The first thing I noticed about the church service was the complete darkness of the sanctuary. But even more striking than worshiping in what felt like a cave full of college hipsters for the first time away from home were the repetitive songs rife with “Christianese” (exceedingly vague metaphors that even I, having spent my whole life in the church, had a hard time unravelling).
Something in the song was always on fire, be it our hearts, this nation, our generation, this place, etc. Lyrics to the effect of “You are good/I am loved” appeared in every song. Repeated phrases, extra choruses, unnecessary “yeahs” or “woahs” intermixed with guitar solos replaced the songs with actual doctrine and theology that had stood the test of time. I didn’t think much of it until I noticed the emotional reaction coming from the congregation.
People were reacting to the music in ways I’d never seen. Arms waved high, Bethel wristbands glinting in the multicolored lights, interpretative dances being evoked in the aisles, and a barefoot pastor laying supine in front of the stage (“It’s called soaking,” I was later told*).
I was dismayed that the beautiful lyrics that had made knowledge about God accessible to the masses had been traded in for cheap slogans. Conduct that once demonstrated reverence was replaced with behavior that could fit in at Coachella. I suppose that long gone are the days of Bach and his unrivaled genius but I wonder: How are Christians supposed to combat the scourge of secularism by conforming more to it?
I often receive criticism from fellow believers for maintaining such strong resentment for the watered-down, three-chord, acoustic guitar songs that replaced the hymns and organs of my upbringing. And honestly, it is a well-founded critique. Words like “prostrate” and “Ebenezer” tend to alienate people who are seeking the Gospel but weren’t raised with the Church vocabulary. And it’s completely fair to point out that, at the time of their conception, now-traditional hymns were berated for sounding like (and even taking the tune of) well-known bar songs of the day.
One of the most profound summations of worship I’ve ever heard is that to participate in worship is to force the body into agreement with what the heart and mind already know. Worship music unites. It sums up truths in fewer words and more emotion than a lecture could muster. We are created to be emotional, intelligent, empathetic people who can testify to the existence of our Creator’s love not just because it makes rational sense but because we have also experienced it first-hand.
But with all these valid criticisms, why maintain such a strong opinion on the musical stylings of the likes of Hillsong and Chris Tomlin?
The problem is that most of these shifts in worship styles have been done in response to the mass emigration from stratified religious structures happening all over the United States.
Some religious authorities blame it on secularization, others on millennials, others on technology or on snobbish church-goers. Many of these diagnoses may very well be true, but how is the church going about solving these problems?
The fear is that in pursuing 21st century relevance, the Church is straying ever farther from its original purpose.
The purpose of the Church body, in the wake of Christ’s ascension, was to establish a support system for believers to gather, worship, take care of one another, and minister to the surrounding community. They were called to be set apart from their idolatrous surroundings and be a holy testament to the character of the God they served.
What happened to corporate confession of sin? To communion? Why do mission trips double as exotic vacations while outreach to local communities has atrophied to the extent that churches are the most segregated institutions in the nation?
A dear friend recently recounted to me an experience that highlights this problem to a tee. The church in Seattle he recently joined was sending a group of adolescents (plus an appropriate number of chaperones) for a missions trip to Hawaii to address the issue of homelessness.
Now do the homeless populations of Oahu need Jesus just as much as anyone? Of course. But does this group of teens and their parents need to take an expensive (and sponsored) trip to a tropical island where over 40 vibrant church communities already work in this area of ministry? Probably not. Especially considering the fact that this church was conveniently located in the city with the third largest homeless population in the country (behind New York and Los Angeles, respectively).
The issue the 21st century Church faces is not one of relevance, but rather, one of straying from its original purpose. We have tried to make perfect truth “perfect-er” and “truer” instead of clearer and more accessible.
Truth is always relevant and it is always in short supply. The only place to find truth in abundance is in the Holy Scriptures. Humanity and its problems are constantly shifting but sin is ever present and the need for a Redeemer is ever unwavering.
It’s not hard to make me cry in a church service: Great is Thy Faithfulness (in its original form), baptisms (infant or otherwise), and Easter services get me every time. But what I fear most for the future of the Church is that these emotional responses have become synonymous with being moved spiritually. Ravi Zacharias, the renowned apologist put it this way:
We have bought into the philosophy that we need to cater only to the emotional faculty of our believers and so we manufacture feelings in our churches… Feelings are a powerful thing but they should follow belief not create belief. In our churches, this whole move towards an emotional, celebratory stance [is] born in [a] doctrinal vacuum where the person knows less and less of why [and] what they believe but more and more about how ecstatic they are because of it.
Even though I’m not a fan of their doctrine, I love how Quaker meeting halls are notoriously devoid of clutter. There is little more decoration in the room besides the rows of stiff, wooden pews lined up between white walls. But if you asked a Quaker to describe his sanctuary, it would be far from a drab account. He would describe the huge windows that line the otherwise barren walls, overwhelming the room in natural light. The space is meant to symbolize the very presence of God saturating His gathered people in His truth.
I beg of you, church in America, please don’t turn your lights off. Keep the sanctuaries and truth illuminated for the world to see.
*Just as a note to the reader, I’m not opposed to your hippie worship ways. God made us all differently and I’m glad your restless heart has found its peace in its Maker. But please don’t mind me if I politely decline the invitation to join you on the sticky floor.