I have tried to avoid God my whole life. I wouldn’t know a traditional hymn from a modernized hymn. I’ve never even stepped foot into a church…until this past Sunday. The people on stage sang a song by David Crowder, and I began to feel the very presence of God. It was like nothing I ever felt before. Tears streamed down my eyes and right then, I bowed down and made a decision to surrender my life to Jesus. I ask you a simple question…wasn’t David Crowder’s song – guitars, modernized lyrics, and all – worth being written and sang that way?
– The person next to you in the pew
This type of appeal is quite common, both on this blog and elsewhere. I’ve heard it as long as I can remember. “We don’t worship like we used to because it doesn’t bring people to Jesus. You want people to come to Jesus, right? RIGHT?!? YOU BETTER WANT PEOPLE TO COME TO JESUS!!”
I heard one pastor say it this way: “When we aren’t willing to change how we worship so that our culture understands it, we’re telling the world it can go to hell.”
To make sure I don’t come across as mean or callous, especially to my evangelical friends and readers, I should explain something.
I do want people to come to Jesus.
But my answer to this commenter is, “No.”
For one thing, music doesn’t bring people to Jesus. Jesus does that work admirably enough through the Holy Spirit, certainly better than a brush with David Crowder’s beard.
But there’s an even deeper flaw in our thinking.
Christian worship is not an evangelistic tool.
We don’t worship together to attract unbelievers.
We worship together because God is worthy.
We worship together because this gracious God has called us into his story and grafted us together as God’s covenant people.
We worship together because we desperately need to tell and retell and hear and rehear that story.
We worship together to be refocused, reshaped, renewed by God’s gifts. Worship is not about nice things we can say or do for God, but how God shapes us into a church for the whole world. We need liturgy. We need Word and Sacrament. Lex orandi, lex credendi. This is not merely a devotional exercise, it’s an ethical one.
Homily on Homage
Did you know that we’re supposed to do work in corporate worship?
I didn’t for the longest time either, having grown up Southern Baptist in the middle of the church growth movement. As far as I could tell, the point of “worship” was to get as many butts in the seats as possible and mesmerize them with a theatrical production of bright lights and shiny objects that was remotely related to the gospel. You know, the latest and greatest in jesusy entertainment. And then, we bait-and-switch them with the gospel at the end during a modernized version of some sappy Sunday School hymn.
At some point, we decided that the worship service was the best venue for evangelism. After all, if we can just make things interesting enough, funny enough, dynamic enough, and entertaining enough, we can really pack ’em in. So, put together a mini-concert, followed by a speaker who knows how to get the crowd energized, mix in a few things about Jesus, and you’re set.
Even our language has changed dramatically, as we’ve learned to borrow more from our entertainment culture. Instead of a Sanctuary, a place of refuge, we have an auditorium. Instead of chancels and platforms, we have stages. We have performers and an audience. Churches are now hiring worship “producers.” Our music is entirely current and commercial.
And after a few decades of this, we’re stuck. We couldn’t possibly do anything else. We’d “lose” too many people.
To make matters worse, we’ve grown to like it ourselves. It’s nice to come to church and be entertained. Throw that liturgy out the window. I don’t want to to work, I want to sit here and get fat off the spiritual carbs they put in front of me. And if the production value slips, I can always go down the road and find another fast-food church that fits me just right.
No longer are there opportunities for congregants to participate, other than singing along if they feel like it, as if they were singing “Roll Out the Barrel” at a Milwaukee Brewers’ seventh-inning stretch. We’ve lost the idea that we are gathered there for a sacred task, not in search of a good time.
And it’s cost us dearly. We don’t have the opportunity to be the people of God together anymore, reshaped by God’s gifts and molded by the Christian story.
And in case anyone is wondering, it hasn’t really helped the evangelistic cause in the long run, anyway. It’s still shrinking. See, when you compete with all other forms of entertainment – TV, movies, music, sports – you will lose. Those things are always more entertaining, at least to those who are looking to be entertained.
That doesn’t mean we lock our doors on Sunday morning. To the contrary, and this is the tricky part. Evangelism is always a byproduct of true Christian worship. The problem is that we thought we needed to be marketable to begin with. Along the way, we got caught up in narcissistic illusions of grandeur, judging our evangelistic worth by the number of people we could entice to see our show.
But the moment we turn from our task at hand to try and capitalize, we fall short again. Stanley Hauerwas says it well: “The difficulty with worship especially shaped to entertain those who are ‘new’ is not that it is entertaining but that the god who is entertained in such worship cannot be the Trinity.”
So back to David Crowder. Whether doing his songs or his hymn arrangements is a good thing, well, that’s up for discussion I suppose. But I don’t think answer can be, “It’s okay, because it brings people to Jesus.”
Hymn of Invitation
So what happens, then, if we don’t craft our worship services to attract unbelievers?
We’ll have to get serious again about Sunday. All of us. And then as the clock strikes noon, we’ll have to go.
Go out and feed the hungry.
Go out and clothe the naked.
Go out and associate with people who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t act like us, don’t vote like us, and don’t usually like us.
Go out and fight for justice.
Go out and end oppression.
Go out and proclaim anew the old, old story.
Go out and reach out to those who are running from God and God’s church.
Go out and stop deflecting tough questions with the usual, tired cliches.
And do all of this in the name of the one who sent us.
And then open the doors wide again on Sunday morning.
Then we’ll actually be the church.
A Redeemed Benediction
I can’t help by think of Fred Pratt Green’s haunting, convicting hymn.
When the church of Jesus shuts its outer door,
lest the roar of traffic drown the voice of prayer,
may our prayers, Lord, make us ten times more aware
that the world we banish is our Christian care.
If our hearts are lifted where devotion soars
high above this hungry, suffering world of ours,
lest our hymns should drug us to forget its needs,
forge our Christian worship into Christian deeds.
Lest the gifts we offer, money, talents, time,
serve to salve our conscience, to our secret shame,
Lord, reprove, inspire us by the way you give;
teach us, dying Savior, how true Christians live.
Forge our Christian worship into Christian deeds. Let it be so.