Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rocking the Boat - Part 2
Why Do We Worship?

About 16 years ago, I returned to Texas after spending several years in New York City. While living in New York, I had been a member of the venerable Calvary Baptist Church, which at the time served as the city’s most esteemed evangelical church with classical worship (granted, being NYC, there wasn’t much competition). Now, I was returning to my former church in Texas, but while its name was the same, and most of the people were the same, the vision for the church – including its worship style – had changed radically.

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.”


  1. Interesting posts you have, though I think Christianity is dead and will be redeemed and brought to fruition and perfection through Thelema. Check out my blog at if you will. Love is the law, love under will. ;)

  2. FYI, I would not consider PBC a "seeker" church at all anymore. I wouldn't be there if it was. The sermons are God-centered, not people-centered, and challenge you to die to self. Anyone scared of that message would be running for the door. I think the "seeker-sensitive" paradigm is dead for the most part and even Willow Creek has rejected it. The church is still flashier than I'm sure you would like and also than I would like, but even some of that is likely a holdover from the past.

    Music to me is a non-issue at the moment. I don't think any church has music similar to what they worshipped with in Bible times (I doubt David was dragging either a pipe organ or a drum kit around the desert), nor similar to how we will probably worship in Heaven. I think we should mainly just be thankful to have a place we are free to worship at all, and not worry about whether the style pleases "us."

    Now, since I do have a choice, I prefer a mix of contemporary and traditional music. I love many old hymns, loved the organ concert I once heard at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and can and do absolutely worship God with the splendor of His holiness through contemporary music! I even rather liked the music at an Episcopal church I visited in Austin which was likely to play things like early American hymns or Renaissance music, though I've never heard another church like that. But the #1 consideration for me is whether the church teaches truth and how strongly they teach it, though of course they must also have love and strong community. That is, do they love God with their hearts, souls, and minds, and do they love their neighbors as themselves?

    We didn't really expect to return to PBC, partly because we were frustrated with the whole seeker thing in the past and partly because some things about the church put us off even now, but they were all non-essential issues, and as I told Mark, every time we went there, I felt like someone was holding an oxygen mask up to my face so I could breathe and live again, so I couldn't pull myself away!

    The attitude I find hardest to justify is that of some people I've known that if they can't find a place to worship exactly the way they want, they just won't worship at all. (Or they'll stay home and watch church on TV, which does nothing to serve the body of Christ.) I certainly don't believe worship only takes place within a corporate worship service--our whole lives should be worship--but when I've seen people leave the church, I've also seen them drift from God. I have probably been guilty of that to a degree in the past, because I've spent up to 2 years looking for a church when I now believe it's more important to be involved in a church at all than to find the one that pleases you most, even if that means I have to suck it up and go somewhere that sings old-time gospel meeting type songs (which I have rejected a church for before!).

    There is an African chuch meeting on the PBC campus now, and all they asked for (and were turned down for by 8 or 9 other churches) was any tiny little space they could meet, even if it was the outside lawn! The music would be their own, mainly provided with their own voices. That sure puts things into perspective for me! When we have that attitude, that all we need is any place to gather, God's truth, and the worshipful spirit we bring with us, I think that's what honors God. Trappings like majestic chuch buildings, stages, organs and violins, or guitars and pianos can be helpful, but they sure aren't necessary.

  3. P.S. When I said I thought the seeker-sensitive paradigm is dead, I didn't mean that churches weren't still doing it. Way too many are still trying desperately to be "relevant" when nothing from today's world is any more "relevant" than the word of God written centuries ago. (As I said elsewhere recently, I think a 2-month in-depth study on Nahum or Habakkuk is just as relevant as the flashy sermon series some churches try to pull unchurched people in with.) But I don't think the seeker thing works and, except for the "emergent" folks who seem to be going even further in the other direction, I think the tide has turned.

    I also don't want to touch your argument about rock music in general. To me, saying that classical music is clearly more inherently worthy than contemporary music is like saying that a trapezoid is clearly more inherently worthy than a rhombus. I don't know where to start with that, nor do I care to. I've also never bought the argument that the origin of something necessarily negates or affirms our use of it today. For instance, to the likely annoyance of many in the church, I think that whatever the founding fathers of the country intended may not have any bearing on how the country chooses to do things today, and probably doesn't even need to come into the conversation. So, this is probably as much as I'll say on that subject!

  4. P.P.S. I don't think Bible churches & Presbyterian churches believe that differently about predestination. One of our churches was described to us as "4.5-point Calvinist," but I'm actually not sure what the last half-point was! (Probably the same one I'd stumble over, though.)


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