It happened again last week. A student, hands raised in worship, spent the entire time socializing with pew-mates. I saw the same thing a year ago at our Youth Convention when two teenage girls, in response to what must have been one of their favorite songs, raised their hands to heaven and then proceeded to have a five-minute conversation complete with girly giggling. Now, I’m not one to over-spiritualize or make hand-raising anymore of a sacred act than hand-clapping but the truth remains: These students were in a posture of worship but not in the practice of worship. To me, that is a powerful metaphor of a challenge now facing us.
I hope those smarter and more influential than me are starting to prepare for the scary repercussions of our performance-based celebrity-ridden consumer-driven ingenuine approach to worship services. Modern worship has contributed, to some degree, to a new generation of believers that know almost nothing about faith except how they feel about it. They are biblically illiterate and doctrinally ignorant. Their theological ineptness leaves them naked and unarmed in a day where what feels right is right. This generation, a mile wide in fluff and only an inch thick in discipline, has no defense in a world where sin is permitted in the name of tolerance. These days, I find myself wondering if the surrogate and substitutionary experience we may be feeding them at events deceives them into thinking that they actually have a depth in their relationship with God. I worry that the sum total of their faith is feeling God when they sing, resulting in no concern of their need to obey Him.
The result is a faith that is frivolous, hyper-romantic, and irrelevant. So, biblical authority is left to bend to relativism’s flavor of the month and believers are now prone to separate the practice of the Gospel from the proclamation of the Gospel, which, in fact, is not a true Gospel at all. This type of “gospel” is a message of personal comfort, self-help, self-improvement, and individualism. It trivializes God. We start to understand Him as our butler, or a puppet dancing at the whim of our selfish pleasures. We must return to a gospel of repentance and salvation with a solid working knowledge of biblical truth. If not, evangelicalism and, in particular, Pentecostalism, may continue to eat itself alive.
Last year I attended a chapel service at one of our bible colleges. I sang with students. I gave an offering to their missions project. I prayed along for needs, and then I sat down. I settled in and waited for the message. What I got was a dismissal. No teaching. No scripture reading. Nothing but singing and a “have a nice day.” Now, we don’t have to follow the same formula every time, and there is nothing wrong with omitting a message now and then, but it made me ponder what we are modeling for the next generation if singing one’s favorite worship song is now credited as the major spiritual event.
We have learned to praise our worship, and we worship our praise. Consequently, at the end of the day God is neither praised nor worshipped. A.W. Tozer wrote, in The Pursuit of God, “To great sections of the Church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the program. This word has been borrowed from the stage and applied with sad wisdom to the type of public service which now passes for worship among us…The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all.”
I don’t think this is a new problem, just a new intensity of an old one. So, before you “seasoned saints” take up the attack against modern worship remember that some of this is your fault. After all, you created some incredibly silly stuff like “clap offerings for Jesus,” “action songs” and “Jericho marches.” You taught us to “fly over the enemy and shoot the artillery” and the correct use of “right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot.” And, to this day, every Sunday I still worry about that “little birdie with the yellow bill” at my window warning me not to be late for Sunday School. Stupid bird. Doesn’t it know that there is no such thing as Sunday School?
Let me define the term “worship” as I will use it here. I know that worship is, by definition, any act of obedience to God. But in this case please allow me to use the term in its more common application, that being the act of singing in a believer’s gathering.
We can use worship to avoid dealing with the matters that the Holy Spirit convicts us about. The pastor invites a response after a message. What do we do? We sing. What should we do? Pray. Think about David and the integral link between his personal sin, his decision to change his behavior and his creation of psalms. There is a biblical pattern of response. Worship celebrates transformation after it occurs. Singing cannot be permitted to distract us. In other words, worship can’t be “all sizzle and no steak.”
Worship can be manipulative, and whenever we manipulate we insult the Spirit and de-authenticate the power of the Gospel. Paul Hoon wrote, “Worship is sometimes used as a tool for the manipulation of the human experience. The true function of worship is not to lead people through a sequence of emotional states, to effect their behavioral change, or to promote programs or special emphases of the church or denomination. Rather, the purpose of worship is to glorify God in the world.” Manipulation is a dangerous bending of people’s emotions, for if they fail to feel anything on Sunday, they begin to question the solidity of their faith. Condemnation may ensue. People determine how “good” worship was by how it made them feel. Some say that the modern worship style is inherently manipulative. I disagree. I think the tension exists because of the subtle difference between manipulation and leading/playing with excellence and creativity.
Now emotions aren’t bad, they just need to be authentic. Our worship experiences must be emotional. To try to slice off our emotional response would be to cease to be fully human and we cease to be fully present in our worship times.
Worship can elevate a particular subset of giftedness and talent to the exclusion or diminishing of other ones. To be in worship ministry is to become the focal point of every illustration when we talk about talent and ability. It is the most notable and distinguished gifting. Of course, worship has changed so much that it now requires an incredible amount of talent, money and technology. The worship team, now known as “the band” leads an audience-based event and therefore demands a diverse set of skills. Cross-generational inclusion is off the radar. Having “pro’s only” sends the wrong message.
Worship can be a marketing tool, but one that really doesn’t work. Music is a poor marketer. Love is a better one. Just because someone says, “We like this church’s music,” doesn’t mean that is what has drawn (or will retain) him or her. Styles are so subjective that worship can never serve as the primary attractor of the un-churched.
Is worship a means to an end or an end unto itself? Should worship be a bridge to a place, or the actual place? Is worship a fulcrum to leverage something else or is it a goal in its own right? These are the questions I am trying to sort out. What I do believe is that we must be more cautious and contemplative in our worship service planning and in our advertising of the worship experience. This, at least, might cause integration of worship into the entire desired outcome(s) of a Sunday’s worship “program” as Word and worship work together. We must become more thoughtful in song selection and be sensitive and reasonable in style. We must pick theologically rich choruses or hymns. The songs that are errant, no matter how good they sound, should be trashed. Even the ones that are theologically correct but practically stupid should be avoided; for how can “they will dance for joy like we’re dancing now” if we aren’t dancing? (Well, maybe we could dance if it wasn’t such a slow song. Slow dancing in church is just creepy. It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re too busy singing of His love forever – and ever and ever and ever.)
Worship, when strategically careless, can become cathartic and therapeutic, but not transformational. Don’t let worship become the focal point. Rather, let it be one of the ingredients in our faith community gatherings that blends with other elements to provide a platform for personal transformation in a believer’s life. If it becomes the main focus, we run the risk of letting worship serve as a place for people to hide. If worship allows people to avoid God’s call to respond in obedience, it might be doing more harm than good.
When someone says, “Pastor, I am a worshipper,” what are they really saying? Do they mean that the highlight of their week is the Sunday music moments or do they mean they are striving to be a fully surrendered disciple of Christ? Although it’s extremely important, we must insist that there is more to faith than our singing.