Unfortunately, the phenomenon of Willow Creek, the seeker mega-church exemplar in suburban Chicago, had bedazzled the leadership at my Texas church. Willow Creek has become famous – or infamous – for its development of uber-contemporary, traditionalist-bashing church services.
Conceived as the Baby Boomer’s interpretation of church for a new generation, the “seeker” service geared everything about itself to the person who didn’t want to attend what was then a normal church. “Seekers” were people who were seeking God, but didn’t want to mess with the paraphernalia they either didn’t understand or considered old-fashioned about religion.
Meanwhile, I had been attending Calvary Baptist and worshipping with hymns sung to an organ, a robed choir, and a parade of classically-trained vocal and instrumental musicians. Imagine the culture shock when I returned and sat through my old church’s rock concert that first Sunday morning!
Can Unsaved People Worship?
Fortunately, I was friends with two of the pastors, and I asked them about the philosophy of designing a church service for people who didn’t believe the Gospel (the “seekers”.) From what I knew about the Bible, I hadn’t thought people came to God, but that God comes to people. God doesn’t even hear the prayers of unsaved people in the same way that He guarantees to hear and answer every prayer from those who are saved. Wasn’t the idea of a worship service for people who can’t worship kind of silly?
I distinctly remember eating lunch at the Chili’s on North Collins Street, and one of the pastors responding to that question with something like: “Well, I don’t know the answer to your question, but we’re going to give it a try.”
Despite the answer’s unconvincing nature, I naively conceded the overall objective of evangelizing the unsaved trumped the rights existing believers had to worship “in spirit and in truth”. Indeed, I ended up working in the accounting office at this same church, for these same pastors, for several years.
My best recollections as a church employee revolve around the wonderful people with whom I worked. The talent, energy, and sincerity with which these people conducted themselves inspired me.
After I had worked there a while, however, things began cropping up that hearkened back to my question about designing not only a worship service, but an entire church methodology for people who weren’t saved. While large numbers of visitors were coming through the front doors, there seemed to be an invisible revolving door at the back, where almost as many people were leaving, dissatisfied.
The Fallacy of the Church Growth Movement
You see, the contemporary Christian music movement didn’t just blossom with Boomers in churches across the country going ape over “Jesus People” music. I believe the greater catalyst for the upheaval in church corporate worship came because of the church growth movement (CGM), in which business marketing principles were deployed by pastors desperate to fill empty pews. The easy target CGM proponents attacked was the Sunday morning worship service, which they considered to be old-fashioned, boring, stilted, and irrelevant to modern society. As children and teens absorbed the sensuous beats and titillating texts of popular music on the radio, they realized church didn’t entertain them, so after their parents stopped forcing them to attend church, they didn’t.
Additionally, the CGM coincided with the calculated surge in conservative politics. Newly-emerging “religious right” leaders fomented despair and dismay among church-goers about the future of our country, perceived losses in freedoms, and society’s increasing acceptance of sinful behavior. These leaders claimed we needed to fill our churches with like-minded people so we could democratically force change within our country – and it needed to be done quickly!
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that going contemporary would attract the most people in the shortest amount of time. Aim for the lowest common denominator, tell the gray-hairs to grin and bear it, hire the hippest people you can find, and re-invent church. And suddenly Willow Creek became the church everyone wanted to emulate.
The Big Mistake
The problem was that CGM proponents forgot one thing. Um, corporate church worship services aren’t for the congregation. They’re about God. They’re for Him. Remember Him, the One who demands our praise because He’s our Creator?
“Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth”. 1 Chronicles 16:29
I've yet to hear how rock music can help people worship God in the "splendor of holiness."
Eventually, I left my church – both as an employee and a congregant. After wandering around as a shell-shocked refugee from the “seeker” paradigm (remember that word?), I started attending Park Cities Presbyterian Church, part of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. A friend had recommended Park Cities because their worship services contained all of the elements necessary for focusing on God corporately.
Although I didn’t initially believe in predestination, since this is one of the flagship churches in the PCA denomination, I sat under some convincing teaching on the subject. Soon, through the working of the Holy Spirit, I realized that a lot of what didn’t make sense to me about worship finally did.
Corporate worship isn’t about you and me. It’s not about the music, or whether a church has a choir or a praise team. It’s not about evangelism, although evangelism certainly should be present. It’s not about attracting people or making them feel good about themselves. It’s about God. It’s ascribing adoration to Him because He alone is worthy of our praise.
For reformed believers, the doctrine of predestination provides the key reason for why our worship of God should have as much integrity as possible: He chose us. His salvation is for us. There's not one thing we have done or can do to merit this kind of favor from God. This is the free gift preachers talk about, but which a lot of church-goers try to purchase. You talk about awesome - this is awesome stuff! Glory to God! I have become still with the immensity of it all, even now as I type this out.
And since it’s about God, for God, and to God, we should consider what pleases Him, not what pleases us. What pleases us comes in trends and fads, but He is eternal, unchanging, and holy.
Why This Topic Juices Me
Now that I get it, corporate worship means so much more to me, even though I’m giving it to God. I want everyone to be able to share in the joy of a good worship service. I realize that for others, it won’t look exactly the same as what I’m privileged to participate in at Park Cities each week. But the more the evangelical church reconsiders the errors of its ways, and how to get back on track, I’m convinced that rock-and-roll will (or at least, should) play less and less a part.
I still have friends at my old church, and some of them are in the music department, churning out the rock-and-roll every Sunday. Knowing them because I’ve worked with them, I believe they’re doing their thing out of sincerity and conviction. I have a feeling most people in contemporary churches have been so indoctrinated by the ubiquitousness of the rock genre that they don’t realize how much better worship can be without it.
Also, for people who don’t ascribe to the doctrine of predestination, some of what I’ve said won’t make as much sense. “How will the unsaved hear the Gospel, if not in church?” they ask.
"Guess what," I’d respond, although somewhat sheepishly: “That’s what we’re here for. Evangelism isn’t just the pastor’s job.”