I am having a discussion about worship services with Blue G. van den Bosch over at Surface-Blue Goldfish. Also, I am planning to preach this weekend on the conversion of Cornelius and Peter’s vision in Acts 10. I plan on titling the message: “The Gospel and Our Prejudices”.
Mr. Blue seems to be bugged by the entertainment, mega-church, “consumeristic”, watered-down, self-help, seeker sensitive, “worship” services. But... in his post he gives a solution that is nice (I imagine), but not exactly an option that will help the Christian cause from my perspective.
Mr. Blue G says the following:
Some churches imitate pop music concerts in the name of “praise and worship”. Lights flash, videos fill the screen, singers engage in “liturgical dancing”. The music is loud and its beat is strongly similar to that of secular music. Worshipers wave their arms in the air and applaud.
When the emphasis is on audio-video stimulation, then God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit become “excuses” to indulge the senses in “worship” that does not lead to a higher plan of godliness, spirituality, and Christian maturity. In this environment people become totally enamored by the phenomenon of “worship” rather than being enthusiastic about serving God. The worship “experience” is their focus rather than the work of God which is by faith.
It's all about the experience. ….
By contrast, I remember the worship services of my youth: From pipe-organ music by Bach to the architecture, from the church-furnishings, from the congregational music, from the way everyone dressed, from the very sermons and prayers of the pastor himself - everything breathed "simplicity, sobriety, and measure." We dressed up on Sunday for two church services. In the words of Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff:
We dressed up on the Lord's Day, dressed up for the Lord's Day, and entered church well in advance of the beginning of the service to collect ourselves in advance, silence so intense it could be touched. The interior was devoid of decoration, plaster painted white, ceiling pitched to follow the roof, peak high but not too high. The only "richness" was in the wooden furnishings. These were varnished, not painted. ... We faced forward, looking at the Communion table front center, and behind that, the raised pulpit. Before I understood a word of what was being said I was inducted by its architecture into the tradition.
Then the consistory entered, men dressed in black or blue suits, faces bronzed and furrowed from working in the fields, shining from scrubbing; this was the Lord's Day. Behind them came the minister. Before he ascended the pulpit one member of the consistory shook his hand; when he descended from the pulpit at the end of the service all the members shook his hand, unless they disagreed. We sang hymns from here and there - nineteenth century England, sixteenth-century Germany. But what remains in my ear are the psalms we sang. Every service included psalms, always sung, often to Genevan tunes.
Yet when congregations and "pastors" equate packing the house with success, we get this:
Worked into a frenzy by the 10-piece band and 300-member choir, dozens of slick music videos and, yes, the wave, congregants were enraptured. "We love it. We don't miss a Sunday," says Annette Ramirez, sitting in the arena's front row with her husband, Joe. "The message is always very positive and the music is great."
I prefer not to sing songs about somebody's girlfriend or boyfriend during worship services.See above. Yes. As Randy writes, "Supposedly Christian songs that could be addressed to a love interest other than God are just insipid." Worse. It may be time to drive out the entertainers from God's house. Or am I over-reacting? Please bring back the Psalter Hymnal! Please.
Its about Transcendent Values not Culture
We are all in agreement. Praying for golf clubs is sick. In fact, I have never played golf and cannot remember the last time I had a day off. Women showing cleavage in church is sick. Sermons that don’t call people to sacrifice and holiness are sick. BUT the answer is not going back to the culture of the 1950’s? The problem is not loud music or the lack of the beloved songs of your youth. The problem is the values that this approach communicates and the message these activities as a whole communicate. Whenever we argue one set of cultural symbols like loud music vs hymns, we miss the point. We must move the discussion beyond our cultural preferences to the substance of the things we are attempting to communicate. We need to learn to cross cultural barrieres and affirm the grace of God regardless if the means used suit our cultural preferences and sensibilities. When we call for a return to our cultural preferences, we are being ethno-centric and are missing the incarnational reality of the Gospel. It ain’t about a return to the glory of yesteryear. I am a pastor and I know that the fruit of yesteryear is not all milk and cookies. Returning to the past is never the answer for authentic worship in the present.
Bob Dole and the 1950’s
I remember in 1992 when Bob Dole gave his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. He spoke of the values of his youth in the 40’s and 50’s. He spoke of returning to those values. I had to hang my head. I turned to my wife and said, “Get ready for four more years of Bill Clinton”. How could anyone be so out of touch as to look with loving affection at the 1950’s and think that message is going to connection with America? Did he miss the civil rights movement? Did he miss the attack dogs and the fire hoses and the assassination of Martin Luther King? Is he so clueless as to not realize that the majority of Americans from my generation associate the 50’s with racism and segregation? Different generations and cultures make different associations with different cultural symbols. Bob Dole sounded to my Generation X ears like a plantation owner.
Today, Bob Dole has been trampled under foot and is remembered as the politician with E.D. The same thing happens to the church when we cannot discern the proper symbols and cultural mechanism to use to translate our transcendant values to the surrounding culture or even to our own children. We are laughed at and deservedly so.
Bob Dole made the ultimate mistake. He romanticized the past. When we do this, we alienate the present generation and rob them of their opportunity to speak with their own voice. True spiritual renewal and authentic beauty only comes from a free heart that expresses transcendent values of the gospel in their own voice. Jesus Christ is Lord of all the nations and has redeemed all nations and all generations to speak their praise from their heart.
The Symbols of My Heart
The key to unity on these issues is to be able to discern the values that a person is attempting to communicate. Each generation has its own voice, and it is the responsibility of all Christians to be mature enough to be able to properly interpret the meaning of the cultural symbols that artists use to express their worship. It is petty and immature to attempt to sanctify a culture and not the value that for that moment those artifacts expressed.
For example, when I hear a folk rock type of melody like Matt Redman’s “Heart of Worship” or Brian Doerksen’s, “Refiner’s Fire” to name a few 10-20 year old worship songs or “I could sing of Your Love forever” by Martin Smith, I am reminded of the authentic expression of weakness and humanity from the music of my youth. This is the music that gives me a voice to speak my heart.
I hate country music BUT just driving home I heard a song that made me cry. We all need to be able to hear the message through whatever the medium. I love the band System of a Down. There music is very violent and aggressive, but I can hear their message in their voice. I associate this with Honesty and Beauty and pathos. These sounds are the sounds of the “hymns” of my youth. My job as a pastor is to give artists the freedom to speak in their cultural language and create cultural artifacts to express the gospel with clarity for their tribe.
If I write a worship song, it is not going to sound like Beethoven. I associate Beethoven with Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” and Hitler not Christ and His church. Instead, if I am singing about self-sacrifice and total surrender, it is more likely to sound like Bob Marley or Counting Crows. These are the means that my redeemed heart uses to express my passions and loves for the Kingdom of God.
I hear many songs in church
He Lives, He lives salvation to impart
you ask me how I know He lives.
He lives within my heart..
and it makes me think of Al Jolson. It wuld be anathema for ME to create a kingdom message in this voice. At the same time, I hope I am mature enough to give other peple the opportunity to worship the Lord in the voice that fits their culture.
The moral to the story is that we need to learn to understand WITHOUT PREJUDICE the values each group and individual is communicating from their voice. “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” (“which could be a song about someone’s girl friend”) does not communicate erotic love to the author or to me. Please, Martin Smith and those who embrace such worship hear this as total surrender and abandonment to the love of God. I hear such affection as holiness. To interpret such music as shallow is to not be listening.
“Blessed Assurance”, which I love, is no more sanctified than “Heart of Worship”.
The answer is to labor with God to build a morally beautiful community and for that community to create its own authentic artistic artifacts which memorialize the story of that community as it lives in its own time and space. Such work is difficult and requires all our prayerful commitment. To call the church back to the artifacts of a past glory is a false method and is circumventing the hard work of church renewal. Imitation of the entertainment of the world is likewise a cheap substitution for authentic and spirit filled worship. Neither the return to the past nor the water-down saccharine imitation of the world’s entertainment can replace the inspired artistic creations of a Spirit led church. It is from the moral excellence of a community that is both living the story of the redemtive community of Christ and that is filled with the liberty of the Spirit that is needed. Such a communtity will then create the artifacts that speak to a generation with a new and authentic voice. Anything else is just cheap, impotent, imitation worship.