The Church has become a Wailing Wall
Pastor Javier Buelna: It is addiction to emotions that creates no change.
This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish here.
Javier Buelna was only three years old when he immigrated to the United States.
Over time, together with his wife Cynthia, the plans of God allowed them to become pastors of a small mission that had been moved to South Central Los Angeles in February of 2004.
In late 2005, the Christian Center “Complete Restoration” (CCRT) was born as an independent project and legally incorporated. Since its launch, CCRT has served as a safe house for many families. This church functions as a place of worship, as well as a place of personal and spiritual growth through teaching, conferences, and biblical counseling.
Currently, CCRT has close to 400 members, comprised of about 100 children and people from all ages.
This interesting interview has challenged me to share these questions that invite us to reflect:
• Pastor Javier Buelna states that people are addicted to emotions and consumption. He says that these individuals want an experience rather than the responsibility of following Jesus. Have we created a “Christian” subculture that loves superficially?
• Pastor Buelna believes that worship and preaching are like food, therefore one cannot be eating the same food for 20 years. He believes that people have fallen into that routine because of their experiences, driven solely by the desire to liberate their emotions. Is Buelno suggesting that those who sing their songs and hymns from the past are not advancing the ways of the Lord?
• Buelna had several bad experiences with outside worshippers that visit churches. He has seen a lot of arrogance and inaccessible fees in order to have them perform in his church. Should influential leaders or the Christian community do something to correct this?
Here is the interview:
Do you consider your church to be charismatic, conservative, or does it have some of both?
I consider it to be a church that is different from a traditional church.
In what sense?
It is both charismatic and conservative at the same time, but without a fear of going against the norm. I would say that we have the Pentecostal heart structure of the city of Los Angeles. We are a Hillsong type church that is contemporary, but conservative at the same time.
Is it a church that is accessible to all types of people?
Yes. One of our values is “love anyone,”and that does not mean that we are accepting of someone’s behavior, but we do accept them as a person. That has caused great impact in our area.
Does worship play an important role in your liturgy?
Worship should play an important role because it prepares not only one’s heart, but also the atmosphere in order to continue the rest of the service.
What is worship to you?
It is essential to me. It is a personal act between the Lord and me; between the Holy Spirit and me. It is an expression in the form of a song that describes what I feel about God and what God means to me.
So worship does not necessarily have to do with music, right?
No, no, no. Music is the vehicle that carries the passenger.
Is it the only vehicle that leads you to a life of worship?
Worship for me is not music. Music is a part of it. Worship is prayer, relationship, to be conscious of God, and living a life that pleases God. Worship is not encased in music, but rather it is an action, a way of life; music is one of the ways we express worship.
But is it a good vehicle to living a life of worship?
Worship in musical form is powerful because it allows us to say or express things that we would otherwise not have the words to express. For example, there is a song that we play in church called, “Grace Is Sublime.” It talks about how Jesus took our place, how he carried our cross, how God takes unworthy, orphaned individuals and makes them His children. Why? Because “Grace Is Sublime.” When we sing that song, it allows us to understand and have an experience with God through worship.
What skills have you seen in a good worshiper?
I have seen the ability to discern the spiritual state in which people find themselves, and use music to take people to a ministry of projecting love, hope, healing, or just gratitude. These two skills or fruits are what I’ve seen in good worshipers: the ability to discern and minister in the needs of the people through music.
What elements do you consider important in a song that you would include in the worship repertoire at your church?
The lyrics are very important. The lyrics must have a biblical foundation. They must not only represent a theology, but also, in one way or another, be centered about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They must be based around who God is.
A song that also challenges an individual?
Yes, which also challenges the person, and gives an understanding and an experience with who God is. We search for lyrics that are correct, relevant, and have a biblical sense because there are many songs these days that indirectly speak of God. So, if we speak indirectly of God, how are we going to have an experience with God? For me, sung worship is preaching in the form of song when you have appropriate lyrics.
What are the lyrics that attract you to choose a song?
For me, it is two things: First of all, it is something that awakens hope, and secondly, something that reveals who God is. For example, old songs like “I surrender to Him,” simply allow us to stimulate the desire to surrender to him because in Him I find peace and security. When you begin to sing it, our senses are stimulated, our free will; it begins to stimulate our desire to simply “want to surrender to Him”. This becomes the vehicle that draws us to God and to “touch the throne of grace”, as the Word says.
What role do emotions play at the time of worship?
Emotions are a part of who we are. Some pastors say that they want holy music, and that music does not stimulate our emotions. But God is an emotional being. In order for us to be able to raise worship in spirit and in truth, we must stimulate our emotions. Emotions are not stimulated to simply leave us there, but rather to transfer us to where we can be, through the Spirit.
How are you careful in that both the emotion felt during worship and the sermon be engraved in the people of your congregation?
I am constantly in connection with the pastors of Praise and Worship. I share time with them, I teach them, and I instruct them on how we must lead the church to the time of worship in order to project the heart of God and my heart as a pastor. This is where I can be sure and intentional that the Minister of Music understands the purpose of worship.
Which one is more important, music or lyrics?
There needs to be a balance because there can be a song with beautiful lyrics and a horrible melody, or vice versa. I think it is the same as a sermon; we can have great content, but poor delivery. There are songs that have simple yet profound lyrics that touch people; that is when simplicity takes you to great depths. Music must have a balance. When I preach, I ask myself: What is it that I want to say and why am I going to say that because my message is connected to my emotions. Likewise with music: what do I want to sing, why do I want to sing this, and how do I want to sing this?
I’ll share a story: During the first five years of our church’s existence, we ministered a lot. We called people to the altar because we have Pentecostal roots and we believe in gifts and in speaking in tongues. I watched how people had many experiences and cried and people would fall apart at the altar, but it was always the same people and they never truly changed. One day in prayer, I asked God about these individuals. God told me that all experiences are recorded in the subconscious and conscious of a person and it can reactivate an experience that you previously had; recreating the same feelings that you had felt previously. What I realized was that these people were having experiences at the altar, but they were not experiences that were being felt in the present moment, but rather they were reliving their past experiences. This could happen if a favorite song was played and it stimulated their emotions, if a song reminded them of their childhoods, or of an experience in their lives that they had while they listened to this song. These are emotions that we should allow ourselves to process according to the experience we are having. If my mother dies, I, as a pastor and man of faith, will cry. However, many times, the church itself has taught us to suppress emotions out of fear of falling into emotionalism. We are told: “Brother, why are you crying? You should have faith.” And that kills us; it takes away our expressions and emotions. Instead of this, we should say, “It’s ok to express how you feel.” So, not allowing our emotions to flow prevents us from having these experiences.
Do you think that “machismo” impedes this flow?
Yes, a man is slow to react as a result of secular culture and the same church culture, because we project that a man must be firm and strong. We are doubly bound. Additionally, when we allow ourselves to feel, the Holy Spirit begins to work within us and in cooperation with us. But when we begin to resist, even if the Spirit wants to do great things for us, He cannot because we are not allowing him to. We aren’t permitting it.
What experiences have you had during the time of worship?
We have had many experiences, some in which I was no longer able to preach afterwards because of the presence of God. God begins to touch, work, do wonders, and in that moment I have asked myself, “What is left to teach, if God has already done it all?”
What fruit does worship produce?
I think that the main fruit that worship produces is a change in identity and a hunger to continue worshiping, even after the music ends.
Do you think that Latinos come to worship to receive or to give?
Honestly, I think we are in a time in which people have become very consumerist. This is a reflection of the nation in which we live. The United States was once a house of production, it is now a consumer of all things. That same culture has influenced the church.
Are people addicted to emotions?
Yes, they are addicted to emotions, to consuming, to feeling good, and to pitying themselves. People come to worship to pity themselves, and that doesn’t generate any change, nor does it differentiate us from other religions. It is the same as going to kneel, listen to hymns, cry, and lament. The church has become a wailing wall.
Is this the act of respecting and praising Jesus without sensing the need to imitate and follow Him?
Right, these individuals want the experience without the responsibility of following Him.
Do you think that many people are on that road?
The majority of churches with which I have had contact are on this road. If you see the dynamic of their services, it is the same as it was 20 years ago. If you hear their musical repertoire, it is the same as it was 20 years ago. You can go to any Latino church in the United States, and I assure you that they will sing two or three songs that you know. So, if we consider worship as well as the sermon to be food, then we have been eating the same thing for 20 years and our experiences have stayed there. Perhaps it is better to liberate your emotions.
How can we get out of this?
The exit begins with the pastor, his or her relationship with God, with his or her own identity and knowledge that God sent him or her and requires things of the pastor. In the area where we are, South Central Los Angeles, where there are 450 churches, and 95% of pastors have the same design, dynamic, and vision.
And it is easy to have a well-structured program in worship that deeply touches people, but generates no change that produces fruits of the Spirit, right?
It is very easy. I can spend my entire life preaching and using biblical content correctly and never produce any fruits, because I am not preaching with purpose, according to the needs of the people. There are environments where despite having the correct worship, it does not allow us to produce anything. Jesus himself had environments that did not allow him to perform miracles. He works in partnership with humans. “He who has hunger and thirst for justice shall be satisfied.” “Come to me… and you will find me.”
A moment ago, you talked about these two cultures that somewhat limit humans from expressing themselves more rapidly upon divine touch. Could it be that when the church constantly refers to a masculine God, it is promoting the Latino machista identity?
Yes, I was that way with my vocabulary, my expression, and my terminology. I was feeding them a machista culture. There are even churches that say that women must be silent in the congregation, that they must submit and not say a word. This feeds the man. A church is the way that the pastor shapes it. God is not machista, nor is God controlling. That is why there is much legalism in the church, because there is a masculine authority figure in control, and this occurs because the pastor or leader has insecurities.
Do you think that a majority of Latinos imagine God as a male being?
Yes, even when we speak of God, we speak of God’s paternity. In the general experience, many people were raised without a father. When you say, “Look to God as a Father,” the heart says “yes”, but the mind says, “but how does that happen?” Since the experience of Father-Son never existed, and if it did, it was very dysfunctional. As a result, when we introduce the idea of seeing God as a father, they do not understand it. So, when a pastor is abrupt and controlling, the people do not see it as something bad, because that is how their fathers behaved. The pastor can yell and scold them, and they are happy. They say, “How the pastor loves me!” But the paternity of God is the complete opposite. The biggest problem is that if the church is going to change its worship, its preaching, its experience, we must discover the paternity of God as pastors first and then in our congregations.
Have you incorporated art into worship?
We have introduced parades of flags, ribbons, and tambourines. I have seen places that have incorporated contemporary art in painting and drawing, while worship takes place.
Do you think that our Latino community is ready to embrace new ways of worship?
I don’t think so. In 10 years, we grew from having 0 to having 700 people in our congregation. Five years ago, we went down to having only 50 congregants. We lost hundreds because every time I wanted to change something, people wouldn’t understand, they would get angry and leave. This happened because they were not ready to incorporate or add new things to our services.
Did they want things to be the way they were taught?
Yes, I fought it all. We went against the grain, against tradition, against the culture, against religion, and against established molds. Every time that I changed something, people would say: “that’s not the way things are, Pastor.” I would ask why, and they would respond, “because this is the way I was taught.” They were attached to this, and even though I used the Word to explain my changes, religious and traditional pride led them to say, “I know, but this is the way I was taught.”
If we talk about the rhythms in worship, can you jump from one rhythm to another?
No, it is not that easy. We struggle.
Do you let yourself be influenced by Hillsong, Miel San Marcos, etc.?
Yes, them and others such as Marcos Barrientos and all the men and women that God is raising. I think we should not worship with the music of only one musician, because that could be a fatal error.
Have you had a bad experience with worshipers?
Yes, I have had several bad experiences. One can listen to a CD or see them in concert, but when you approach them on a personal level, you can see who they really are. I think that many of them begin to misunderstand what their true platforms are. I have had experiences where I have seen much arrogance. I have approached some worshipers, and they have told me they don’t have time to speak to me. I have told them that I want them to come to my church so that people can understand worship, and their costs are so high that is impossible to have them at our church.
Are you in agreement with hiring these people to do the work of attracting more people to churches?
I think that a laborer is worthy of his or her hire. But I think it should be somewhat fair and consistent.
But not to exclusively rely on their presence as an outreach strategy, right?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t even believe that God needs us to accomplish God’s purpose, but rather, simply be a part of it.
How do you teach your congregation that worship does not exclusively take place in the temple?
I put a big emphasis on the teaching. When we collect tithes and offerings, we also teach that these are acts of worship. I believe that giving is directly connected with loving. The heart has a lot to do with worship; it forms a culture of worship, giving, and change. Why does the church resist changes? Because there is not a culture of change. The majority of Latinos interpret changes negatively, and that’s not the case. Things don’t need to be going badly for things to change. I even think that things can be changed when they are working well. Changes also challenge us. Changes show that you need to learn something new, learn more, and sacrifice more. It is easier to remain a slave to comfort than to venture into the unknown. Instead of simply telling them to do it, we explain why we do it. We tell them that we want them to come to the altar, because this is not just for first class sinners. Sometimes a physical act is needed in order to stimulate something internal. Worship is not only an internal act, but also a physical and emotional one.
Is worship a spiritual, physical, and emotional act?
Yes, and it is what humans are. That’s why, when I preach, I try to stimulate the mind, the heart, and the spirit. How do I stimulate the mind? With information and with the telling of something objective that occurred. I stimulate the heart with personal stories and analogies, and the spirit alone stimulates the Word of God.
Do emotions play an important role?
I believe so, because emotions cannot be separated from who we are. Emotions are a part of our design.
Is that because emotions facilitate the entry of the sermon?
Yes, they facilitate the sermon; they stimulates, amplify, and project it. So, emotions are a part of who we are. Some of my congregants have previously let me know that they would like for me to be more serious. They say this because many of them associate holiness with seriousness. That’s why I have aspired to be free and different, not to go against tradition and cause opposition, but I did it because I got tired of complying with laws, conditions, and expectations that I was taught in the biblical institute. At that time, I was a public triumph, but a disaster in private. The only time that I felt free or brave was when I was preaching.
And that is transmitted…
Yes, that is transmitted. A church is religious, not because of the people, but because of the pastor. The pastor builds a legalistic church. At one point, I was a public triumph, but a disaster in private. At home, I had no identity, because I was not preaching. I identified myself by what I did and not by who I was. So, at home, I felt like worthless, I felt lost, confused, challenged, angry, and guilty. I did not know how to process my disorganized passions or my addictions. The only way I felt valued was when I was doing something for God. Then came the guilt of doing something for God while being a sinner. One day I went to God and said, “Lord, I am a mess. I need you to liberate me.” The Lord responded to me and said, “Be yourself.”
Was that reverberated in the transmission of worship?
Yes, when the Lord told me, “Be yourself,” I told him that I did not know who I was. He began to tell me that he was my father, but I never had a father. I told him that I did not know how to express words to a father. God ministered to me, God changed me, and allowed me to be me. It was harder to pretend to be someone that I wasn’t, than it was to just be myself. When I allowed myself to be ministered to, when I accepted myself the way God accepts me and sought God’s will, my ministry changed because I changed. People began to become liberated, and those who didn’t want that armed disputes and left the church.
It’s because they identified with the old Javier…
Yes, people would even tell me, “Pastor, you have changed….” I would tell them that it’s not that I changed, it’s that I finally allowed myself to be me. I am happy and God loves me just the way I am. This allowed me to offer a true worship that must be in Spirit and in truth.
Does the success of worship in the church depend on the genuineness of the pastor?
It all starts with the Pastor. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership begins with the leader.” If it collapses, it is because of the leader. When I was discovering myself, I preached with a frustrated heart, due to unfulfilled dreams and results not obtained. I felt disappointment for people and their lack of commitment with an angry heart. My preaching reflected the condition of my heart; because of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Instead of revealing God through his Word, I would reveal my frustrations. People thought that I was mad at them. Now, five years after breaking some molds, we are a church that is totally different, starting with me. My leaders and I must reflect God. Many times, a pastor demands that the church to do this, while he and the leaders of the church are doing the opposite. I ask myself: Are we really worshiping? Overall, I don’t think so. We are lamenting, complaining, and crying, but we are not worshiping. When one laments themselves, they later feel good, liberated, but this is a temporary release and not a spiritual experience.
Is it an imitation of liberation?
Yes, it is an imitation of liberation. We are prisoners of hope.
And worship played an important role in this growth…
Yes, because there can be no revival without lively music. The Word tells us of the importance of worship. I believe that God is challenging the old systems and pushing the Church towards change in methodology and structure, because sometimes it is our structure that is stunting our growth.