Will individualism kill corporate worship?

Will individualism kill corporate worship? January 28, 2015

Mr. First-on-his-feetSo you’re sitting in church, happy for the break. You’ve just stood for 20 minutes straight while the praise band played, “I could sing of your love forever.” It felt like forever, you think to yourself.

But thankfully, the church needs money. So the worship leader prays for the offering, and finally says those blessed words, “You may be seated.”

Now it’s time for the offertory song. You know what happens next.

Before the ushers make it halfway to the back of the room, he stands up.

You know the guy. He sits about three rows back from the stage. The moment the music starts to play he’s out of his seat, hands waving in the air, head swept back, swaying to the music in rapturous praise.

I call him “Mr. First-On-His-Feet.”

Of course, once Mr. FOHF springs forth we all feel obligated to stand with him. He’s the reason we no longer sing while seated. Mr. FOHF is our role model — that enthusiastic worshipper we’re all supposed to emulate.

Slowly the rest of the congregation rises “as they feel led,” emerging like popcorn kernels in a skillet, a few at first, but eventually reaching critical mass. By the end of the song about three-quarters of the assembled worshippers are standing, while the rest remain seated (feeling tremendously guilty and unspiritual for not rising). About 60% of the congregation is not singing at all – merely standing mute as the band plays. About 10% are on their smartphones.

We’ve gathered together – to do our own thing.

Church wasn’t always like this.

In the church of my youth we did everything together. We sang together. Did responsive readings together. Sat and stood together. Took communion together.

We were given a little flyer when we walked in – an order of worship that told us exactly what would happen, and when it would happen. We did as we were told.

No one dared to break from the group and do their own thing. How repressed we were.

But in the late 20th century a new focus on personal expression began to take hold in evangelical churches. The assembled worshippers came to be seen less as a single, unified body of Christ — and more as a collection of individuals who gathered to relate to God one-on-one, within their own hearts.

This ethos emerged from a century of emphasis on individual salvation. Twentieth century evangelicalism focused relentlessly on “a personal relationship with Jesus.” And the Pentecostal movement brought ecstatic, individualized expression into corporate worship for the first time. People were free to respond to God however they felt led – regardless of what the preacher may have planned.

Thus a new idea bloomed – that God touches us individually in worship, and we are free to respond as the Spirit leads – even if that’s different than how someone next to us might be feeling.

Today’s hippest churches no longer distribute an order of worship. Although their services are timed down to the minute, the congregation is unaware that there’s even a plan. The worship service seems to start organically. The feeling is informal. The pastor and singers no longer tell us what to do – they simply bring the body of Christ together to respond to Him as individuals.

Now, how has this new understanding of worship affected men? There are a number of positives:

  • Worship is often a bit less predictable than it used to be.
  • Services feel less “stuffy” and “religious.” They appear to be less human-driven and more God-driven (although in many cases this is largely an illusion).
  • Empty ritual and tradition have been replaced with heartfelt expressions of faith.
  • Highly expressive men may now use their bodies to demonstrate unction.

But every positive change has unexpected consequences. And as the focus has shifted to individual expression in worship, I fear we may have lost as much or more than we’ve gained:

  • If church is dozens of people all doing their own thing, how are we modeling teamwork? Pastors will tell you it’s getting harder and harder to find volunteers. As churchgoers experience God individually they may be less likely to serve him corporately.
  • Modern services are less militant and more intimate. The old worship placed us in a platoon, marching in unison into battle. Today’s worship feels more like an intimate getaway with a friend.
  • The more we individualize the worship experience, the more people will individualize their theology. Today’s believers know the Bible – but feel free to ignore its teachings. Could our meet-God-individually culture be contributing to this rebelliousness?
  • Very expressive worshippers can distract us from God. They sometimes call attention to themselves, short-circuiting the transcendent aspects of worship.
  • Do you wonder why church discipline doesn’t work any more?
  • And here’s the big one: Individualism may eventually kill corporate worship altogether. If the purpose of worship is to connect me to God, then why go to church at all? Why not just go outside and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation? Or play a sermon podcast? Or download some praise music and sing it while you exercise?

Mr. First-On-His-Feet has no ill intent. He just wants to praise the Lord. He may even see himself as a leader – a bold worshipper setting an example for the rest of the congregation to follow.

But he doesn’t realize that his unilateral actions may be undermining the very foundation of corporate worship. If we come together to do our own thing, why even come together?

There’s a time and place for individual action on behalf of Jesus. In fact, 167 hours a week we respond individually to God. But for one special hour we come together as a body. We should function as such.

The Apostle Paul describes the church as a body with many different parts. Each part serves a different function, but all parts must work together in perfect sync.

Think about the symphonic precision it takes to make a sandwich. Your stomach tells your brain you’re hungry. Your legs lift you out of your chair. Your eyes guide you into the kitchen. Your hand reaches for bread and your fingers open the bag. Your nose reacts as you smell the food being prepared. Your ears hear the knife scraping against the jelly jar. Your mouth opens and your taste buds confirm that the bread is not moldy and is safe to eat. The entire process takes place under the orchestration of your brain.

It takes even greater unity and precision to bring the body of Christ together to accomplish the hard tasks Jesus assigned us. Corporate worship is the primary way we model that unity under leadership.

Of course, worshippers aren’t robots. Even as we form the body of Christ we retain our own consciousness. God does reach out to us individually as we worship corporately.

But we need to be careful about what we model. Christians are one body, under the authority of Jesus. Our worship gatherings should reflect this reality.

I’m captain of my life 167 hours a week, but in church I want to be a soldier under command. I want the pleasure that comes from giving up my willfulness and submitting to God through the leaders he has chosen. For one hour a week I don’t want to make the decisions – I want to be told what to do. I want to be a part of a larger whole, all moving in unison toward the single goal of glorifying God with our minds, bodies and spirits.

Men initially resist authority and control, but quickly come to love it. In fact, they crave benevolent authority. Why else do men join street gangs? The military? Sports teams? Men long to be part of a team. It’s important to model that on Sunday morning.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether (or when) we stand or sit during worship. But this small thing is symbolic of a much larger challenge we face: in a culture that worships personal autonomy and freedom of choice, how to we maintain the “oneness” that Jesus asked for on our behalf?

David MurrowDavid Murrow is the author of the bestselling book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. David’s books have sold more than 175,000 copies in 12 languages. He speaks to groups around the world about Christianity’s persistent gender gap. He lives in Alaska with his wife of more than 30 years, professional silk artist Gina Murrow. Learn more about David at his Web site, www.churchformen.com, or join the conversation on his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/churchformen. Don’t forget to share this page by clicking on the links below, or scroll down and leave a comment (right below those annoying ads that pay for this blog). 


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