We have seen in this series of articles that the Evangelical Church of today has fixated on sentimental, experiential, overly-romanticized worship songs, to the detriment of doctrinal and objective worship music. We have examined the historical and theological developments that has led to this imbalance in modern worship, tracing the rise of experiential emotionalism as the evidence of conversion, all tied to an escapist anti-Incarnational view which sees the spiritual and physical aspects of the world as being opposed to one another.
We’ve seen as well that the evangelistic techniques of the Second Great Awakening have largely displaced the Biblical Patterns of worship which aimed first at pleasing God, and secondarily at instructing and edifying believers, resulting in worship largely oriented around emotionally-manipulative experiential techniques, resulting in an impoverishment of content-oriented and objectively-grounded aspects of Evangelical worship experience.
This further had a deleterious effect on teaching in Sunday Schools, from the pulpits, even in seminaries, as the normativity of emotionalistic experience came to dominate Evangelical expectation and thought, resulting in theological expressions and sermons which deemphasized complex or unpopular doctrinal content (such as teaching about Hell, gender issues, maledictory prayer, etc.), all in the service of supposedly making the Gospel more attractive in evangelistic appeals and experiential worship.
In point of fact, this perspective and practice has promoted a version of Christianity which has not only deformed the worship of the Evangelical Church, but has also divested Evangelicals of a fully-orbed theology which allows them to be Biblically-informed in the full spectrum of human life, and has resulted in a presentation of the Faith which seems to non-believers to be only concerned with individualistic interior experience and eschatological escapism, with no solid answers for personal and societal problems, especially for the pressing social issues of the day.
Rather than presenting a Biblical Faith of comprehensive content and wisdom for anything humans may ever face on any front, Evangelicals, as a direct consequence of departure from Biblical worship norms, have presented a version of Christianity which is (in many ways justly) deemed irrelevant by contemporary non-believers, an ironic consequence of an effort to adjust belief and worship to make Christianity seem relevant.
This drive for relevance has concentrated on utilizing forms of worship (including, as we’ve seen in past articles of this series, hugely individualistic and romantic song-lyrics and musical forms conformed to popular entertainment forms) which are intended to compete with the entertainment forms which so dominate Americans in our day (at their most foolish, since the normal congregation doesn’t possess the resources or talent to do so), seeking a “spectacular effect,” to attract non-believers (or, sadly, other Christians from their own congregations, which I call the “Darwinian Proselytization effect), or to cause the worship of the church to conform closely to the entertainment forms of our society to theoretically make the Faith more attractive to non-believers (or Christians from other churches…), also embodying and replicating the individualistic, experiential thrust of our culture (which is the result of the Church’s deformation originally, as Michael Scott Horton’s Made in America clearly shows), in a clear attempt to pass these simplistic emphases off as the fullness of the Faith.
Now, of course, there are a couple of problems with this approach: in the first place, as I intimated earlier, the “Spectacular Effect,” while it might on occasion attract a non-believer pressured by believers he knows to attend, churches cannot generally compete in any truly meaningful way with the entertainment media and events of the general culture as to entertainment excellence, and, to most pagans, this is a patently obvious truth. Pagans are, after all, just pagan; they’re not stupid, and they live today surrounded by the most developed entertainment in the world’s history, in the only consumer/entertainment culture that has ever existed.
Contemporary worship in the Evangelical churches also, as I mentioned, has utilized modern entertainment forms to make the worship more palatable and attractive to the odd non-believer dragged to services, as well as to attract other believers (“hey, this is much hipper than my church’s service”) and in the hope that it will hold the interest and loyalty of the members of the congregation.
Two points about this last. First, for those who are drawn to join a church for it’s entertainment novelty, it is only novelty that will hold them there (a harsh and necessarily temporary mistress is novelty, which was the heart of Augustine’s warning that the Church not overly wed itself to contemporary non-Christian ideas and practices, lest it find itself soon widowed…). This requires constant updating and frenetic “re-hipping,” lest a more hip church steal away one’s (tithing?) congregants.
Second, if the adoption of contemporary worship forms includes the individualistic experientialism endemic to our culture (in it’s content, form, and emphases), then only a truncated form of escapist, feel-good Christianity is being presented, which must compete with our society’s other ubiquitous feel-good, escapist practices and beliefs, causing the Church to seem to be just another escapist head trip.
Of course, such practices are the backbone of American mega-churches (which gives them the resources to imagine they can compete in our entertainment culture, though it never actually seems to happen for those exposed to entertainment at large…). Any number of readers of this article are likely to think that such practices are in fact a good and successful thing, since, after all, the mega-churches are full of people, and, though it is true that mega-churches are full of people, anyone who has long attended such a church knows that there is massive turnover involved in those who attend the church, as attendees cycle through in search of a hipper or more entertaining service elsewhere. Novelty is, again, a cruel mistress.
The real problem, though, with most mega-churches, is that the very thing that draws so many (at least temporarily) to attend keeps them generally superficial in their faith, and mostly ignorant of Scripture at any depth, which concerns are mostly lost in the drive to keep the congregants entertained and having an “experience,” producing believers whose faith is, as it’s sometimes said, a mile wide but only a few inches deep.
This is not a problem for church leaders whose vision of success is simply to attract a lot of people in the Name of Christ and build imposing buildings (and it certainly pays well), but if the goal is to build mature and serious disciples of Jesus, the mega-church approach generally fails.
All this is not to say that the Church is to eschew contemporary music forms (or emotion or experience), as we’ve seen in past articles. In fact, it is the responsibility of the Church to incorporate such things in her worship in balance with the full Biblical expression of the Faith, embedded in the worship patterns revealed in God’s Word (as we’ve seen, and the responsibility of the Church to engage contemporary forms will be addressed in a future article).
We cannot sacrifice the fullness of Biblical faith and worship in a misguided effort to be more relevant than the content, emphases, and forms given us by God in His Word, lest (as is now so frequently the case) we make Christianity irrelevant in our overweening and misguided attempts to make it hyper-relevant. We can’t out-hip God. More later, Lord willing.