Bad worship leads to bad theology. Bad theology leads to an unhealthy church. It’s that simple. Here are seven ways in which contemporary worship is starving the church from the nourishment and sustenance it needs.
- Contemporary worship is “contemporary.” By its very own definition, contemporary worship could never be a good thing.Let me stop for a minute to explain myself. Contemporary worship is, at least in one sense, a bad term, because it’s not used to describe worship in a truly contemporary sense. Certainly, there are churches that continue to worship biblically and historically even today. And all worship is supposed to be contemporary, because we’re doing it now.On the other hand, the term is helpful because it describes worship that largely limits itself to what is only contemporary. The Christian life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When we worship, we are not only gathered together in the present place and time, but join together with the whole church, which through the ages has preached Christ crucified, and foretold the consummation of peace found in Christ’s coming kingdom. Contemporary worship willingly indentures itself to what is current, cool, and commercial, instead of the will of God.
- Contemporary worship is entertainment for the masses, instead of the work of the people. Plainly put, contemporary worship is a jesusy marketing ploy, designed to get people to come to church. This isn’t exactly a new concept, having been held over from the 19th-century revival form. But instead of only being designed to get people to find Jesus, it now is tasked with enticing people to just come to church.
- Contemporary worship uses commercial music. The problem with contemporary music isn’t that it’s new, but that it’s commercial. The music industry cannot give us much of any real artistic value because it must engage us on a purely sensory level to find widespread appeal in an entertainment-addicted culture. If it requires too much, it won’t make money. I would suggest that such material has no place in Christian worship.
- Contemporary worship has given us Christian superstars. I don’t think all pastors and “worship leaders” are purely seeking fame. In fact, I think most of them would eschew the label. But this is what they become. They can’t help it. Entertainment begets fandom. They sound the part, they look the part, they dress the part. Their existence demands it. Because their craft mimics that of mainstream entertainers, so does our reaction to them. We the church become an audience. Groupies. Screaming teenagers for Jesus. And we become satisfied by what they offer, instead of being nourished by Word and Sacrament.
- Contemporary worship has ruined preaching. Liturgical worship, with its reliance on the Christian year and lectionary readings, protects us from whatever fancies have distracted a preacher. The work of corporate prayer remains the main thing, and the preaching is a faithful gift for worker-worshipers to receive as part of their faith. Contemporary worship rarely follows any form other than loose acknowledgement of civic observances, leaving the “service” to revolve around whatever the pastor sees fit to cover. Most often, contemporary preaching takes the form of the topical sermon series, vaguely spiritual or biblical thoughts addressing “how-to” self-help topics, like how to succeed in relationships or how to be responsible with money.
- Contemporary worship is pornographic, instead of symbolic. The symbols of liturgical worship are markers for us, representing the sublime and transcendent beauty of God and what is ours through the mighty acts of Jesus the Christ. The lie of pornography is that true fulfillment can be found in our response to a symbol itself, instead of actual engagement with the truth being symbolized. Worship that seeks personal fulfillment or release is a fundamentally masturbatory pursuit, and as such, is idolatry; a substitute for the discipline and dedication required by the costly grace offered to us. If we’re not careful, we can easily find ourselves addicted to the over-stimulation “worship” experience, and deadened to the actual presence of God around us.
- Contemporary worship has no need for the Table. In fact, contemporary worship came out of essentially non-sacramental congregations, and for good reason. The unshakable modern pragmatism of contemporary worship sees no practical use for Holy Communion. Because the historic understanding of the Eucharist is shrouded in a holy mystery, foolishness to the world around us, it certainly doesn’t get butts in the seats. The Lord’s Supper only finds its way into worship sporadically, and then only as an opportunity to conjure up an emotional experience.But make no mistake, contemporary worship does partake in a sacrament. The real presence of Christ is ushered in through music. Instead of using music to add dimension to their sacred storytelling, through their music, they allow themselves to be carried away on an emotional level into a perceived sensory connection with the divine. Music becomes their de facto bread and wine. Don’t believe me? Try telling your church, your pastor even, that we should make a switch. Let’s have Communion every week, and music once a month (or where I come from, once a quarter). It probably won’t go over well. They need the base emotional pull that commercial music elicits in order to feel that they’ve truly worshiped,
Church, it’s time to do better. Instead of giving worshipers what they need, we’re merely giving them what they want, in the hopes that they will park their butts in our pews. Instead of offering them the well-balanced meal of liturgy, we’ve discovered that empty fast-food carbs are cheaper, easier, and addictive. But that sort of thing can only sustain for a little while. How long, church, until we figure this out? When we finally do, will there even be anything of value left in place?
Or will it be too late?
God is here! As we your people
Meet to offer praise and prayer,
May we find in fuller measure
What it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us,
All our varied skills and arts
Wait the coming of the Spirit
Into open minds and hearts.
Here are symbols to remind us
Of our lifelong need of grace:
Here are table, font, and pulpit;
Here the cross has central place.
Here in honesty of preaching,
Here in silence, as in speech,
Here, in newness and renewal,
God the Spirit comes to each.
Here our children find a welcome
In the Shepherd’s flock and fold;
Here as bread and wine are taken,
Christ sustains us as of old.
Here the servants of the Servant
Seek in worship to explore
What it means in daily living
To believe and to adore.
Lord of all, of church and kingdom,
In an age of change and doubt
Keep us faithful to the gospel;
Help us work you purpose out.
Here, in this day’s dedication,
All we have to give, receive:
We, who cannot live without you,
We adore you, we believe!
– Fred Pratt Green 1979, rev. 1988