King's Evangelical Divinity School

17 September 2009

Comment on Christian Worship in Modern Society

Public worship takes many forms depending on the church one attends. Styles include ultra-liturgical, traditional, easy listening contemporary, upbeat reworkings of old hymns, and so on. But perhaps the most popular (better, perhaps the most publicised) style is that found in ultra-modern churches that meet in auditoriums often filled with youthful, trendy congregations decked in the latest fashions (with not a tie and collar to be seen), led in worship by a line of similarly-dressed worship leaders and accompanied by a large, professional band playing contemporary music with a soft rock twist. Such churches take their cue from a large church in Australia, which many today seek to emulate (some successfully, others with considerably less skill).

Many Christians have real problems with this kind of public worship. Traditionalists say it completely ditches centuries of rich tradition and the many doctrinally-pregnant hymns of old, while some see it as a noisy and unmelodic distraction that cannot possible please God. Other Christians dislike modern contemporary worship because they regard it as a compromise, ushering into the church worldly values in a bid to make it seeker-friendly and attract young people. Add to this the very real problem of worship leaders sometimes becoming the focus of attention, rather than God, so that pride oozes when in fact humility should be paramount. Then there is the way in which contemporary music can, in extreme cases, simply degenerate into a sensual experience designed to give us an emotional boost and leave us covered in goose-pimples. In such instances, worship is precisely the opposite of what it should be - adoration of God - so that instead it focuses on self.

Now after saying all this, you may be surprised to learn that I am not, after all, dead set against contemporary worship. Quite the opposite. As I’ve grown older, I have become more tolerant of contemporary worship (ironic, isn’t it? Or perhaps it reflects the looming presence of a midlife crisis, some might argue). But seriously, I’m not convinced God is really interested in the style of music (within reason) we employ during worship, otherwise I think the Bible would have much more to say on the subject. What is far more important is the nature of our hearts during these acts of worship, whether we truly worship Him in spirit and truth. This is what really counts, regardless of whether we sing the latest contemporary soft-rock Christian ballad or Wesley’s “And Can It Be”. Personally, I feel the words and music of a hymn like ”When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” takes some beating. Here is a piece of music that richly conveys the great cost of Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary, compared with some contemporary drivel that says little of any great depth. But that is not to say all contemporary music is similarly shallow; it is not and I feel there can be a place for it.

Neither am I convinced tailoring worship styles to a degree to attract people to church is always wrong. The whole seeker-friendly approach has received a bad press within some Christian circles, often with good reason, usually because the Gospel message is watered down and made more palatable. Yet most churches (even many of those who claim they don’t) adapt their programmes to attract people to their services to hear the Gospel. Offering coffee at the end of a service, emphasising a family-orientated programme, encouraging a relaxed atmosphere, focusing sermons on the pressing issues of the day… all of these are attempts to make the church more open, inviting and relevant. As long as the Christian message is not compromised, I think it is great to see some churches filled with young people rocking to the latest Christian contemporary beat, providing of course their hearts are right before God. In a country where most churches are failing dismally to reach the young, the more traditionalist of us should not be so anxious to dismiss such churches as gimmicky. Of course, there are the separate issues of contemporary worship often going hand-in-hand with light or erroneous teaching. But with good pastoral oversight this need not be the case. Over time all churches adapt and modernise, whether they care to admit to it or not (traditional Evangelical churches today look quite different from their counterparts fifty years ago, while the hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries are far removed from the Gregorian chants of the Middle Ages), so we should take care not to dismiss contemporary worship arbitrarily.

Yet there is one issue that does concern me greatly about an obsession with contemporary music in the church. It is not extremes of sensuality, pride, worldliness, or any of the other issues raised above, all of which can be defused with good, scriptural pastoral oversight. No, the issue that really worries me is how ultra-modern styles of worship can, if not properly overseen, alienate the older Christians among us. Let me explain. Some time ago on Christian television I saw a well-known church filled with many hundreds of young people in torn jeans with spikey hair, all with their arms lifted high, eyes closed, swaying in unison with looks of utter concentration and ecstasy. Their faces seemed to demonstrate sincere hearts. In fact, I have no reason to doubt it whatsoever. But what really concerned me was that as the camera panned across the many hundreds of faces I did not see a single person who looked like they were aged in their 50s or 60s. In fact, the vast majority looked to be in their mid 20s and 30s.

Now compare this with my experience at a large church that same month, which was once quite traditional but now embraces contemporary worship wholeheartedly. Though there were many young people, unlike the televised service this time I saw a number of older couples. But what concerned me was that they looked very much like they were trying, but not succeeding very well, to participate in a style of worship that was totally alien to them. In fact, their look indicated to me that they felt they should enjoy and participate in this style of worship, even if they found it difficult to do so. This was later confirmed when an older fellow said they had seen many changes in the church and had had to adapt. His call to adapt whether or not we want to seemed to be an appeal to the older generation to accept new styles of worship at the expense of the more traditional approach.

My point quite simply is this. The older people in the church I visited had clearly been told this style of worship was the way forward, that they must adapt and ditch their traditional methods. If we are to reach out and win the lost, especially the young, they were told, then the church must appeal first and foremost to them. The first sin, then, was making the older generation feel like second-class Christians, as if their needs were less important than the younger generation. These people sought to adapt to these massive changes taking place in their midst. They told themselves this must be what God wants. So they forced themselves to enjoy a style of music that was culturally and generationally alien to them and told themselves it was good, despite the looks on their faces to the contrary (in fact the band was not skilled, the drums too loud, but hey, this is what God wants so who are we to argue?). The third wrong committed was that the young people were not told to compromise as their older counterparts had done. Thus, a culture of selfishness is created, where worship revolves around the needs of the younger generation alone,

This is not an attack on youth. This week I visited another church which was very traditional. It has steadfastly refused to adapt, modernise and offer something relevant to the younger generation. Consequently, no young people attend this church at all and it is slowly dying as its older members pass away. The church has not only failed to pass on the torch to a younger generation, but also it has demonstrated the same self-centredness (or selfishness) of the church focusing solely on contemporary worship. In short, focus on any single style of music can alienate a particular generation. But this goes exactly against what church is about: the entire body of Christ - young and old - meeting to worship Him in spirit and truth, each adapting, each giving in, all doing everything for the common good so that utlimate it is the Lord who can receive our praise. After all, worship is about Him, not us!

The best example of public worship I have come across is at Dr Daniel Mercaldo’s church in New York. Pastor Mercaldo, who is a visiting MBC lecture, leads a congregation of 4000. Worship is led by his son Tim, an incredibly talented musician who has managed to bring all generations together to worship in a manner that represents all groups. Music is respectful yet fresh, not centred on worship leaders or self, but rather, the Lord. When worshipping there, one is left with the distinct impression that the entire congregation has worshipped together in full unison, that out worship has reached God, and it has been a pleasing aroma to Him!

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