sent out their best to plant and establish new local churches in the greater area.

How much more impactful would our next-generation leaders and our local churches be if we sought not keep our best but send them out? What would our churches look like if we didn’t hold our leaders with such a tight grip but instead were more than willing to send them wherever God may call?

Their Influence

Saturday Night Live draws people from all walks of life and influences every avenue of culture. The diversity of both cast and influence goes deep and wide. It is one of the most inclusive institutions today. While inclusiveness can be dangerous, it is also a shadow of the Kingdom of God. The good news of Jesus, while not affirming of all lifestyles, welcomes people from all backgrounds.

Instead of a television show, sporting event or university, what would it look like if the local church was the most diverse and and inclusive institution known to society? What message of radical love, value and acceptance would this communicate to a hate-filled and divided world?

Their Legacy

Undoubtedly, the world would not be the same if Saturday Night Live had never been created. The cast members alone have influenced pop culture and politics more than we can even comprehend.

How much more so is the church called to influence, shape and transform the world through the message of the Jesus by the power of the Spirit to the glory of God?

Movie Spotlight: Selma

If you haven’t had the fortune of seeing this film yet, you’re missing out. Personally, I regret not being able to view the movie until last night.

Selma is sensational on all accounts. Acting, film-scoring, screenplay, content, message. Each of these categories and more deliver a worthy tribute to the countless lives whose blood, sweat and tears helped paved the way in the Civil Rights Movement thus far.

Here are a few specifics that I enjoyed about the movie:

  • Their faith. While this film and the Civil Rights Movement was not a Christian movement per se, it was rooted in and led by men and women who were devout followers of Jesus. We see moments where Dr. King was encouraged by close friends with passages from the bible as well as numerous speeches where Martin exhorts people with words from scripture.
  • Their doubt. I knew Martin Luther King Jr. was human but for some reason, this never translated to the way I understood what he and his family endured. The constant death threats, the tension it caused within their family and the doubt it casted over their own hearts and minds.
  • Their pain. While the film is only PG-13, they were still able to portray much pain and suffering in a raw and powerful manner. Multiple times was I led to tears of sorrow as well as of gratitude because of how well we as an audience were drawn into the community’s burdens. On numerous occasions, I became infuriated by and in shock of what was being portrayed before my eyes.
  • Their message. This was not a black problem nor was it a southern problem but it was an American, and even more so, it was a human problem. The march to Selma helped highlight the still present prejudice and injustices inflicted upon people of color. While unfortunately the war is not over, this battle and its victory played such a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Their motive. King and the movement he helped lead were motivated by their unwavering belief that all humanity was created and loved equally by their Creator. Because of this belief, it led them to believe that all should be treated equally.
  • Their movement. Although this movement seemingly was to promote equality for the black community, in reality their movement fought for the equality of all humanity from all walks of life. To see leaders and citizens from all denominational and faith backgrounds journey hundreds of miles to join the fight was inspiring.
  • Their method. Similar to Jesus and the pathway He calls His people to walk in, Dr. King chose nonviolence to combat brutality, love to combat hate, peace to combat war and truth to combat lies. He chose to seek victory through losing and to gain freedom though sacrifice. The method in which Martin proclaimed their message and advanced the movement was an example of kingdom-motivated ethics.
  • The soundtrack. The collaborative genius behind the film’s anthem track “Glory” by John Legend and Common is both an honoring memoir of the past as well as an electrifying call to the present to fight for a better future.

Movie Spotlight | Exodus: Gods and Kings

Like most movies, there are good and bad elements of Exodus: Gods and KingsHere’s what I enjoyed as well as what disappointed me about the film:

What I Enjoyed
  • Moses at times lacked faith. Too often, I think we portray Old Testament characters as heroes instead of humans. Just as in Noah, I enjoyed seeing Moses wrestle with and doubt God’s calling as well as what God was doing at that point in history.
  • The Hebrews endured much to say the least. I’ve read it many times. I’ve been taught about it on countless occasions. Seeing it is a different story. The film transformed the story from black-and-white to 1080p HD.
  • The plagues among other things looked stunning. Most of the plagues looked incredible. Though I was disappointed with how quickly they were brushed through, I was impressed by how real the plagues appeared.
  • They filled in some blanks. We obviously don’t know everything that happened in the life of Moses. His thoughts. His conversations. All of these and more were not all recorded for us to read and for a reason: they’re not essential to what God wanted us to know about Himself and redemptive history. The movie takes liberties in these blank areas by the filling them in with potential storylines of Moses and his life.
  • The movies led my wife and I back to our Bibles. Even though we got home close to 01:00am on Friday morning after seeing the movie, there was so much the film touched and questions it raised that we were led to search our Bibles for clarifications and answers. We stayed up awhile longer discussing the movie, the Bible and more. I love when a movie can do this.
What Disappointed Me
  • God was played by an eleven-year-old British boy. To give them credit, I personally don’t see any way to portray God in a serious movie that won’t come off as corny of cheesy. To this day, I’ve only enjoyed two portrayals of God in film: Noah‘s God Who spoke through signs rather than audibly and Bruce Almighty‘s God Who was played by Morgan Freeman.
  • The supernatural was minimized to natural if anything. Most of the plagues were limited to natural explanations. Also, a few somewhat minor supernatural elements that were in scripture were completely ignored. Some of them, again, I think if included would be difficult to portray in a non-corny manner.
  • Moses’ brother Aaron had too minor of a role. In reading the book of Exodus, we see that Aaron plays a somewhat major role. In the film, he should basically be considered an extra in the background.
  • The racial bias of Hollywood was on display. Even though the events of the movie took place in the middle east, most if not all of the main roles were played by people who were not of color and possessed British accents. There were many people of color in the film but were simply extras. Director Ridley Scott’s confession of the reality that he would not receive enough funding for a film starring ethnic people sheds light on the racial bias that is still in Hollywood.
  • The story is somewhat boring. While it was interesting to see what the book of Exodus could’ve looked like, the storyline is difficult to make into an entertaining movie.
  • The story doesn’t end. Like most Bible-based films, the storyline often leaves a cliffhanger because it’s one chapter in the story of redemption. While some may be okay with this, it bugs me. I want to see it all. It would be like only watching The Two Towers or The Prisoner of Azkaban but leaving out the rest of the movies.

Music Spotlight: Kings Kaleidoscope // Becoming Who We Are

KKWithout a doubt, Kings Kaleidoscope is one of my favorite bands.

Over the years, this ten-member group has crafted such a fresh and unique sound that is blended with rich and uplifting lyrics. However, up until this point, Kings Kaleidoscope has only given us snapshots of who they are. Previously, the band has only released four EPs (Sin, Asaph’s Arrows, Joy Has Dawned and Live in Color). Though each EP is incredible, they have left anyone whose been privileged to hear their sound thirsty for a full-length record.

Now they’re back to satisfy our thirsts.

Becoming Who We Are is a seventeen-track masterpiece. Combining a mix of newly written songs with new renditions of some of their older songs as well as hymns and a cover, no song on this record should be skipped. Of the seventeen tracks, my favorites would have to be Felix Culpa, 139 and Seek Your Kingdom

Felix Culpa, in particular, highlights frontman Chad Gardener’s extravagant ability to write passionately poetic and yet personal lyrics. The bridge, specifically, illustrates both the wickedness of humanity because of their sin as well as the love of God made evident through the work of Jesus:

And still I’m a wicked, wretched man, I do everything I hate

I am fighting to be god, I seethe and claw and thrash and shake

I have killed and stacked the dead, on a throne from which I reign

In the end I just want blood, and with His blood my hands are stained

See the God who reigns on high, He has opened His own veins

From His wounds a rushing torrent that can wash it all away

Grace upon grace, upon grace upon grace

Check out Kings Kaleidoscope playing Felix Culpa here:

If you’re interested in hearing how the band was inspired to write some of their songs, check out Live in Color:

Check out Kings Kaleidoscope on iTunes, follow them on Twitter and Instagram, like them on Facebook, give them some love on their website and be sure to go see them live with Citizens & Saints this Winter if you get the chance.