In praise of worship
God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:10-11, NLT)
Jon Gabriel has a post up about modern evangelical churches and in particular contemporary Christian music. In his post, Jon criticizes modern non-denominational evangelical churches, with their modernist architecture, minimalist pulpit and altar, and contemporary-Christian bands instead of traditional organs and choirs. Jon makes some good points, but I think he misses the mark in assigning blame to the church and the liturgy, and not the people within.
Let’s get this out of the way: I respect Jon. I read his work fairly often and follow him on twitter. He wouldn’t know me from Adam, but has retweeted me once or twice. I like him and in no way should this post, which is critical, be considered an attack on him. We just disagree, and I’m not even so certain we disagree as it just doesn’t bother me the way it bothers him.
Criticism of contemporary Christian music is nothing new. I’m sure that, back in 1742 when it was first performed in Dublin, someone criticized Handel’s Messiah as too contemporary and pulling the focus away from God, right along with the uninspiring architecture from nearby St. Mary’s Church. While I can’t say Newsboys’ God’s Not Dead or Jars of Clay’s Flood will be performed extensively in three centuries, I’m certain something being produced in this generation will be.
I’ve attended both traditional and contemporary churches. Avoiding a long story, I’ll just say that I struggled with faith as a young, nerdy kid; found my faith in a traditional Methodist church; have attended services from multiple denominations; and through a series of missteps, falling-outs and rediscoveries, found myself at the kind of non-denominational evangelical protestant church that Jon describes and which he and his family apparently attend.
We’re an outward-looking church, inasmuch as we have outreach through sports, service opportunities, missions both in the US and to the third world, church planting, and orphan care. We’re a community-focused church in that we have numerous opportunities outside of Sunday worship to meet with other members and study the bible, learn more about each other, or improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We’re a God-focused church by encouraging baptism, studying His word and focusing on the lessons of the bible, and worshiping Him as our creator, provider, counselor and judge.
I’ve been to both traditional churches and contemporary churches that lack this focus on God and His Word. The focus is on the people within: Who looks good. Who is being a “Good Christian”. Who the best singer is. Who is attending all the important events. How the events look to the outside world. How do they appear to the peers the leadership cares about. The focus isn’t on God, but on the organization, on the building, or on the minister and staff. It’s true of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. They lose sight of what’s important and put their focus on the building, the liturgy, and the people.
I’m reasonably certain that God doesn’t care if our church has an organ, a praise band, or a guy with an out-of-tune ukulele. He doesn’t care whether we have an altar, a stage, or a cinder block. Speaking of cinder blocks, in Haiti I attended a church with a three-hour, non-traditional ceremony and a boom-box connected to an amplifier. I never got the impression they were any less faithful to God than any one of us. When I think about that experience, I often remember the verse, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, there I am among them.” (Matthew 18:20, NLT)
I say all this to illustrate one simple fact: It doesn’t matter what your liturgy might be, what music might be played, or the architecture with which your church is built. Like the cross and the fish, these are mere symbols of the love and praise we have for Him. Jon Gabriel and other (ahem!) well-known pundits have weighed in that they don’t find this type of connection in my kind of church. I struggle to find it in theirs and others simply can’t. In the end, if the people in charge of the church and those attending it are there to connect with Him and with each other through Him, then that church is a sound place to worship.