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Aaron Niequist | Learning to Swim

Aaron and Jim also discuss reviving liturgy and the seeing faith in light of the Kingdom of Heaven.


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Aaron and Jim also discuss reviving liturgy and the seeing faith in light of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Description

Growing up in the church, Aaron Niequist never imagined he would experience a faith crisis—until he did. On this episode, he recalls this time of doubt and what helped him through it. Aaron and Jim also discuss reviving liturgy and the seeing faith in light of the Kingdom of Heaven.

  • Originally aired on September 26, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Aaron:

It’s a very simple idea, but it’s just this idea that there is this great and mighty river flowing throughout human history toward the redemption and restoration of all things. Jesus didn’t say believe about the river. Jesus said, join me in it. Learn how to swim. Jesus didn’t say, here’s the truth, believe it. Jesus said, I am the truth, follow me. Join me. The invitation is participation. The goal is not just to swim. The goal is to get swept up in this river that is carrying us toward the redemption and restoration of all things. The goal is to join God in what God is doing. But in order to do that, we need to learn how to swim. We need to learn how to participate.

This is Aaron Niequist and I am a liturgist, a writer, a pastor, largely in a former life. Right now I’m a seminary student. I’m getting my masters of arts in ministry. Excited to be a part of this conversation.

Jim:

I’m Jim Stump, your host and this is Language of God a podcast on Science and Faith. Today’s episode leans more toward the faith side of that equation, and within faith, we’re talking more about practice than belief and how our faith can become richer and more expansive when we open ourselves to the wider Christian tradition of which we’re a part.

Aaron Niequist started playing music at the suburban Chicago megachurch, Willow Creek, when he was in High School and that led to a position as a worship leader at Willow Creek, then at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids and then back to Willow Creek. But as Aaron became more aware of the church and the world, he kept running to realities that didn’t always fit with what he had known. And somewhere along the way he came to a point where he realized he wasn’t sure he believed all the things he sang about. That seems to be a well-worn path for worship leaders lately. Of course all of us experience some tensions or even doubts in our faith journeys. But what Aaron learned through his own journey is that, while it can be tempting to abandon one’s faith in order to resolve tensions, it’s not necessary—that beauty can be found in the old, and can be expanded by learning from traditions very different from our own.

He writes about all this in his recent book, The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning. We talk about that, and about the role of the worship leader in the church today. Aaron has been the worship leader at the last couple of BioLogos conferences, and we talk about creation as a prompt for worshiping God, and we wander off in a few other directions too. 

Let’s get to the conversation

Section 1: Background and Leading Worship

Jim:

Let’s start by going back a little bit. Tell us a little bit about little Aaron Niequist. Where’d you grow up? What kind of kid were you? What was your family like? I’m just curious of some of those precursors to what you are now and your experiences.

Aaron:

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and  my family was very, our faith was a big part of our life. So we spent a lot of time in church.

Jim:

Like what tradition of Christian faith?

Aaron:

Yeah, we were Plymouth brethren tradition. Are you familiar with that?

Jim:

A little bit. I grew up over among the Amish so.

Aaron:

So very conservative, fundamentalist in a lot of ways, but really like nonconformist like priesthood of all believers, we do what we want, you know. And so lots of things I love about it and still hold on to a lot, plenty of things that I’ve needed to let go of. But faith was a big part of growing up. Only slightly less important was the Chicago Cubs. And less important, but only slightly.

And then, yeah, family was a big value. Music was huge in our home. 

Jim:

Like what kind of music? 

Aaron:

Well, the first time my wife, was my girlfriend at the time, the first time she met the extended family, I invited her and you know, we’re having dinner and then a certain point someone wanders over to the piano and then someone else asks, you know, start singing harmony. And then suddenly someone has a djembe for some reason. And then an acoustic guitar comes and it like, and we were driving home and my wife was like, or my girlfriend at the time was like, that was weird. And I’m like, that’s normal, right? Like families just sit around and sing in three part harmony, right? But yeah, so faith, music, and then the Cubs, probably what was like growing up in our family.

Jim:

So at what point in growing up or coming into adulthood, do you say, I want to be a worship leader?

Aaron:

Yeah. You know, it happened kind of accidentally. It was one of those things where, you know, my dad and uncle were two of the leaders at our church and they both sometimes would speak, sometimes would lead worship. So I was always watching them. And so it was on, it was, you know, in the back of my mind.

But it was one of those things where I loved music and my faith, especially in high school, my faith was starting to really open up and become meaningful to me. And so I would get a chance to lead a song or lead a couple songs, and each time I did it, I just, it was one of those experiences. I just had to admit, I think that worked. Like people connected to God. I don’t know what I’m doing, but it happened. And, you know, at the time I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to be touring the world. Worship leader wasn’t like the cool thing I was trying to be, but especially by the end of college, I remember just saying like, but I think it’s who God made me to be. Like it became way more—an identity calling is so dramatic, but like it’s some of what I was made to do. And so stepping into that was like an exhale. Okay, let’s go.

Jim:

Can you reflect a little bit more on just the life of a worship leader within the church? This is, I mean, you go back two generations even, and that’s not really a thing as we’ve seen it become and just what that has done for the church? What it’s like being one of those people? And I’m not trying to do an expose here of some sort, but I know there’s pros and cons to that life and, and certain tensions and pressures that come along with being the person standing up in front, singing the happy Jesus songs. But talk a little bit about what that’s like culturally for us, this moment. And then we’ll get to where it’s headed in your own story, which is not everybody’s story, but I think is a representative story in many ways.

Aaron:

Yeah. Wow. That’s a great question. Well I think, like anything, it’s a mixed bag and there’s a part of the role that I absolutely love. Even though I’ve been doing different kinds of things over the last couple of years, any chance to get to lead worship is just, it feels very pure and like a return home. So there’s something about that role and that job that I love. And yet it’s pretty complicated. I mean, if you even just take it like my job as a worship leader is to focus people on God. And so what I do is get up on a big stage with lights pointed at me and my face on a jumbotron and me holding the microphone. And so in that context, I’m saying, Hey, don’t focus on me. You know? So the, you know, the medium is the message.

It’s a very conflicting thing. In fact, when I got to Willow Creek, Mars Hill meets in the round, so stage is in the middle. So, you know, my back was to half the room and we’re all kind of looking up at the screen, the words together and singing. And that was really helpful. And then I got to Willow and I remember it was really hard for me to make the transition. I felt like I had to work against what the room was declaring really loudly, which is focus on those people up on the stage and the lights. And I was trying to say, no, don’t focus on us. Well then why are you up there? You know, it’s very, it’s a conflicting thing. And so I think the role is, um… I had a lot of worship leader friends and I would say many of them, possibly most, are really struggling with the tension of, I know how to, you know, rock the house every Sunday. Is that making the world better? Is that what it means to gather as the body of Christ every Sunday? And it’s complicated because a lot of them would say I’m really good at it. I know how to do it and good comes out of it.

Jim:

So there are a lot of people that go into those churches and sit and stay for the services because they’re attracted to that in some way. And then this was part and parcel of the seeker-sensitive movement that has brought a lot of people into the church, right?

Aaron:

Yep, that’s right. And so it all depends what you think the church is trying to do in the world. Absolutely if you are trying to gather a large group of people, the kind of rockstar worship leader thing is really effective. And as far as that goes, I think it’s fine. I don’t think that’s evil, I don’t think that’s wrong. But we probably have to name what it isn’t doing, which is, often, forming people into Christ’s likeness for the sake of the world. Creating disciples. I remember, I had an experience that was really, I don’t know if this is getting, this is now turning into…

Jim:

Yeah, so instead of me asking for a diagnosis of the problem and we want to move toward a cure your own story as part and parcel of this so you’ve got to tell the story here of you standing on stage and wondering am I doing here?

Aaron:

Well I realized…there was a couple of different moments. One was my own personal implosion of faith and we can talk about that one in a moment maybe, but one of my worship leading moments was realizing that fundamentally the question I was being asked to answer with my job was how do we get the room fired up in the first 30 minutes of the service? And again, I don’t think this is an evil, sinful question, but as I reflected upon it, I realized, well, a lot of the… I think there are better questions than that. I think there are more important questions we should be asking. But regardless if the question is how do we get the room fired up, the answer is never corporate confession or extended scripture reading or praying for our enemies or I mean you name it. Those things, these, this wide array of historic Christian practices don’t fit if the question is “how do we get the room fired up?” And so I would say the last 10 years in my life have been, how do we ask bigger and wider questions?

Jim:

It’s interesting that that somehow became the question culturally for us in largely American Christianity in this regard where, so I’m growing up, maybe a decade or so before you, and just really before this, this worship movement got started the way that it was. But then the question for the musicians was, how do we get people to respond to the altar call? And this was the role of music. There was an emotionally—manipulative sounds like a bad word, but somehow how do we create the kind of atmosphere musically that’s conducive to this sort of emotional response that we’re after? That’s really interesting that that shifted to the beginning of the service. 

Aaron:

It was kind of like in the worst case and nobody intended this. So I’m not saying this is anybody’s motives, but it started to feel like we were the warmup and then the main event was the preacher. The sermon was the main event, you know, so how do we do a really great warmup that gets people connected, it was well intentioned, help people open to God, so that the sermon can bring the goods, you know? 

Jim:

Ok, So let’s, uh, play your story forward here a little bit. 

Aaron:

So, you know, partially my own faith had really hit a rocky point right out of college. I had a real faith crisis.

Jim:

Prompted by anything you want to talk about on the airwaves here? 

Aaron:

No, it wasn’t scandal. There wasn’t a moment like, this question. There was just the growing sense that the faith that I had been handed didn’t work anymore. It was like, I think in the book I mentioned it was like a, you know, the air conditioner was only blowing warm air. Like it just, it didn’t work. Why is this the story and why should I care? It was really weird. And it, when you’re a worship leader professionally every seven days, that is a very scary set of questions. Cause then how do you lead these songs? How do you say, let’s worship this God that I don’t even know if I believe anymore. You know? And so that was a very, very complicated moment. You know, I’m probably 22 and, you know, the experience of my whole life was being a Christian and suddenly I was wondering if it had run its course. And thankfully, my family didn’t freak out. 

Jim:

You were pretty open talking with them about all this?

Aaron:

Yeah, I was. And I had a couple of close friends who didn’t freak out. And you know, I have, we all have friends and probably have experienced in different moments where you share something tender and then you just get crushed for it. You know? And I had a couple people where I was able to share something tender and they’re like, let’s keep talking about this. That’s a good question. And finally, one of my friends said, have you ever read The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard? And I’m like, no. So I picked that up and I remember where I was sitting. I remember where I was sitting reading about the Kingdom of God, which I had never heard about. I had been a Christian for 22 years at that point. And I’d never heard a message on the primary message of Jesus, which was the Kingdom of God. And so, and that was the, you know, born again moment for me.

I was like, wait, if this is the story, it’s not just you’re a sinner, say a prayer so you can go to heaven someday. But if it’s, you get to join what God is doing to redeem and restore all things, I get to, you get to, we get to? I’m in. Let’s do this. And so that was such, I mean, that was as much a conversion moment as I’ve ever had in my life. And it was about the kingdom. 

Jim:

How does that shape then the way you’re even thinking about worship and your calling that you’re coming to.  

Aaron:

Well, it’s not an overstatement to say that The Divine Conspiracy changed everything. It changed how I looked at the universe. One of the chapters is “The God Soaked Universe” and realizing we’re not trying to convince God to show up. That’s not why we’re standing around singing. God’s here. God fills this place and some of what we’re trying to do is become aware of it to open up. And so it changed everything. It also reoriented the goal from getting people saved to getting us all into discipleship, into Christ’s likeness, transformation. So I mean, it truly changed everything.

[musical interlude]

Mulder:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum where we discuss each podcast episode. You can find a link in the show notes. But the forum goes far beyond just discussing podcast episodes, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Section 2: Recovering Liturgy

Jim:

Sometimes in Christian theology we’ll talk about the difference between like beliefs, having this set of doctrines that I mentally assent to, some of the contemporary worship movement has pushed that a little bit more toward experience and wanting to have the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and tingle a little bit. This is another movement in that regard though, from beliefs to not that any of these things that we can just do away with them, but there’s another dimension when you talk about practices, right? And so the worship leader even, and maybe we could talk about this both individually and corporately. And the kind of practices that usher us into the kingdom. I don’t want to overstate how that, how this works or to make it a formula of some sort, but what’s the role then that you see of these practices both for the church? For liturgy? We’ll use the L word here and in our own lives individually.

Aaron:

This began for me in Grand Rapids in our years at Mars Hill where the gospel that we were wrestling with was so big and so beautiful and so expansive. And yet as a worship leader, the only tools in my toolbox, were four pop songs and a hymn. And four pop songs and a hymn are great. They are one set of tools, but I realized really quickly they could not even begin to express and contain the width of this big kingdom theology and invitation. And so I’m almost in desperation, my worship leading partner, Troy Hatfield at the time and I, we started, well, let’s begin to expand what we do when we worship. And so it became very simply like, all right, well let’s do a reading. Let’s add this. I remember at that time we were singing a Better Is One Day that Matt Redman song a lot. And so one of us said, well, let’s read the whole Psalm that it was written out of. 

Jim:

This is radical stuff. Reading scripture. 

Aaron:

But it was, we had never done it. I’d been a worship leader for 10 years at that point and we’d never done that because that’s not the worship leader’s role. The worship leader’s job is to rock the house, right? But so we’re doing these things. And so we read the Scripture and then we sing the song, and then we’d note afterwards, like singing the song felt almost..felt totally different after we had just bathed in the text that it came from. And so then we’d have moments where we’d bring some silence in or a prayer for the world. And I remember this is kind of funny, after one of the services I was, you know, in my youthful ignorance, I was saying, Troy, this is amazing. We’re like doing this totally different way of worship. And Troy’s just like, I think this is just called the liturgy. I think generations and generations and generations and generations of Christ followers have been doing these things. It’s just our tradition that lost this.

Jim:

That’s, I think that’s a really interesting, again, cultural commentary. I consider myself an evangelical. So any bashing that I do is from the inside of wanting to… I had to change communities here not too long ago because of my affiliation with BioLogos actually. And did a bit of the church hopping just to sample what are churches like in my town? And I went to a bunch of evangelical churches and I went to a bunch of mainline churches and was astounded at the difference that you’re pointing to here right now where we good evangelicals, we thump our bibles pretty good and say this is the, you know, the basis of our faith, Jesus, the basis of our faith. And here’s his word that we stand on. And in those services, maybe there was a PowerPoint slide that put one verse of scripture up that the pastor used as an illustration for whatever other message going on. I go to these mainline churches and they are bathed in scripture constantly. And I was grown up to think those liberal churches that don’t take the Bible seriously, they sure seem to take it a lot more seriously in their services than my own tradition did.

Aaron:

I’m actually at an Episcopal seminary right now. And so we’re learning about the history of the Book of Common Prayer and not just the Book of Common Prayer, but just the whole Anglican Liturgy and learning that Thomas Cramner was the guy who wrote so much of it, his whole thing was scripture. He said, what changes people? Scripture. So we’re going to put it on people’s lips, we’re going to read it over them. And again, yeah, same. I had the same idea. You know, these mainline people who don’t even care about the Bible are drenched in it and it’s really cool.

So anyway, so we, we started experimenting and when you dip your toe in the water, you realize it’s an ocean and there are treasures that we didn’t even know existed, let alone explored. And so I began just trying to learn from as many other traditions as possible. Okay. When I look at, most liturgies have a confession at some point in the gathering, well, our church doesn’t. Why? Why not? And so we started incorporating a confession. But one of the great insights of the liturgy is the confession is always followed by words of assurance and reminds that yes, what you confessed is true, but not as true as, as far as the East is from the West. And so we started practicing that and it was just fascinating. It’s, and this is a cheesy analogy, it’s like the black and white experience of worship started taking on all these colors that we didn’t know existed. And so it was almost like I backed my way into the historic liturgy and into other traditions. And I started meeting with a spiritual director who was a Jesuit priest.

Well, you know, when I grew up, Catholics weren’t even Christians. I mean, they weren’t even going to heaven from in the church I was raised in.  And you know, now I’m, I’m sitting with this, this man who’s been a Christian longer than I’ve been alive and he’s teaching me these ways to align, not just with the church, with Christ. And this man loves Jesus in a way that I didn’t even understand and what a gift. So I learned these Catholic practices, the examine, the prayer of imagination, and on and on. And then, you know, I have a great friend who’s a Pentecostal, so I’d say, okay, what’s going on with the Holy Spirit? And tell me about the weird stuff. Tell me about the, and learning about the openness of the spirit. And I could go on and on and on, but you realize that, you know, we have this wide family, but most of us only stay in one room of the house.

We live in this vast Christian mansion and most of us only stay in one room with the people who are exactly like us. What a loss. I was trying to explain this, why I was so into this, to Shauna, she was saying, this is my wife. And she’s saying, you know, tell me about why we’re doing these other things in worship and all that. And I was trying to share it and I was kind of rambling and, well Thomas Cranmer and I could tell she is bored. But then finally the light bulb went off. She goes, oh, so basically what you’re saying is you want to serve a well balanced meal every Sunday. And I just remember saying exactly, I have been serving as a worship leader the same meal every Sunday for years, wondering why our community wasn’t getting healthier. And I think it’s a really good meal. It was rice and chicken and we had a dessert and it’s really good meal. You can’t only eat one meal every meal and expect to get healthy. And so, so much of the, moving into a more liturgical approach was, well, what about this food group? We’ve never had this in our diet. What about this? What about this? And it’s uncomfortable at times. It’s exhilarating at times, but I think ultimately it is so much healthier.

Jim:

Another metaphor that comes into play in talking about practices like this and even the, the chapter title in your recent book of a couple of chapters is the Church’s Gymnasium. Draw that element into this as well. How are, how are these practices getting us in shape?

Aaron:

Okay. So imagine that you are slightly out of shape. This is very personal. No. And you say, all right, I want to get in shape. I’m going to sign up for the marathon, the Boston Marathon. I couldn’t qualify. I’m going to sign up for the Chicago Marathon nine months from now. So I go to the local lifetime fitness and just say, Hey, I’m out of shape. But I signed up for this marathon, will you help me get ready. And so imagine if they said yes, we would love to help you come back to this back room. We have this auditorium where a band is going to play some songs and then a personal trainer is going to give a 45 minute lecture on marathon running. And so you go back there and the music’s great and the lecture is actually really helpful and all that.

And then they say, all right, come back next week and we’re going to do it again. Come back next week and we’re going to do it again. At a certain point you’d be like, well, I’m really inspired and I’m, my brain is really growing in knowledge about marathon running. My legs are not 1% closer to be able to run 26.2 miles. And I, you know, I think the very obvious correlation to so many of our church traditions, we offer great inspiration. We offer more knowledge than anyone could actually actualize, but we don’t offer the practices that transform us into being the kinds of people who could really live it out. We started a community called The Practice. And the thing that we said every night is we’re The Practice. And we are a community that doesn’t just want to believe things about Jesus, but wants to learn how to rearrange our lives in order to put his words into practice for the sake of the world.

And so the idea is just you telling me, Jesus said “forgive your enemies.” Well, that’s good brain knowledge. I can’t. I hate my enemies. I want to punch my enemies in the face. How do I become the kind of person who can actually love my enemies? Well, I asked this to father Michael a couple of years ago when I was really struggling to forgive somebody. And he said, can I teach you a very simple practice of forgiveness? And he taught me this little four part prayer where we name some things to God and then we listen and we, you know, and I said, okay, I’ll practice that this week. And he goes, let’s practice it now. And so he gave me a prayer that allowed me every time I was willing to do it, to open myself in a new, tangible, concrete way to what I know God wanted to do, which is to help free me from the anger and to forgive this person, but I couldn’t have done it without that really simple practice.

[musical interlude]

Section 3: Creation Liturgy and The Kingdom River

Jim:

So this is a BioLogos podcast. We like science around here. One of the ways that manifests itself, particularly for science minded people is finding things in the natural world that inspire awe and wonder and worship. Yeah. And I think one of the first times I became aware of you, it was through the liturgical thing that you had done called the creation liturgy. Yeah. Is that what it was called? Tell us a little bit about that. Where’d that come from? Was that like putting that together?

Aaron:

Well I started a project called A New Liturgy. And when I was trying to do is, it was the same thing that we’re talking about here. I was trying to move beyond just listening to five minute songs. We would create these 25 minute journeys of prayer, scripture, reflection. And so the fourth one was creation. And we just said, we want to immerse people. We want to take them on a journey that helps open us up to the width and the depth and the hugeness and the tininess of this created world. And just invited people to consider the goodness and the beauty of this world in a liturgical, artful way. And so I hope that’s been helpful.

Jim:

So you’ve shared a lot about yourself as the worship leader in this transformation you’ve gone through. Tell us a little bit about the response of the people to this style of worship. Are they scratching their heads? Like, what are we doing here? These aren’t the…

Aaron:

Oh yeah. When I started bringing liturgical practice, especially at Willow Creek, you know, very evangelical. I had heard at one point 75% of Willow Creek attenders were ex-Catholic. That’s probably in the 90s when that was a real big, but I mean, it was a very strong, and so when I started bringing things that sounded Catholic, I got very… So some people would come up like, you know, God saved me out of this, don’t you dare bring this back. You know, they were mad at me and I understand that. Some would come up and hadn’t had that experience. And so it’d be like, oh, that was interesting. Did you, did you write that? And I’d be like, no, that’s been around a long time. But the third group was the one that was really meaningful and they almost always had tears in their eyes and they would say, thank you for reminding me that my past wasn’t all bad. In fact, there was a lot of goodness in my former experience of faith and that was always really moving because of course it wasn’t all bad.

And my friends who are leaving evangelicalism right now need to do the same work. It’s not all bad. In fact, some of it is so beautiful. It’s just not enough. It’s one part of the story. And so, you know, in the book, one of the things that I was talking about is this idea of including and transcending like how do we look at our tradition and say, all right, I know it’s not quite enough, but it’s also really beautiful. So I want to learn from the goodness of where I’ve been without getting stuck there. And that is hard work. And I don’t think there’s a perfect way to do it, but to try to learn from more rather than, all right. That is no longer helpful. I’m going to pitch it all, what a loss. And we all do that at times, but we don’t need to.

Jim:

So another thing you talk about is a spiritual formation and mission being like the two arms you need for swimming. So is the mission in this, so you were, you were using the metaphor of running a marathon here, but somehow the mission is connected to the bigger kingdom life in some sense. But talk a little bit about these as two different arms, how they work together, how they get me where I ultimately want to be.

Aaron:

Well, maybe the answer that, could I just share the kind of the central analogy of the book, the river? And, it’s a very simple idea, but it’s just this idea that there is this great and mighty river flowing throughout human history toward the redemption and restoration of all things. That language is very NT Wright. I owe him, I should probably send him royalties for the book. But just this idea that God is bringing creation toward a redemptive, restorative end. And this river that flows, Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. That’s where what God wants to happen finally happens. And I think the insight that I’m trying to offer in this book is that Jesus didn’t say believe about the river. Jesus said, join me in it. Learn how to swim. Jesus didn’t say, here’s the truth. Believe it. Jesus said, I am the truth, follow me. Join me. The invitation is participation. 

And so, I share that, to answer your question in that the goal is not just to swim. The goal is to get swept up in this river that is carrying us toward the redemption and restoration of all things. The goal is to join God in what God is doing. But in order to do that, we need to learn how to swim. We need to learn how to participate. And fortunately Christ is the ultimate teacher and has invited us to be the kinds of people who can do that. So there is an element of the inward journey that is so important to become aware of the broken parts of us, to become aware of our shadow side, to become aware of what isn’t aligned, the sins that can sink us and help us end and drown us, but we can never get so focused on me and my internal world and my swimming techniques to forget that the purpose is to be in the river with God through Christ toward redemption and restoration. So it’s that “both and.”

Jim:

So, another question on us as people, what does this liturgy do to us, even from the scientific perspective of things? Is there, are there empirical results that we can even see and how this is affecting us.

Aaron:

Yes. I have a friend on our practice team, her name is Jenna, and she was brilliant and she was doing a lot of research on the brain science of liturgy. And so all I know of the brain science of liturgy is from conversations with Jenna. So I’m hardly an expert, but the core idea was, the things that we do over and over form us, they actually change our brains, right? Yes. So we can make ourselves more open to letting God’s forgiveness flow through us, or we can actually close that down based on the actions we choose to do over and over and over. James K.A. Smith, his writings on this, for me, Desiring the Kingdom, his book, was one of the most important books. Just thinking about how we are formed by our practices. Both our religious liturgies but also our cultural liturgies and our daily practices. So yeah, the things we do over and over and over actually change our brains and change us into different kinds of people.

Jim:

That’s an interesting insight on the importance of us as embodied creatures, right? We’re not just these spirits floating around. And there were lots of philosophical discussions about whether we’re, that’s part of who we are or how that works, but certainly part of what we are is this three pounds worth of gray matter between my ears, that responds in various ways to these kind of experiences. And we can help in having it respond positively or negatively in various. I mean, we’re, we’re all forming ourselves whether we know it or not. 

Aaron:

And you know, to your point about the embodied nature of, of our existence, Father Michael, the Jesuit priests I was telling you about, he was guiding a retreat for about 60 or 70 of us, mostly pastors. And he did an hour on embodied prayer. And he just started, he said, whenever you pray, say to God with your body what you’re saying with your heart, say also with your body. He said you’re not a brain on a stick. You’re fully embodied. And so he led us through an hour of different postures, holding our hands, lifting our heads. How does that change our prayer, bowing our heads, on our knees. And by the end of the experience, I looked around the room and I bet half the room had some, had tears going as we were getting in touch with our bodies. We are often so disconnected from our bodies. From where we carry stress, from how we’re feeling. We try, you know. And so, practices have been immensely helpful to engage my whole self, not just what I think about a topic.

Jim:

We’ve had you out to a couple of these BioLogos events now and I’ll tell you that music and worship has had an essential role to play in the development of BioLogos and how we interact with other people. We’ve had numerous times, but some real specific ones, of having dialogue with people that disagree with us, fellow believers, but disagree with us on the science. And there’s, I don’t know if you’ve noticed on the Internet, but there’s a fair amount of animosity and chippiness and that goes on sometimes there between rival groups, but these groups that we spend time with together, that we end up eating together, praying together, singing together with each other, you come out of those and it’s really difficult to be snarky to that person over the Internet now when I’ve worshiped with them. And there’s a bond that joins us together in that, that helps us to see, okay, we might have some differences at this intellectual level at some point, but we were just drawn together in worship.

Aaron:

Yeah. This, this whole idea about…I’m in church history right now, you know, I’m back at seminary…and you just realize there’s been so many different seasons and movements in the church history, very different from each other. But this whole idea that we seem to be in about, we can only be in community if we agree with all the ideas. You know, to join a church, you have to sign some traditions, you sign a statement of faith. That’s an intellectual agreement—that’s the most important thing? It is important, of course, what we believe is important. But, I don’t know. I think there’s something more holistic around the corner. And I truly believe it’s going to be more about practices than beliefs. It’s not going to be anti-beliefs, but it’s going to be finding what we believe as part of a whole that is based on what we do together. 

Jim:

A lot of what you’ve said has already been very practically focused, but I wonder if I might ask more specifically here, think back to Aaron Neiquist coming out of college and taking that first job as worship leader. We got a bunch of those people listening to this. What’s some advice for aspiring young worship leaders and some of the directions that the church has headed, directions that worship is headed? What’s some advice you’d give to that crowd? Things to be involved in ways to join in this movement that you have going?

Aaron:

Oh, that’s what a great question. I would say get around as many people different from you as possible. I think the most unhelpful thing is to just get with three or four people who are exactly like you, get in a room, and just all agree all the time. So get around people from different faith traditions. Oh, it’s, I mean it’s changed my life, to experience the Eucharist from a different perspective. So get around people from different faith traditions, get around people from different Christian traditions, but also different faith traditions. We have a rabbi friend that, we invited him come to The Practice when we were talking about Sabbath. Well, I think our rabbi friend has a little bit to teach us about the practice of Sabbath and what a beautiful experience. So to be able to learn from people of different faiths and then different cultures.

I mean the, obviously race in America right now is so pitched, and so some of that is we get so isolated and so insulated. But every time I’m with someone who’s had a totally different life experience, it both holds a mirror to my experience to realize that it’s not normative, it’s just my experience, and it also opens up all these different perspectives and lights and colors. And so, yeah, my biggest advice would be, get around people who are different and not to convert them to your way of thinking, but to learn, why did they do it that way? Why did they see the world that way? What can I learn? What am I missing from my vantage point that they can help me see, help me experience. So, yeah.

Jim:

Well we hope you keep coming out to these BioLogos events too.

Aaron:

If I’m invited, I will always say yes. 

Jim:

Well thanks so much for talking to me here this afternoon. 

Aaron:

Thank you.

Credits

Mulder:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Aaron Niequist

Aaron Niequist

Aaron Niequist is a liturgist, writer, and pastor. After growing up in a Plymouth Brethren community, he led worship at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Willow Creek Church in Barrington, Illinois. Recently, he has shifted his focus to creating ‘A New Liturgy’—a series of modern liturgical recordings.


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