Thursday, January 29, 2009

Plumbing the Depths of Contemporary Churches

The web site has a section called "The Mystery Worshiper". Like a mystery shopper, the mystery worshipper visits a church and secretly reviews it, posting their thoughts on this site.

One review of a contemporary church, had this line in it:

"Churches like [CHURCH NAME REMOVED] downplay the transcendence of God in favor of the immediacy of one's personal experience of God."

If you've ever visited a contemporary church, abandoning traditionalism, they use more modern styles of music and often invoke cultural references (movies, television, news events) to communicate their message.

As one who is a contemporary worship leader and church musician, I have done a lot of thinking about this subject. As is a characteristic of truth in general, a shallow face value look at these practices is misleading.

Truth is like a book who's cover says one thing, but its contents say something totally different. If you don't examine it, you will be mislead. I think this is why liberals often misunderstand conservatism, but that's another blog.

At face value, contemporary churches look like they are adopting contemporary music to make people feel good. It can appear that they are too casual in their approach to worshiping God. These churches appear to simply want to be thought of as "cool" and "hip". They can seem to be wanting to win a "popularity contest".

But examined deeper, the opposite emerges.

Jesus' harshest (and only) criticisms were targeted at the religious people of His day. They had the externals right but the internals were all wrong. He said of them:

Matthew 15:7-9
7"You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:
8'These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.
9'They worship Me in vain,
teaching as the doctrines the precepts of men.'"

Its easy to judge something by looking at its externals, but it takes work to judge its internals.

Truth is easily seen, but not easily examined.

On one hand, there are a lot of contemporary churches that are all about style and have no substance. These churches should be condemned for their shallowness.

However, there are depths to be plumbed in a contemporary approach, and that is what I intend to do in this post.

Psalm 51:16-17
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

God looks at our hearts, not on whether or not we did some religious activity.

I Samuel 16:7
7 But the LORD said to Samuel, Do not look on his face, nor on his height, because I have refused him. For He does not see as man sees. For man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

A traditional approach to worship gets hung up on the externals. If the altar boys don't start the service by walking the aisle and lighting the candles, if we don't sing songs that hundreds of years old in an ancient style using a pipe organ, if we sing a different lyric than the one in the hymn book and if we don't partake of communion, we are not worshiping God.

But one can get all of these things right, but their heart can be totally far from God. I can tell my wife that I love her but my heart can be captured by another.

A contemporary approach is casual about the externals. In regards to music (which is probably the most controversial element of contemporary Christian worship), it says that styles are spiritually irrelevant. Therefore we have the freedom to choose style based upon practicality. This freedom begs the question as to why we should be singing music that's outdated and hundreds of years old?

A contemporary church screams this message:

"We're not hung up on styles. We're not religious (religion being defined as being hung up on "churchy" externals). We're all about getting our hearts right before the God that we worship. We worship Him by loving Him with our hearts and NOT with our deeds. If this is our focus, the good deeds will naturally flow as an inevitable result."

The use of contemporary worship music acknowledges contemporary culture as being valid medium for the church's message. When done right, it is the approach of adopting to a changing culture to communicate a timeless, unchanged message.

Jesus did this by preaching the Gospel in the language of His culture. Paul did this in Acts 17 by quoting an inscription from a statue that he had seen in the city, using it as an entry point (medium) to preach the Gospel.

Christ was even criticized by the religious people of His day as being, what we might say is "too worldly" for being too friendly with prostitutes and tax collectors (tax collectors were seen as traitors in that day). His response confirms my point that truth will often appear different on its cover than when it is examined:

Matthew 9:11-13
11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, "Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?"

12But when Jesus heard this, He said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.

13"But go and learn what this means: 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE (religious externals),' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Even so, there are pitfalls and concerns.

A casual approach to the externals of religiosity, can lead to a casual approach to God. The best prevention that I can prescribe is to preserve and cultivate the reverence of God within the message being communicated. In other words, the style is casual, but the substance of the message should be reverent and deep. Where contemporary Christian music fails in this area, it should be criticized. And yes, there is plenty of contemporary Christian music that is too casual in its approach to God. Much of it is shallow.

The largest impediment that I've seen amongst traditionalists is that they hold to their traditionalism like a child holds on to a security blanket. They subscribe to traditionalism in the name of nostalgia, attempting to relive the past. After all, the past, however good or bad, is at least known. A changing future is unknown.

So if you examine traditionalism, you'll find a fear of risk taking and a lack of boldness. This is a head wound to faith because faith is nothing if it is not risk taking.

The traditionalist's attempts at faith are therefore akin to the chicken farmer's obsession with protecting his eggs, causing him to hold on to them so tightly that he ends up breaking them. If you love something, set it free!

The bottom line is that I'm not a religious person. I don't worship God by focusing on the externals. But I might appear to be otherwise if you only judge this book by its cover. And so it is with contemporary churches. Look at the substance of the message, not simply the style. Plumb those depths!

P.S. Here is a great site to read more about the pitfalls of religion:

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