Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a new column at Patheos, "For King and Kingdom," by the popular and respected blogger Trevin Wax. See the links below to subscribe to the column.
When it comes to the atmosphere of worship services in the next generation, something's got to give.
More and more churches are focusing on the centrality of the Word in worship. The resurgence of Reformed theology among younger evangelicals, the reassertion of a rock-solid belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of the scriptures in the Southern Baptist Convention, the revival of expository preaching—this wave we're riding is about to collide with an even bigger wave: the power and dominance of contemporary worship styles across the United States and around the world.
For many churches, it seems the biggest requirement for a "worship set" is novelty. Since the aim is to produce an experience, we construct a worship service more influenced by the latest hits on Christian radio than by the history and theology of the Church.
One of the core values of many an evangelical church is the effort to put everyone at ease. "Good morning," says the minister or worship leader. Then comes the inevitable: "Let's try that again, GOOD MORNING!" There's a chatty, street-level style of worship that has become prevalent in evangelicalism. And it's not clear that your pursuit of casual novelty in worship meshes well with hearing the Word of God set forth in all its glory.
Can a contemporary, casual service bring worshippers face to face with the glory of God in a way that buttresses and upholds the magnificent truths being expounded from the Word? I think the answer is yes, but not always.
It's like eating steak on a paper plate.
My wife is an excellent cook. Her Romanian dishes dazzle my taste buds, and her American cooking is terrific too. In recent months, she has been using paper plates frequently. I understand why. We don't have a dishwasher. She wants to save time setting the table, and she doesn't want me washing dishes after dinner. Paper plates are easy and disposable.
But after a few weeks of paper plates, I told my wife, "Your cooking is too good for paper plates." Slapping down a hot dog and baked beans on a paper plate in the middle of summer is just fine. But when my wife makes her famous pork chops and rice, or her Romanian cabbage rolls, or steak and mashed potatoes, paper plates just don't cut it. I said, "Let me wash the dishes. But let's at least use dishes!"
When it comes to worship, we're frequently told that form doesn't matter. Style is not what's important. I get that. I'm not belittling contemporary music or advocating a return to liturgy, organs, and hymns. Cultural forms adjust and adapt, and some contemporary worship services have thrown me to my knees before the holiness and majesty of God. The issue isn't "formal" versus "informal," casual clothes versus Sunday best, traditional versus contemporary.
The problem is not with casual worship styles, but with casually worshiping God in whatever style. Sometimes we're so quick to emphasize the feeling of God's nearness in worship that we may cut short the possibility of a transformative glimpse of the Transcendent One. There's little room left for awe in worship, and I suspect that the form is indeed a part of our problem.
Form and content are rarely easy to separate. They mirror one another. A church with serious Bible preaching will generally have a serious worship service (contemporary or traditional, formal or informal, but serious). A church with a feel-good preacher will generally have peppy, feel-good music.
Christians need to sense the weight of God's glory, the truths of God's Word, the reality of coming judgment, and the gloriousness of God's grace. Attempting to package the transcendent greatness of this God into many casual worship services is like trying to eat steak on a paper plate. It may suffice for a time, but eventually people will say, "Let's bring the fine dishes back out of the cabinet."