Monthly Archives: April 2009

Worshipping for free

Every week at Simple Free, we sing one song. Music is not a centerpiece of the service, but it is still very important. Our philosophy of simplicity in the church extends into the songs we select for worship, so we do not sing any songs that require us to pay for their use. 

If you have never heard of paying for worship songs, I’ll give a short explanation.

Forty or 50 years ago, people would sing hymns straight from the hymnal on Sunday mornings. But in the mid- to late-70s, modern praise and worship began working its way into the sanctuary. This became a problem.

Normally, if someone reprints the lyrics to a song for mass consumption — as is done in churches around the globe every Sunday morning — certain royalties must be paid. So, back in the day, if a church wanted to use a song during worship and reprint the lyrics in the bulletin or store them on the church computer for future use, they would purchase a reprinting license for each song. At least the churches that knew and obeyed the law did. This whole painstaking process could be circumvented by just purchasing hymnals, which already have all the licensing fees taken care of for the songs they contain. 

But hymnals just didn’t cut it. As modern praise and worship became more and more popular thanks to the likes of Keith Green and Rich Mullins, churches around the country were scrambling to incorporate the latest songs every week. As you can imagine, it could be a bit of a headache paying reprinting fees for two or three or more new songs every week. 

In 1988, the Church Copyright License was created as a catchall solution. Christian Copyright Licensing International procured licensing rights for all the songs and then churches just paid them.

CCLI offers an elevated fee scale depending on the size of the church. For a church like Simple Free, we would only pay $50 a year to CCLI. A church between 200 and 500 members pays $230.

So why don’t we at Simple Free pay a measly $50 a year to have access to hundreds of thousands of the latest songs? 

Because we agree with the late Keith Green that praising God should be free. After releasing two albums the traditional way, Green came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t make people pay for his albums or concerts. He and his wife personally financed the release of his third album, “So You Want to Go Back to Egypt.” People sent him a letter requesting a copy of the album and he sent it to them, asking that if they felt led to pay, they could send however much they could. You can read all about that here. The story is fascinating but way too long to go into here.

The argument for paying for these songs is that if we don’t pay the artists, then they’ll stop writing songs. That’s up to them. 

There are plenty of great, theologically rich songs in the public domain that are already written and available free of charge. We may be left out of the loop on the latest hit worship chorus, but we’re okay with that.

Keeping expenses to a minimum is one of the core ideas behind Simple Free. We don’t pay a pastor, we don’t own or rent a facility, and we don’t pay an annual fee to praise God. 

— Zach McDonald


Limits of Grace

asm_3126-chicago-a1Simple Free meets in the basement of our house.  Our house has 7 guys living in it, soon 8.  Some are Christian, some are not.  We’ve all got our issues, some have more than others.  I want to make this house a place of peace but also a refuge for some who need a hand.   Extending grace is important to me, but sometimes a limit is reached where I really wonder if the grace is helpful.  Its hard to know when you are being kind, and when you are being an enabler.  Of course it is difficult to give grace at all– that is one side of the coin.  It is easier to just live a selfish life cut off from others in any significant way.  But there is another side which is the difficulty of giving grace– having some sense of when to stop, when to shake the dust off your feet, stop throwing your pearls out there, or whatever your metaphor might be…Knowing the limits of grace is hard, especially when you are swedish and prefer to avoid confrontation…             –Andy

Life After Uganda

Ryan Adams - 29

Ryan Adams - 29

“If I could find my way back home, where would I go?” – Ryan Adams

I often lose myself in the lyrics of my favorite musicians.  I suppose connecting with the artist makes me feel less alone.  About four months ago, I arrived back in Omaha after going on an epic month vacation to with my father that landed us in Alaska followed by spending five months in Kampala, Uganda on a missions trip .  It’s fair to say that that returning to Omaha has some of the loneliest and most difficult months of my adult life.  I found myself clinging to the likes of Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago”, Elliot Smith’s “From a Basement on a Hill”, and Ryan Adam’s “29” upon returning from Uganda.  I think enjoying any of those albums should be part of the DSM-IV’s criteria for determining if you are clinically depressed. Ha.

In the past ten years of my life, I’ve lived in 11 different places.  Staying somewhere between 1 month and 1.5 years in each of the 11 different places I lived, I’ve found my life most stabilized by the relationships that I form along the way.

So, you think with all experience I have moving around, I’d adjust well coming back to Omaha from Uganda.  Not so much.  As I mentioned before, returning to Omaha was incredibly painful.  After five amazing months of ministry with street children in Kampala, I found myself lost in Omaha.  Lost without a home church.  And lost without a permanent place to live (living back at mother’s house isn’t the most ideal option for a 24 year old with a brother and sister in high school).  I was grieving so much loss from my time in Uganda.  I remember asking my friends in Uganda to pray for me upon my return to The States for two specific things: 1) A place to live when I get back, 2) Find a church that I really want to be a part of.

I should know after six years of being a follower of Christ, that God can and does exceed my expectations.  1 John 5:14-15 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”  So, I shouldn’t be wildly surprised that my prayer was answered when I found myself get connected to Simple Free Church and along with that find a place to live (Andy’s 6 plex mentioned in previous blog posts) in the neighborhood that Simple Free is focused in.  Yet, I was still blown away by God’s faithfulness.

God had answered my prayers!  And He did it so wonderfully, He combined both of my requests with one major answer.  I’ve only lived in the 6 plex at the corner of Park Ave of Leavenworth for about a month and I have attended Simple Free for a couple months, so I’m just getting my feet wet with this new community.  The ABOUT SIMPLE FREE section states, “Our goal is to give most of what our people Tithe to those in need– focusing on the widows and fatherless and disabled and poor in our neighborhood.” and “We want to provide accountability to each other to walk the talk, and to be involved in others lives and to also maintain a healthy personal spiritual life.”  I’m thrilled to be around a group of fellow believers who are intentionally living and loving the Park Ave and Gifford Park neighborhoods who are also concerned about my spiritual life.

Finding purpose upon returning to Omaha was so necessary for me.  I find enjoyment in my job as a social worker in Omaha, working with kids with mental health issues and behavior problems, but I’ve also found myself connected to the Body of Christ here in Park Ave and Gifford Park.  I grew up in Millard/West Omaha/Gretna, so living in the Park Ave neighborhood is quite different for me (even though I have lived in Bamako, Mali and Kampala, Uganda).  I’ve spent my first month living here absorbing the dynamics of my new neighborhood.  Being white, I’ve found myself in the minority of a mostly Hispanic neighborhood.  A humbling experience for me.  I’ve also seen prostitutes walking down my street and the exotic dancers walking into the next door strip club to my apartment.  Park Ave is well known for its drug deals as well as one client of mine at work dubbed it “crack heaven”.  And the other night, I saw a man passed out across the street from my apartment.  To be fair, there’s a lot of beauty in this neighborhood as well as I’ve seen the smiles of children playing soccer in the alley behind my home and really come to appreciate walking over to Avanza (a Hispanic grocery store) and hearing Mexican tunes on the speakers as I shop for my groceries.

I’m confident God is at work here and I’m confident that there is real redemption taking place though Jesus in my new community.  It’s really a joy to join Simple Free Church (and come alongside established groups such the PAC House or Renew Omaha) to love this neighborhood.  I’ve begun the steps of considering if God is calling me to long term ministry in Kampala, Uganda as my heart seems more at home there than anywhere I’ve lived.  But, I also know God has me right at home here on Park Ave.  Loving Jesus and loving others is what I desire to do, wherever I live.  And for the year(s) ahead, I look forward to see what God has in store for this neighborhood and what little part I can play in it.

-Ryan Youtz

The Latest Renovation/Redemption Project

27th and Dewey

I am just about finished with renovating a 6 plex near Leavenworth and Park Avenue. We have solid tenants living there now, who really want to make the neighborhood better. When I bought it in August of 08 it had been boarded up for a long time, the copper pipes stolen, the wiring boxes ripped out, and garbage left everywhere from the squatters who broke in. The latest project is an 8 plex at 27th and Dewey. Even my ‘guys’ who work with me said that that neighborhood is ‘tough’. I am hoping that by transforming this building we will make a significant inroad into changing this neighborhood and getting a foothold to start a positive space/habitation that can eat into the trouble and overtake the trouble in the neighborhood. Obviously tagging is an issue in this neighborhood, and we will fight that. If you want to see lots of pictures of the 8 plex check out: 
 –Andy Gustafson (

History, Destiny, Irony

Do you ever feel like you’re unintentionally going in circles in life? Do feel like sometimes where you end up is where you started?  When it comes to the Gifford Park area, that seems to be me.  I was born in a small house off of 35th and California, right across the street from my grandparents and within a block’s radius of many aunts,uncles and cousins.  I never really gave much thought as to why everyone lived so close together in this specific neighborhood. Even though my own nuclear family moved away (one of the many times), we’d still visit my grandparents and watch how everyone stood put and avoided the flight to the suburbs, even as the neighborhood seemed to get worse. Fast forward 19 years later.  I find myself moving to a 2 bedroom apartment off of 33rd st.  Coincidentally I was back where I started in Gifford Park.  Thankfully the Good Lord had seen fit to have me mature both in my understanding of the Christian life as well as the value of community since my infant years when I last resided here.  Not only am I fortunate to have many relatives of mine within a walking distance, but that for once I could see why they stayed put and invested in Gifford Park.  Although I had always had trouble reconciling my religious beliefs with the majority of the family, I finally felt that we could meet on the same level when it came to investing in your neighborhood and building up your community. With Simple Free, there is a unity of belief not only in matters of faith but also through action in matters of social justice and compassion.  As of now, however, a lot of this is mostly discourse and not action, and in the near future I hope me and the other guys in Simple Free will be able to partner with the Gifford Park Neighborhood Associaion and serve in tangible ways to better our streets and help those how live in our area. All in all, I feel fortunate not only to have great friends but a steadfast family to join me in bettering our neighborhood and working restoration not only physically but also mentally and spiritually as well.

-Dinger aka Matt Wilwerding


A few months back we were doing our study and the particular passage for that week was about how the Israelites fasted in response to their grief for their sin. We talked about how few of us fast and decided that from now on if one of us ‘failed’ with regard to accountability issues we would all fast together in response to that. I’ve come to appreciate fasting in ways I never had before (my only prior experience to fasting connected to spiritual growth was a 10th grade fasting retreat for two days).
I’m just part way into Scot Mcknight’s book called Fasting and it has some powerful insights for me. I’m starting to see fasting more clearly as worshipful response to events in my life or the life of my friends. I’m also seeing it less as a tool to achieve particular ends (although it does often have valuable effects physically and spiritually) and more as an activity of the soul which is natural and which has value as an activity in itself. In that respect it is like reading the Bible regularly—that activity may have positive effects, but if I start to use it as a magic means to particular ends, I am likely misusing it in some sense as a form of idolatry…

A few things Mcknight said are particularly powerful for me:

“We worship God and we love God in our bodies and with our bodies and in concrete, physical, tangible, palpable ways. Deep in the yearning of humans is the need to “do spirituality’ with the body.”

“The singular contribution of the ancient Israelites to understanding humans is found in Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them
Male and female he created them.

Humans, this text tells us, are “images” (I prefer the greek word, Eikon) of God. As God’s Eikons, we represent God on earth and govern this world for God. In addition, we engage in relationships with God, self, others, and the entire world. These roles of governing and relating are what it means to be an Eikon. And we do what God has called us to do in this world in a physical body.”

“Dividing the Eikon, or person, into two parts is what makes fasting so difficult today. Since fasting is a very physical thing, it must be assigned to the body. And since fasting concerns only the body, it can’t be that important, we think.”

“Our bodies and what we do with our bodies visibly demonstrate the very core of what we are made to do: love god and love others. For those with a healthy body image of an organic unity, fasting is a natural and inevitable response to life’s grievous, or serious, sacred moments.”

“…a unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body. For this kind of body image, fasting is natural. Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns, what the sould longs for, and what the mind knows to be true. It is body talk—not the body simply talking for the spirit, for the mind, or for the soul in some symbolic way, but for the person, the whole person, to express herself or himself completely. Fasting is one way you and I bring our entire selves into complete expression. The Bible, because it advocates clearly that the person—heart, soul, mind, spirit, body—is embodied as a unity, assumes that fasting as body talk is inevitable.”

Mcknight goes on to discuss different ways or purposes of fasting found in the body:
Fasting as body talk, as Body Turning, as Body Plea, as Body Grief, as Body Discipline, as Body Calendar, as Body Poverty, as Body Contact, and as Body Hope. He sums up his thoughts later in the book when he says that “Fasting is a natural and inevitable response to the following”: sin, death, disaster, lack of holiness, love and compassion, the impoverishment of others, the sacred presence of God, or the absence of justice, peace and love.

The idea of being a living Ikon is pretty cool.  Ikons are normally used to remind us of those who provide examples of godliness for us to be encouraged by or remember.  To think of oneself as an image bearer– an image of God– is very interesting. 

I am just beginning to try to understand how to fast. I have fasted in response to sin, as a solidarity with others in simple free as they grieve and repent, and most recently as a response to personal grief and to aid me in gaining some clarity of understanding and vision. I do appreciate the discipline I am developing as well. I remember when I used to teach logic to my students at Marquette University I would tell them that one nice side effect of learning logic was that you would find yourself not spouting off logic formulas in conversation, but you would find yourself thinking more clearly and coming to reasonable conclusions more quickly and easily. I believe that fasting has helped me to have more clear vision on some things—even things that had nothing to do with my fasting to begin with.

I hope to continue to learn about fasting, and how to do it more and more for the glory of God. It is helping me to have a more unified sense of self, and to physically express my inner self in the world.

–Andy Gustafson

coffee time with the locals

Lately, 3-4 mornings per week I’ve been having coffetimeIzzy, Richard and Mike come over for coffee around 830. They are guys who live in the neighborhood and do work for me on various projects– from sanding floors to painting to tilework or fixing windows. They have all lived in my places at one time or another, and they are all on gov’t assistance to various extents. All of them have been homeless at some time. They live on the edge in many respects. I learn a lot from them about steadfastness, habits, alcohol, and myself. Izzy and Richard have been alcohol free for three weeks now, and Mike just inherited some money, but is continuing to work and to try to be responsible with his money. I like the rhythm of having them over most mornings, and I think it is good for them too– we laugh and talk about current events or whats going on on 33rd street. I really do enjoy these guys.  Its not an earth-shaking selfless act to make coffee and serve these guys, but they enjoy it and appreciate it.  Its one of those small habits that makes a small difference in the lives of those in my neighborhood.  I’d be interested to hear about other people’s experiences reaching out in small ways like that to their neighbors…