Hearing God in Unlikely Places

by reviewed by

John Van Sloten looks like a regular guy: graying sandy hair, glasses, ready smile. But the way this 48-year-old pastor looks at the world puts him in the company of true visionaries.

On any given Sunday at New Hope Church in Calgary, Alberta, you might find Van Sloten preaching a sermon on rock music, movies, fine art, hockey, or architecture. He’s done sermon series on superheroes, the human senses, and children’s books. Why? Because he fervently believes that every square inch of this world is God’s and that God can and does speak through it all.

In The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything, just released by Faith Alive, Van Sloten asserts that we can hear God in the most unlikely places if we’ll only listen. But he didn’t always feel that way.

Seventeen years ago Van Sloten was what he describes as “a nasty, arrogant deal maker”—a real estate developer who defined himself by his net worth and was known for bullying architects and contractors. “All I ever thought about was the next deal, the next car, the next house. . . . So much of my life had become a lie. I felt like a fake. Everything was so twisted, incongruent, and disintegrated that I didn’t know who I was anymore.”

Then one day in a parking lot a pastor friend asked a simple question that changed John’s life forever: “So how are you doing, John?”

That question opened the floodgates as Van Sloten poured out a confession he’d had no intention of making. As he did, he met a forgiving God he hadn’t previously known. That was the beginning of what he calls his “recalibration.”

Recognizing God Everywhere

After that parking-lot experience and a lot of soul searching, Van Sloten felt led by God to pursue church ministry. At New Hope Church, organized in 2004, that ministry looks a bit different from what you might expect to find at the average Christian Reformed church.

For example, on one memorable Sunday morning, the church’s band opened the service in a local gym with four tunes from the heavy metal band Metallica. Almost 200 visitors flocked to church that morning because a local rock station had promoted the service at no cost to the congregation. And in a move that stunned Van Sloten, Metallica’s band members sent a crew to videotape the service so they could watch it themselves.

Van Sloten preached a message on anger and forgiveness, illustrated by Metallica’s lyrics and the lives of the band members. He reflects, “I realized that Metallica was, in many cases, angry about the same things that angered the Hebrew prophets and that angered Jesus. They ruthlessly exposed wrongdoing. They lamented the mess our world was in. They exposed the meaninglessness of so much of contemporary life.”

Metallica fans, and the rock world in general, couldn’t believe that a church was taking seriously the music they loved. The story was widely reported; rock stations all over North America called to interview Van Sloten, and a piece about the unconventional service ran on Rollingstone.com.

Van Sloten writes, “The experience was so alive and so real for our church community it made me wonder . . . If God is this active in the lives of a few heavy metal rockers, where else is he moving? If recognizing God’s presence in this one unconventional place has this much power in terms of catching the world’s ear, then what would it mean to recognize God in all the places his Spirit is at work?”

Van Sloten’s book The Day Metallica Came to Church chronicles his journey to that realization and shows God at work through art, sports, film, music, imagination, literature, and more.

Author Shane Claiborne calls the book “an artistic and playful reminder that, though the Church is God’s primary instrument for changing the world, that doesn’t mean God is limited to religious stuff. . . . Just as the Scripture says the rocks can cry out, John Van Sloten reminds us that so can rock stars.”

Claiming Truth

While some have accused Van Sloten of pandering to popular culture, the roots of his interest grow in a Reformed understanding of God and God’s world.

He writes, “Having grown up in the Reformed church tradition meant I also had sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin whispering in my ear. In my mind, it was Calvin who first gave me permission to explore the truth found in so-called secular culture.”

The words of Calvin that so impressed Van Sloten were these: “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Westminster, pp. 273-274).

Van Sloten writes, “By not claiming truth as God’s—‘wherever it shall appear’—we disrespect God, demean him. We make God into something less than God—a God made in our own image who is way too small. With this biblical and theological background, I found myself thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not just allowed to look for divine truth in this world, I’m obliged to!’”

Over the years, Van Sloten has taken heat for following this sense of obligation. Some people are offended that a preacher would bring popular culture into church. But there’s evidence that many more are hungry for the integrated exploration of the Bible and creation that this pastor and New Hope provide. While Sunday-morning attendance averages 150 each week, more than 200,000 people downloaded Van Sloten’s sermon podcasts last year.  

Van Sloten’s message that those of us who have “ears to hear” should be listening for God everywhere has struck a reverberating chord that is changing the way people view God’s work in our world.


John Van Sloten’s new book The Day Metallica Came to Church is the first in Faith Alive’s new “Square Inch” imprint (see p. 24). For more information or to order, visit www.metallicaatchurch.org or call 1-800-333-8300.


Dwell and We

Faith Nurture for Today’s Church

In the summer of 2011, Faith Alive will roll out two innovative new Sunday school curricula, and the buzz is already starting to build as plans begin to take shape. Dwell, for kindergarten through middle school, and We, an intergenerational event-based program, can be used together or separately. Either way, the goal is for kids and adults to find their place in God’s big story as they grow in faith.

Dwell Gives Kids Room to Breathe

Instant messages, fast food, competition, hi-speed connections, and split-second visuals are all part of a school-age child’s daily life.

What if church wasn’t more of the same, but less? What if your church’s children’s ministry program was a place where kids could breathe . . . imagine . . . create . . .  be still . . . and know God?

Faith Alive is designing a novel new curriculum called Dwell, to be released in the summer of 2011, which will offer kids and their leaders less noise and more time to experience God.

In each session they’ll gather to worship and listen, enter the Bible story by hearing it, “live into” the story by retelling it and wondering about it, and “live out of” the story as they find their own place in it and learn how it applies to their daily living.

Leader guides will include teaching tips that tell not only how to approach the story, but how this approach fits into a Reformed understanding of Scripture. In recognition of the busy lives people lead, leader materials will be easier to use than ever before.

Stay tuned for more information on the Dwell curriculum as it develops!

We: People of All Ages Growing Together

If your church is moving away from traditional Sunday school, or if you’re eager to add intergenerational faith nurture to your existing ministry, look for the We program coming in the summer of 2011!

This exciting new alternative will offer complete plans for monthly events to help people of all ages build community, grow in faith together, and experience the Bible as God’s “big story” into which all our life stories fit.

Curriculum editor Ruth Vander Hart observes, “Within the past few years, many educators have begun to question the ‘silo’ approach to faith nurture: sending each age group off to a separate room. The We program will bring all people in the church together to have fun and to learn from and with each other.”

Each year, 10 intergenerational events will take the entire congregation, ages 2 and up, through the story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The two-hour events will include food, fun, and activities everyone can do together, such as service projects, a community art experience, or a prayer walk through the neighborhood. 

 All participants will also be encouraged to continue to dig into Scripture, talk together, and “do” together at home with home resources filled with discussion questions, activities, and prayer suggestions.


New Hymnal Will Serve CRC and RCA

The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America are working together on an unprecedented project: a joint hymnal for use by both denominations.

Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs is currently scheduled to be published by Faith Alive in 2013.  Edited by Faith Alive’s music and worship editor Joyce Borger, the hymnal is based in the work of an 80-person advisory committee and a 13-person editorial committee, both with CRC and RCA representation.

Here are answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions about this new hymnal. For more in-depth information, see http://www.crcna.org/pages/hymnal.cfm.

Q. Now that so many churches project music on screens, aren’t hymnals “dead”?

No, they’re not. Before we began this process we did a survey of churches in the CRC and RCA and found that there are still a significant number of churches that use hymnals and will continue to do so. Also, many churches that rely primarily on modern presentation technologies anticipate keeping a hymnbook in the pew as a supplemental worship resource.

Q. Why a bi-denominational hymnal?

The synods of the CRC and RCA have encouraged their churches to find ways in which to work collaboratively. As denominational siblings it makes sense for us to work together wherever possible. In fact, Faith Alive Christian Resources is the resource provider for both the CRC and RCA.

Q. Why publish this hymnal now?

The useful life of a hymnal is usually about 20 years, and both the Psalter Hymnal (used by the CRC) and Rejoice in the Lord (used by the RCA) are more than 20 years old. In addition, our world is very different today than it was 20 years ago. The words we use for worship need to express the new realities that form the backdrop of our worship.

Q. Why a new hymnal? There are several recently published hymnals. Why not recommend one of them?

There are many good hymnals available, but none come from an explicitly Reformed perspective with our denominational DNA. For example, there are theological differences in baptism sections as well as in songs dealing with the end times and heaven. Many hymnals also lack a global perspective.

Q. What color will the new hymnal be?

That hasn’t been decided yet, so wait and see! 


New Imprint Bridges Faith and Culture

No matter how you feel about the culture you live in, avoiding it isn’t an option. Turn on the TV, and culture floods your senses. Choose an outfit, and you’re making a cultural statement. Everything we hear, see, and touch is shaped by our culture. So it’s crucial that our faith engages that culture too.

With the publication of The Day Metallica Came to Church, Faith Alive is pleased to announce the debut of a new imprint called Square Inch. Books published under this imprint will help to bridge the gap between faith and culture. The name comes from the inspiring words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Mark Rice, director of Faith Alive, observes, “In a world where Christianity is often viewed as a way of thought, rather than a way of life, Square Inch books bring the best Reformed thinking to bear on what it means to live today—in this time and in this place.”


New Releases from Faith Alive

To order or learn more about these titles, visit www.FaithAliveResources.org or call 1-800-333-8300.

Shaped by God

Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth, and Adults
edited by Robert J. Keeley

Faith formation doesn’t just happen—it’s a Spirit-led lifelong process of shaping and reshaping. In this accessible anthology, 12 experts share their perspectives on faith formation at home, in worship, in education, in intergenerational contexts, in people with developmental disabilities, and more.

Global Songs for Worship

This new collection includes 57 worship songs from all over the world, including Egypt, Russia, Indonesia, China, and Sierra Leone. It provides lyrics in their original language as well as English translations. Helpful notes offer performance tips and suggestions for using these songs in worship. For easy learning, selected songs are available on a companion audio CD.

Infuse

Infuse, a new Bible-study series, helps small groups that include people with little or no Bible background discover where faith and life meet. The engaging study guide format provides helpful background info, historical insights, additional research ideas, and five daily at-home readings. Group leader tips are available online. Available now are studies on Esther, Jonah, and Matthew. Look for other titles coming soon!


About the Author

Sandy Swartzentruber serves as the resource coordinator for Faith Formation Ministries and is a member of Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.