Sean Palmer is Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. Read more from Sean at The Palmer Perspective (www.thepalmerperspective.com), follow him on Twitter: @seanpalmer or follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpalmerwriter.
American Christianity is facing a critical turn. I don’t consider myself stuffy or prudish, though my children may disagree, but last December I witnessed an online worship service, which made little liturgical sense.
I know and love several leaders in this congregation, and trust their hearts and motives. For a season, I watched their online services weekly. I know them, though not entirely from the inside. I want to be clear: Generally, they are doing great work. It’s just that their worship of late has left me mystified.
A Description Not A Critique
As the worship band cranked it loud, lasers flashed around the auditorium and the sanctuary filled with so much smoke from the fog machine that a nervous fireman might have raced for the nearest extinguisher before searching out the source of a blaze. As the smoke lightened, it was evident that besides the band, no one else was signing.
As the service rolled forward, I became the kind of person I abhor. I’m not proud, but I started taking notes. In the portion I watched – all before the sermon – there were 0 spoken mentions of Jesus, 0 mentions of God, 4 mentions of the church’s name, 3 songs with no mention of Jesus or God, 5 mentions of “finding community” in the church’s small groups, 0 prayers offered, and 0 silence. (Ok, I admit, that sounds a little grump old man-ish.)
As if all this wasn’t startling enough, this week the same congregation inserted a dance section into a worship song and all did the Whip & Nae Nae.
- “Watch me whip, whip; watch me nae, nae…do the stanky leg…ooh, watch me, watch me!” Just what your soul needs; the stanky leg.
I’ll admit, some complain the music is too loud at my church and 10-minutes before worship we’ve played “Happy.” A few times our band has covered songs from bands like Imagine Dragons and Mumford & Sons, all with some kind of thoughtful, theological function. As I’ve said, I’m no prude. Hopefully, these good folks were trying to do some thing likewise. Yet after multiple attempts to decipher the functions behind these forms I suspect I’ve unearthed the planner’s unwitting, yet distressing liturgical aim: “Ooh, watch me, watch me….”
For all my dismay, churches need more than a quasi-Disneyland-Jesus-pep-rally offered online, but also much more than naked, fruitless criticisms of sisters and brothers who are doing much less to reach our neighbors than they are.
We need worship expressions designed to reach people, but don’t fail to place God unambiguously at the center.
Church pews are routinely filled with moms witnessing the disintegration of their adult children and feeling helpless; fathers stressed with the burden of paying for college and bills while funding retirement and dealing with disabled parents; there are teenagers growing up in an ambiguous, violent, over-sexed, and anxiety-riddled world, and young adults trying to unravel the tangle of who and what to be in a shifting, complex world. That’s not to mention the poor and disenfranchised, the damaged relationships, and the countless number of folks hanging on to faith by a fingernail.
While our world doesn’t need lifeless, frozen, and disconnected worship, the cure is not a church conspiring with our worst inclinations and begging others to, “watch me, watch me….”
If “me” is the most notable thing to “watch,” our world is tragically absent of wonder. If “me” is most conspicuous, then church is little more than Instagram.
But what if we added more varied expressions to our weekly gatherings?
What if worship trained worshippers to listen to the voice of God, who is active throughout their week, by creating space for silence on the weekend? What if the church – perhaps the only place left to do it – became a place of listening rather than thundering? After all, it’s the prophets of Baal that wail and shout to arouse their God, not Elijah.
What if, in a culture where many Christians lament the lack of God in the public sphere, the church claimed the name of Jesus as often as possible? What if the church was the place where nothing was offered except for Jesus?
What if we came to see worship as a spiritual discipline more than a spiritual fix? What if churches trained worshippers to expect the long, sometimes tedious, haul with the God of the ages rather than a sprint with the God of the immediate?
What if churches formed worshippers not to look for something new, but to practice, like corporate recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, something very old?
I hope I’m not just being a curmudgeon, though that’s entirely possible. And I do believe worship can be a big tent with different churches meeting various needs in multiple ways.
I just want us to be mindful, deliberate, and more theologically sensible than we are pragmatically efficient. After all, what we win people with is often what we win them to. Of what should we be sensible about? That, as worshippers file out of weekly gatherings, the very last thing we should hum is “watch me, watch me….”