Contemporary Worship and the User-Friendly God
Probably no issue has captured the imagination of Christian Reformed churches in recent years like "contemporary worship." The topic is debated by home missions' strategists and intellectuals at the seminaries. Some people in the pew are also enthralled with the subject. More and more people are becoming convinced that "contemporary worship" represents the surest means to win converts for Christ and safeguard the growth of the church. A 5th CRC in Pella is organizing with the deliberate intention of implementing a 'contemporary worship' style in order to draw unchurched people to church services. While we may in no way impugn the effort to seek lost souls, we may wonder about the theological implications of this practice.
What is contemporary worship versus traditional worship? As it is usually understood, contemporary worship is essentially a form of worship that makes its appeal to unchurched people who have little or no Christian background. It is worship geared for their needs, their tastes, their comfort zone and their appreciation. It is simple in format, informal in its conduct, and does not presume to impose either 'churchy' culture, or language, or music into the service, since unchurched people are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with these things. This means that praise choruses are sung instead of hymns, and hymn books are exchanged for overheads. Where the goal is to keep services within an hour, sermons are shortened to make room for personal testimonies, dramatic skits, liturgical dance or some other alternative means to teach a lesson or offer praise. Where possible, organs are replaced with electric guitars and drums, and/or orchestra and brass. Why? Because organs sound 'churchy' and hinder outreach to the lost.
Contemporary worship has become quite the rage in some parts of the Christian Reformed Church. Christian Reformed Home Missions promotes it with enthusiasm, as I learned from its conference last June in Colorado Springs. Many mission-minded people marvel at the remarkable success of Rev. Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Church of Willow Creek, Illinois (located in the suburbs of Chicago). This church draws thousands upon thousands of 'seekers' to its services every Sunday.
Some of the church's brighter minds have been reflecting on this subject. Professor Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. of Calvin Seminary in particular, has addressed this issue in a most enlightening way. What follows is a lengthy excerpt from his pamphlet, Fashions in Folly: Sin and Character in the 90s. Professor Plantinga addresses this issue under the subtitle: "Domesticated Worship of the Democratized God" (pages 7-12):
Democracy has heightened our sensitivity to sins against equality. People, including Christian people, have here and there been making painful, ragged, urgently needed progress in the battle against such sins as sexism, racism, political tyranny, and the incestuous violation of children. But the old ironies persist: make people mindful of equal personhood and equal worth, and the next thing you know they are reaching into the heavens and trying to pull God into this same orbit. They believe so fiercely in democracy and equality that they try to democratize God — the One who is unspeakably transcendent and holy.
The problem with this move is that it is both envious and self-defeating. It's envious of God's transcendent splendor and thus tries to cut God down to size. It's self-defeating because, of course, a democratized God is no better than we are and therefore can't help us.
Many of us are familiar with a history of theological liberalism in which the profile of God has been cropped in various ways. Sad to say, some evangelicals have lately been following suit. Some of the new revised versions of God are appearing in domestic evangelical markets. In these markets, God is not our Lord but our chum — maybe even our gofer whose job it is to make us rich or happy or religiously excited or self-actualized in some other way.
Not surprisingly, worship of this domesticated God is likely to mutate into a religious variety show whose main focus is on us and on what makes us tingle. Why else the nightclub format for public worship? Why else have prayer warriors come trotting out in combat fatigues? As David Wells asks in a new book, why do certain evangelical preachers punctuate their sermons with such eye-popping antics as sudden ascensions to the skylights via invisible wires? Why illustrate the prophecy of John the Baptist that the axe is now laid to the root of the tree — why illustrate this prophecy by pulling a chain saw to life, walking over to a couple of potted trees on stage, and buzzing your way through them as the congregation gasps and roars its delight?...
Now, I'm entirely aware that the topics in this neighborhood are blood-warming to people on both sides of them, so let us think soberly about these topics for a few minutes.
Years ago, the services of worship familiar to most of us would begin with the words, "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth." In some settings today, the first words we are likely to hear come from a beaming man who instead says something like, "Hi! I'm Hal. Whoa, did I just make it here or what? Hey, only fifteen minutes ago I was still in my grungies, and my wife Julie was going, 'Hal, do you like know what time it is?'"
What must we make of this? Is it simply a change in tone and in taste? Are we talking merely about a sequence of rhetorical downshifts as we descend deeper and deeper into the valleys of this informal age? Or are we facing theological issues here ones that have something to do with sin and grace, and, above all, with the identity of God?
I know that earlier forms of worship among us were sometimes almost roaringly dull, that some of us preached sermons "of great sedative power" (as Peter DeVries once put it), that visitors could expect to be resoundingly ignored, that liturgical events were sometimes scattered miscellaneously through a service, and that, in the worst cases, a minister might galumph his way through this miscellany like some earnest hippo. I know that.
The newer forms of worship or of religious assembly — wherever that distinction is drawn — the newer forms go another way. Many of the newer forms are meant to draw seekers. These forms raid the arsenals of popular culture in music, drama, rhetoric, and strategies for church parking and traffic flow — they raid these arsenals in order to do contemporary pre-evangelism and to do it with imagination. Some creative people have dedicated themselves to projects of this kind, and they deserve respect for making the missionary effort. A lot of Christians sit around dithering; the contemporary service people are out there trying. Their work is difficult, risky and important. Nobody can visit the pilot project at Willow Creek, Illinois without concluding that some of their work is also intelligent.
Giving due respect to efforts of this kind, granting that we need not go back to the days when we kept saying words like "behoove" and "beseech," granting that many of the newer forms of worship are still a ways off from the Christian amusement parks that certain fundamentalists are so fond of — granting all this and anything else I ought to grant, I think we still face some hard questions in the area of contemporary worship. The important questions, at least to me, are first theological, not aesthetic. After all, nobody is going to move the contemporary discussion forward by lamenting that, liturgically speaking, the kings and captains have departed and the schlockmeisters have taken over.
No, let's think theologically for a few minutes about trends in contemporary worship or semi-worship. Suppose, for example, that you try to keep seekers in mind, and suppose you assume that these are largely non-religious people. Suppose you further assume that if you are to appeal to these non-religious people, your contemporary services must also become increasingly non-religious, at least non-religious in any traditional way. Of course, it's hard to make a church service non-religious — it's like making a basketball game non-athletic — but for the sake of appeal to secularists, suppose you make the effort.
You start to change things in your services. The non-religious haven't much of a feel for the holiness of God, so you do away with silent prayer and expressions of our littleness. Secularists don't like to confess their sins, so you remove the service of penitence. Without confession of sin, you hardly need the grace notes of an assurance of pardon: out it goes.
In general, you assume that the non-religious like things simple and upbeat. That's where much of the popular culture is, after all, so away with lament, away with hard questions, expressions of anguish, dark ambiguities of any kind. While you're at it, away with creeds and confessions, away with explicit references to Christian doctrine, or to the history of the Christian church.
On the other hand, seekers are interested in improving themselves, so you maximize promises of personal growth and self-realization. Secularists do like pop music, so here it comes into the sanctuary, along with semi-celebrity music performers and audience applause for their performances. The non-religious also like sports figures, so in the bigger budget services, in comes Tommy LaSorda, longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers — here comes LaSorda to tell us how "the Great Dodger in the sky" has helped him win games and lose weight.
And on it goes, in various combinations of novelty, some of them mild and some very aggressive indeed. At the most advanced level of popular worship, imagine a High Five for Jesus replacing the Apostles' Creed, and imagine praise time beginning when somebody shouts, "Gimme a G! Gimme an O…!"
Troubling questions arise. How much of this really has anything to do with the Christian faith? Suppose, for a moment, that some of these new services do not reflect Christian faith or worship very well. The question, then, is simple: What's the point of having them? Why bother with them? Even if we fill the church with seekers, what have we gained? Indeed, what have we lost? What if by offering popularized religion as an appetizer for unbelievers, what if we should spoil their appetite for the real thing? Suppose your ten-year-old does not like your heart-healthy dinner menu, so you arrange a seeker meal for him in which you offer some non-threatening Pringles. You do this in order to set up his taste buds for baked potatoes. I wonder how often that would work.
So, on the one hand, wherever the new services do not faithfully represent Christianity, it's hard to know why anyone would want them. On the other hand, if the popular changes, at least in their more aggressive forms — if the changes do represent a contextualized version of the historic Christian faith, then we are going to have to face the fact that the Christian faith is a very different religion from the one most of us learned. We learned a religion that acknowledged creation, sin and grace, with God's glory as the main ingredient and human happiness as a wonderful, but not guaranteed, by-product. In fact, we used to hear that one of the main ways to find happiness is to renounce your right to it. "Those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Jesus says this in the Bible, and what Jesus says there has traditionally mattered a lot for Christians.
Suppose a seeker came away from a service of the kind I've been describing — let's say a fairly heavy duty service of that kind. Suppose he came away and said to himself, "Now I understand what the Christian faith is all about: it's not about lament, or repentance, or humbling oneself before God to receive God's favor. It's got nothing to do with a lot of boring doctrines. It's not about the hard, disciplined work of mortifying our old nature and learning to make God's purposes our own. It's not about the inevitable failures in this project, and the terrible grace of Jesus Christ that comes so that we may begin again. Not at all! I had it all wrong! The Christian faith is mainly about celebration and fun and personal growth and five ways to boost my self-esteem!"
My question is, again, a simple one: How do you prevent that conclusion? Or, to sum up for now, let's put the question very generally: How likely is it that a popular God is really God? How likely is it that a user-friendly God will rebuke sin? Or save people with transcendent and unexpected force? Or have to suffer to do it? Or call us to suffering and discipline as well as to joy and freedom? Meanwhile, how can we talk about sin to people, including ourselves — people who have lost an ear for some of its overtones?
So far Professor Plantinga's comments. I believe the churches would do well to reevaluate their warm embrace of contemporary worship. Worship is always reflective of what a person or church thinks of God. Much contemporary worship leads one to the sad conclusion that the church doesn't think much of Him today. When I was in Grand Rapids for my graduation last May, Dr. Plantinga expressed to me personally his misgivings with "contemporary worship." Although he is a man who is rather "progressive" in his thinking on a number of ecclesiastical matters, recent worship experiences as a guest preacher in area Grand Rapids churches have led him to lament. I share just one incident he shared with me. One such service began, in the professor's words, "with a young woman in a cocktail party dress, strutting back and forward across the stage, singing a semi-erotic song to Jesus as she caressed the microphone, after which, someone from the pew yelled out, 'Yeah!'" That was the call to worship! Whatever else one may say about it, such conduct shows little knowledge of who God is.
No doubt, not all advocates for "contemporary worship" have any intention of sinking to such levels. But what may we expect when people, even well intentioned ones, attempt to turn the God of the Bible into a User-Friendly God? In just this way, the church robs both churched and unchurched people alike of the living Lord of life. Next time we will explore further how our doctrine of God shapes our worship of God.
The Doctrine of God and the Worship of God
I do not believe it is enough to merely expose the dangerous flaws in the User-Friendly movement. We must also diagnose what has brought on the aberrations. Worship is always reflective of what a person or church thinks of God. If that is true, and obviously I believe it is, then it is incorrect to reduce changes in worship (and what accompanies it), as simply matters of "taste." What is happening to evangelical and reformed worship is not a change in taste. It is a change in what we think of God. In other words, an alternative conception of God has emerged in the church.
David F. Wells in his perceptive book, God in the Waste-land, believes the shift in the church's thinking about God may best be described as "the weightlessness of God." What he means is that God has become unimportant not merely in secular society but in the church. This lack of importance isn't just a spiritual problem in the church. It is a psychological disposition. Christians don't think much of God — in both senses: they don't think God is much, and they don't think about Him much. They are on "easy terms" with Him. He comes in handy for "satisfying their needs." In the designer religion of the 90s God is appreciated but not feared. Baby boomers want to experience God but they don't want to define who God is. They are comfortable with finding a church that markets a God/god who fulfills their needs. Religion is personalized and honed to fit personal cravings. It is designer religion. God increasingly becomes (re)shaped in our own image. In the process the Christian. God becomes so internalized, so like us, so for us, "so tamed by the needs of religious commerce, so submerged beneath the traffic of modern psychological need that he has almost completely disappeared" (Wells, p. 101). The net effect is that God has become a passive bystander, weightless.
In the marketplace of religion, God has become a commodity. Here the consumer is sovereign, and the product (which now is God) must be subservient. What we should not miss is that this "God" is just as much an idol as the gods of ancient Israel's neighbors. Idolatry is always a worship of the "self." So today, the idol of self is destroying God and, consequently, the worship of God.
What this means, according to Wells, is that the church is turning to a God it can use rather than to a God it must obey. The tables have turned. Roles have been exchanged. More and more Christians are looking for a God who satisfies them rather than a God who changes them. They don't want a God to whom they surrender themselves. They want a God from whom their selves find fulfillment. Again, the marketplace has taught us to think of God this way, certainly not Jesus or the Bible (Wells, p. 114).
In the therapeutic culture in which we live, secular people, and now Christians too, have come to think that "the great purposes in life are psychological rather than moral" (Wells, p. 114). Inner tranquility and serenity are the highest goals, which means obedience to God or doing the right thing must take second place, at best. This is what explains the new taste for lite preaching and the theological shallowness of many in pew and pulpit alike. The therapeutic religion of the market-place brings on spiritual senility, with its lazy whine for simplicity. Worship of such a therapeutic god scores high marks for joy, but lacks solemnity. Indeed, in the designer worship that has emerged, seriousness is avoided as the plague. Joy is the only emotion that is important, an end in itself.
You see by now, I trust, that when you change your doctrine of God you change your worship of God since worship is directed to God. This, I believe, is the most forgotten aspect of the worship experience itself. Today people are so preoccupied with what they are feeling, they forget to whom they must offer and surrender those feelings. The church has a diminished awareness of God's presence. It suffers symptoms of Spiritual Alzheimer's disease, brought on by its infatuation with therapeutic religion (i.e., religion centered upon the needs of self). Ought not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be the object of our adoration and affection? Ought not the God of history, performing His mighty acts of salvation, be the center of our religion? How is it that the self has come to occupy center stage?
The answer Dr. Wells proposes is that the church has lost the sense of God's "otherness." We have forgotten that God is holy! This is why we think of God as our "chum." This is why we resent moral demands. This is why the only attribute of God most Christians care about is love. In fact, this is why God is weightless. The church has traded in God's holiness for His love. Most people think that an affirmation that God is love "constitutes an adequate theology in itself" (Wells, p. 135).
Do you find talk of God's holiness intrusive? A bother? Boring? Does it annoy you to think of a God who is so different than yourself? Can love really say all we have to say about God? It's like the believer who was witnessing to an unbeliever, saying to him, "Friend, God loves you," to which the unbeliever replied, "Well, in that case, everything is just fine, isn't it?"
God is loving, to be sure. However, He is also holy. Holiness constitutes God's most defining characteristic. By contrast, according to Wells, the God being worshiped by many Christians today "is not nearly so morally angular as the God of the Bible. His sharp edges have been ground down to make him less. threatening, more comfortable, more tame. He is rarely perceived as the God of the outside, who in his awesome greatness, summons his people to worship, to hear that Word of truth that they cannot find within themselves or their world, to become agents of righteousness in a world that scorns this righteousness as alien and contrary. Robbed of such a God, worship loses its awe, the truth of His Word loses its ability to compel, obedience loses its virtue, and the church loses its moral authority" (p. 136). The choices we face are stark and they evidence themselves in corporate worship: Will we love and serve a God of therapy or morality? Will we opt for mysticism (unbridled feelings, emotions and new revelations) or the Word of God in Scripture (which clearly expresses the content of our faith and dictates our moral behavior)? Will we choose self-fulfillment or personal surrender? Will we use God or obey Him? Will we remake God in our image or worship Him as His image-bearers?
I think the modern evangelical or Reformed person needs to be reminded that the God who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, did so by first telling him, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5). Can we relate to the Psalmist's words, "Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker" (Psalm 95:6)? Or when the Psalmist says: "Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling" (Psalm 2:11)? When Isaiah was shown a vision of God in His temple, the first words out of his mouth were, "Woe is me! I am undone!" (Isaiah 6:5). The seraphs spend eternity adoring and worshiping God before His throne; day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come" (Revelation 4:8; also see Isaiah 6:3). The author of Hebrews reminds New Testament believers that "since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28). That's who God is — a consuming fire!
Large segments of the church today have entirely lost this vision of God. They divest Him of holiness as they invest Him with an extra dose of love; the result is that He becomes a play-thing. But a holy God is not a play-thing. He may not be trifled with. The casual familiarity exhibited in some worship traditions, especially the contemporary variety, at worst dances around the edges of disdain for God and at best falls into profanity.
Where psychological tranquility becomes the most pressing unfulfilled desire, God is required to accommodate Himself. His worship is likewise compromised. Many Evangelicals and Reformed people are worshiping a God who is kind, compassionate, loving and merciful, but who is also harmless, impotent, morally insincere and robbed of any holiness that matters. That's not the God of Jesus or Paul or the author of Hebrews.
This god is an idol of our own making. In the consumer Christianity of the 90s, the object of our worship is friendly, well-mannered and thoroughly civilized; one need not feel threatened by this god. He is without claws, without fangs. He growls at evil but never attacks. He mentions Jesus Christ as a triumphant example to follow but not as a Lord to whom we owe submission or service. Sin has little to do with things here. It is little more than human failure. Missing is any sense of sin as treachery or personal rebellion against God, incurring personal guilt. Grace, consequently, has no focus.
Where God is not worshiped as holy, but is "democratized" and "domesticated," to use Plantinga's words, Christianity unravels. The seriousness of the whole gospel message is lost. Truth is robbed of earnestness. Calls to repentance dry up and fade away. Godly behavior and the Christian life are transformed into the therapeutic promise of being well-adjusted and happy — all because of Jesus, of course. Preaching itself digresses into the pep-talk. When God has no weight, such are the consequences.
Obviously, to recapture the proper worship of God will require that we recapture the proper understanding of who God is, an understanding of His holiness. Most believers could start by reading R.C. Sproul's book, The Holiness of God. Beyond that we can reevaluate how we prepare, assemble and participate in our worship of God. It is not enough to say, "Oh well, we are traditional in our style of worship. We sing the old hymns. We recite the creed. We're used to long sermons." That's to miss the point altogether!
I believe traditional churches must reform their worship, too. What we need in worship is the manifest presence of God in His holiness, goodness and love. We need to expect to meet that God! Then we will come with anticipation and reverence. This worship demands that we lose self. Honest worship requires it.
To worship a holy God also requires preparation. It isn't just a get-together with friends to chat and chuckle. We have to prepare our hearts. That's what the traditional "prelude" is about. It's not for watching worshipers come in, but for silence, for reverent meditation. That's why the sanctuary should be filled from the front to the rear (besides, the worship leader should never have to speak over empty pews in the front). The focus belongs on God.
Preparation for public worship begins in private. If you have not spent any time with God in private, how can you be ready for the public worship of God? All worship leaders (including organists, musicians, soloists, choir leaders) with the elders and deacons should join in earnest prayer together before corporate worship begins. This honors God. It also brings us to humility before Him and reminds us of our dependence on Him.
Moreover, to worship a holy God will cost us our pride. In both the Old and New Testaments, the key words for worship mean "to prostrate oneself" and thus manifest reverential fear and adoring awe and wonder. Worship requires that we lose our pride and become transparent before God. Meaningful worship means we abandon our efforts to hide from Him. We expose ourselves and express our adoration for Him. Since God is the audience and object of our adoration, we being His subjects, when He speaks to us, whether in a summons to worship or a word of greeting or blessing, and especially in His Word proclaimed, we open and offer ourselves to Him in willing submission. Such is worship of a holy God, a God with weight.
May we recapture this vision of our Creator and Savior, for what we think of God inevitably shapes our worship of Him.