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Crisis in Worship


Most every group of whatever kind has worshipped and is worshipping “God” in some fashion.  Speaking to the Israelites, after describing the kind of worship that the nations of Palestine were known for, Moses admonishes the “chosen people”:  “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way!”

I am sure that God feels the same way today!    No need to catalogue all the various forms of worship services, just in the United States. Or perhaps even compare the various forms of worship in Adventist churches every Sabbath, as some say!

The Lesson Guide nailed it when it quoted the well-known preacher of the last century who often spoke against “the god of entertainment” because try as we may, serious churches can never compete with the world’s idea or expectation of entertainment.

Charles Spurgeon, probably the most acclaimed English preacher in the late 19th century, said in his sermon entitled—“Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats”: ”The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses. . . . Providing amusement is in direct antagonism to the teaching and life of Christ and all his apostles. What was the attitude of the Church to the world? ‘Ye are the salt,’ not the sugar candy. . . I do not hear him say, ‘Run after these people, Peter, and tell them we will have a different style of service tomorrow, something short and attractive with little preaching. We will have a pleasant evening for the people. Tell them they will be sure to enjoy it. Be quick, Peter, we must get the people somehow!’ Jesus pitied sinners, sighed and wept over them, but never sought to amuse them. In vain will the Epistles be searched to find any trace of the gospel of amusement. Their message is, ‘Come out, keep out, keep clean out!’. . .

Aaron got hoodwinked by the “church members” who had heard the thunder of Sinai but not yet sure that they can trust a god they hadn’t seen—they needed something they could experience.  They celebrated in front of their golden calf, presented their offerings, sat down for a gigantic potluck and “rose up to play” (Exodus 3:6). All the way through Israelite history, Baal worship obviously was very attractive, highly entertaining and thus very popular, even for the Israelites who drifted into it thinking that there was nothing wrong. In a way, not much has changed since then—but this is not the place to draw the comparisons.

Our Bible study guide contrasts two perennial ways that the church has followed for many thousands of years: Moses said: “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8; “Because you have listened to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep all His commandments which I command you today, to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord your God” (Deut. 13;18).

Perhaps it is salutary to ask why is this difference important for us to understand.  We don’t have to be college graduates to recognize that the church today may be doing things that may be clearly condemned in the Bible—all in the name of worship. 

On most church boards, nothing agitates more animated discussion than (1) hymns in the hymnal or choruses on the wall; (2) Christian “rock” often accompanied with percussion instruments or familiar melodies that are associated with church member memories and/or biblical appeals; or (3) 15-minute sermonettes or 30-45 minute exposition of a biblical passage.

Of course, the discussion soon ends with a plea for compromise (can’t we all get along!) And that brings up a related issue, that of tolerance. So many directions this week’s lesson could and should take us, but alas!

For instance, the 2010 Barna Group Research isolated six megatrends in USA Christian churches. One of them noted how “the postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian church.” Result: Tolerance for “a vast array of morally and spiritual dubious behaviors and philosophies.” The concept of love “has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for.”

Another megatrend: “The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.” Often that observation is made of the Adventist church body, often depending on which part of the country being discussed! The article is not suggesting that the problem needs more preaching and public relations (although both are sorely needed): “The most influential aspect of Christianity in America is how believers do—or do not—implement their faith in public and in private.” 

In other words, the Research writers said, “Christian leaders would do well to revisit their criteria for “success” and the measures used to assess it.”

Ah yes, such was the “advice” on which Jesus and the Apostles focused, emphasizing that the church’s power comes after the Holy Spirit has found men and women who want Christ’s character before He can give the power of the Spirit. In a world that is fascinated and entertained with power of all kinds, Christians today can win only by revealing a different kind of humanity.

And that brings us back to the issue of compromise. When people come to Adventist worship, what should impress them most? What is obviously different than everything that has been bombarding their senses all through the week? Do they meet God in some way, not necessarily in architecture, but in some kind of music different than they are used to, in prayers void of packaged phrases, in sermons that unfold the Bible passage and not a measly string of texts or mere pastoral opinions.

But the cry everywhere is—we must make church attractive to our young people. Give them music that they understand, let them feel the beat, etc: “they will come when we give them what they want.”

Such was the remarkable appeal of Willow Creek under Bill Hybels, perhaps the first mega-seeker-friendly church ever in South Barrington, Illinois, with a $560,000 weekly budget (now that’s big!).  But after 20 years or so, Hybel’s team admitted in a self-evaluation that they had really not done very much as far as changing lives, etc.  People came, but not changed. Now they are committed to an altogether different appeal—that of the lure of experience-driven theology that is sweeping America and the world. But the lesson for today: Entertainment  and/or experience-driven religion will always please the crowd regardless of how it is dressed. But the disciples learned otherwise when Jesus told the 5000+ that His message was not primarily to please them with sandwiches and Starbucks.

But what to do? Compromise becomes an actionable word for every church board facing these issues. Whether we know it or not, it is a game of Hegelian dialectics that often rules the day, letting everyone go home thinking that we did the Christian thing: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The Hegelian dialectic is often the framework for guiding our thoughts and actions in conflicts that lead us to a predetermined solution—often almost silently. Dialogues and consensus-building are primary tools of most leaders, whether in federal government, local school boards, or in local church boards! Intimidation is often a useful weapon in the dialogue.

The only hope for anyone is to cut the dialectic madness or else one ends up in a place he/she did not envision before entering the dialogue or “discussion”.  Thanks to dramatic political lurches—and aided by the exponential magnification of the Internet and the seething blogosphere, no matter what the issue, the invisible dialectic aims to control both the conflict and the resolution of differences, and leads everyone involved into a new cycle of conflicts―until everyone has conceded to “someone else’s” desired end!    The slow, almost imperceptible, flow of being nice by willingness to compromise!

Christian worship, as well as the Christian message, as devolved through many cries for compromise. We are not talking about compromising over which color carpet for the sanctuary. Or developing the church budget (hopefully!).  We are discussing principles that should be based on solid rock and buttressed with solid concrete.  Principles based on the words and example of Jesus and that of the Apostles are non-negotiable. Tolerance should be the Christian’s word for graciousness, but not another word for concession.  In my opinion!

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