Who Turned the Lights Off in American Churches?

August 18, 2017

Who Turned the Lights Off in American Churches?

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.

Meeting House Room at Friends Meeting of Washington. (Photo Credit: Friends Meeting of Washington | http://quakersdc.org/Welcome/photos)

Meeting House Room at Friends Meeting of Washington. (Photo Credit: Friends Meeting of Washington | http://quakersdc.org/Welcome/photos)


*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.


16 Responses to Who Turned the Lights Off in American Churches?

  1. Peter Dietz says:

    I would like to get a hard copy of your “Who Turned the Lights Off….article. Our church worship service sounds similar to what you describe. Do you do hardcopy? Yes, I would contribute to your effort.

  2. Joyce Baughman says:

    Wonderfully put! It is exactly how I perceive what is happening in the church today. The music that has touched hearts for hundreds of years suddenly is abandoned and replaced to satisfy our ever changing culture. The pews are gone…having been replaced by theater seating. The church has taken on the appearance of a concert venue. The pastor wears levis with holes, the expensive kind, to make everyone feel comfortable. Some churches have strobe lighting to manufacture excitement. It is all so sad.

  3. Larry says:

    Outstanding! Unfortunately this article is steeped in truth that will reach those who are blinded by secularism and self serving theological doctrine. Too many today want to rewrite history and that includes the Holy word of God, which I’ve heard some pastors state is “not infallible”; a concept that will send those who believe it on the path to Hell. God bless you Savannah!

  4. Randy Thompson says:

    Thanks for this. Entertainment isn’t worship. Attempting to be culturally relevant to a decaying, declining entertainment culture is never a good idea.

  5. Dan says:

    Good article Savannah!
    And some of us are getting older and don’t want to trip in a dark sanctuary.

  6. Cynthia Lanning says:

    Thank you! This is an insightful synopsis of so many issues in modern worship and I am so happy a member of the younger generation has this insight. Our United Methodist church has a blended service (frequent contemporary music and zero to four hymns each Sunday). I also grew up in church (in parsonages, no less) and love the beautiful hymns, but for some people in our congregation (and not just young people) the hymns are actually painful, though being loving Christians, they endure the hymns for the sake of the older generation. The language is inaccessible for them and the style of music completely foreign. Fortunately, there is some good contemporary Christian music, especially the music that quotes Scripture such as Psalms. Our worship leader works hard to find theologically sound contemporary Christian music. But sometimes the wine just doesn’t taste the same from the new wineskins.

  7. R. Ausley says:

    I just love people who ” write articles” about what church should be like. Why not go and start a church and show the rest of us how it’s done? The Great Commission has nothing to say ab worship styles, music, pews, hippies, or anything else non essential…..your article should be about making disciples (essentials) rather than non essentials…..”I have become all things to all people that I might win some to Christ”…..not “I have maintained the traditions and hymns of the last 200 years because I think it’s best”……

    • April User says:

      I think you are confusing evangelism with worship. Two different goals, purposes, and actions. You are correct that evangelism requires that we meet people where they are at. However, I think worship requires that we approach God with a different purpose. That most likely will take on a different form.

    • J says:

      Worship is not a non-essential. It’s why we are saved and the very purpose of our existence, so it ought to be given vast amounts of thought and attention. How we worship ought to reflect what we believe. The whole point of the article is that modern worship doesn’t reflect our beliefs, but what contemporary society wants: to be entertained. Becoming all things to all people does not mean that we abandon reverence before God or cater worship to the lowest common denominator. Worship isn’t about us (though entertainment “worship” is just that – a focus on what makes me feel good). Worship ought to reflect what most pleases God, not what most pleases man.

  8. Rev. Gregory Farra says:

    The notion that hymns were taken from ‘bar songs’ is not true. You can read about it here:https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/did-the-wesleys-really-use-drinking-song-tunes-for-their-hymns

  9. April user says:

    I think some church communities have confused outreach with worship. We make the service “seeker friendly” by denuding it of the essentials of worship (confession, Eucharist, prayer). We expect that unbelievers will come into our church building so we shape our “worship time” in expectation that they will come. Meanwhile, believers are denied the forms and content of true worship by their pastoral staff.
    Two different goals; two different modes.

  10. Nick Stuart says:

    Question for the contemporary worship mavens:

    “What’s the point of congregational singing if the congregation can’t hear itself singing”

    [“God hears” is a cop-out]

  11. Jim says:

    Your piece is so welcome reading to my eyes. Thank you for putting this so eloquently. The expository preaching of the scriptures, something that takes a lot of work, time and effort, is not on the top of the majority of our American pastors. The emotion of music that has an aroma of the culture has replaced the scriptures.

  12. Bob says:

    What you win people with you win people to.

  13. Paul Meares says:

    Worship comes from a heart that knows it has been saved by grace. If your heart can only worship with the old hymns, then you should by all means stick with them. I happen to love both musical sytles and find my heart worshipping and seeking to glorify our awesome God in contemporary music just as much as old hymns. Many conteporary songs quote scripture as well. Who are you to judge entire churches by music or lighting? Do either let you see hearts? Do you think all contemporary services are the same? I have been to churches steeped in the old hymns that were completely dead. I think you might be surprised by the worship in heaven.

  14. Dan McCoy says:

    One of the worst things is when these smirking vandals write a “cool new tune” for an “outdated old hymn”. Aarrgh!

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