Contemporary Worship and the User-Friendly God (1)

Probably no issue has captured the imagination of Christian Reformed churches in recent years like “contemporary worship.” The topic is debated by home missions’ strategists and intellectuals at the seminaries. Some people in the pew are also enthralled with the subject. More and more people are becoming convinced that “contemporary worship” represents the surest means to win converts for Christ and safeguard the growth of the church. A 5th CRC in Pella is organizing with the deliberate intention of implementing a ‘contemporary worship’ style in order to draw unchurched people to church services. While we may in no way impugn the effort to seek lost souls we may wonder about the theological implications of this practice.

What is contemporary worship versus traditional worship? As it is usually understood, contemporary worship is essentially a form of worship that makes its appeal to unchurched people who have little or no Christian background. It is worship geared for their needs, their tastes, their comfort zone and their appreciation. It is simple in format, informal in its conduct, and does not presume to impose either ‘churchy’ culture, or language, or music into the service, since unchurched people are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with these things. This means that praise choruses are sung instead of hymns, and hymn books are exchanged for overheads. Where the goal is to keep services within an hour, sermons are shortened to make room for personal testimonies, dramatic skits, liturgical dance or some other alternative means to teach a lesson or offer praise. Where possible, organs are replaced with electric guitars and drums, and/or orchestra and brass. Why? Because organs sound ‘churchy’ and hinder outreach to the lost.



Contemporary worship has become quite the rage in some parts of the Christian Reformed Church. Christian Reformed Home Missions promotes it with enthusiasm, as I learned from its conference last June in Colorado Springs. Many mission-minded people marvel at the remarkable success of Rev. Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Church of Willow Creek, Illinois (located in the suburbs of Chicago). This church draws thousands upon thousands of ‘seekers’ to its services every Sunday. Some of the church’s brighter minds have been reflecting on this subject. Professor Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. of Calvin Seminary in particular, has addressed this issue in a most enlightening way. What follows is a lengthy excerpt from his pamphlet, Fashions in Folly: Sin and Chaacter in the 90s. Professor Plantinga addresses this issue under the subtitle: “Domesticated Worship of the Democratized God” (pages 7–12):

Democracy has heightened our sensitivity to sins against equality. People, including Christian people, have here and there been making painful, ragged, urgently needed progress in the battle against such sins as sexism, racism, political tyranny, and the incestuous violation of children. But the old ironies persist: make people mindful of equal personhood and equal worth, and the next thing you know they are reaching into the heavens and trying to pull God into this same orbit. They believe so fiercely in democracy and equality that they try to democratize God-the One who is unspeakably transcendent and holy.

The problem with this move is that it is both envious and self-defeating. It’s envious of God’s transcendent splendor and thus tries to cut God down to size. It’s self-defeating because, of course, a democratized God is no better than we are and therefore can’t help us.

Many of us are familiar with a history of theological liberalism in which the profile of God has been cropped in various ways. Sad to say, some evangelicals have lately been following suit. Some of the new revised versions of God are appearing in domestic evangelical markets. In these markets, God is not our Lord but our chum—maybe even our gofer whose job it is to make us rich or happy or religiously excited or self-actualized in some other way.

Not surprisingly, worship of this domesticated God is likely to mutate into a religious variety show whose main focus is on us and on what makes us tingle. Why else the nightclub format for public worship? Why else have prayer warriors come trotting out in combat fatigues? As David Wells asks in a new book, why do certain evangelical preachers punctuate their sermons with such eye-popping antics as sudden ascensions to the skylights via invisible wires? Why illustrate the prophecy of John the Baptist that the axe is now laid to the root of the tree why illustrate this prophecy by pulling a chain saw to life, walking over to a couple of potted trees on stage, and buzzing your way through them as the congregation gasps and roars its delight?…

Now, I’m entirely aware that the topics in this neighborhood are blood-warming to people on both sides of them, so let us think soberly about these topics for a few minutes.

Years ago, the services of worship familiar to most of us would begin with the words, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.” In some settings today, the first words we are likely to hear come from a beaming man who instead says something like, “Hi! I’m Hal. Whoa, did I just make it here or what? Hey, only fifteen minutes ago I was still in my grungies, and my wife Julie was going, ‘Hal, do you like know what time it is?’”

What must we make of this? Is it simply a change in tone and in taste? Are we talking merely about a sequence of rhetorical downshifts as we descend deeper and deeper into the valleys of this informal age? Or are we facing theological issues here—ones that have something to do with sin and grace, and, above all, with the identity of God?

I know that earlier forms of worship among us were sometimes almost roaringly dull, that some of us preached sermons “of great sedative power” (as Peter DeVries once put it), that visitors could expect to be resoundingly ignored, that liturgical events were sometimes scattered miscellaneously through a service, and that, in the worst cases, a minister might galumph his way through this miscellany like some earnest hippo. I know that.

The newer forms of worship or of religious assembly—wherever that distinction is drawn-the newer forms go an other way. Many of the newer forms are meant to draw seekers. These forms raid the arsenals of popular culture in music, drama, rhetoric, and s tragedies for church parking and traffic flow-they raid these arsenals in order to do contemporary pre-evangelism and to do it with imagination. Some creative people have dedicated themselves to projects of this kind, and they deserve respect for making the missionary effort. A lot of Christians sit around dithering; the contemporary service people are out there trying. Their work is difficult, risky and important. Nobody can visit the pilot project at Willow Creek, Illinois without concluding that some of their work is also intelligent.

Giving due respect to efforts of this kind, granting that we need not go back to the days when we kept saying words like “behoove” and “beseech,” granting that many of the newer forms of worship are still a ways off from the Christian amusement parks that certain fundamentalists are so fond of—granting all this and anything else I ought to grant, I think we still face some hard questions in the area of contemporary worship. The important questions, at least to me, are first theological, not aesthetic. After all, nobody is going to move the contemporary discussion forward by lamenting that, liturgically speaking, the kings and captains have departed and the schlockmeisters have taken over.

No, let’s think theologically for a few minutes about trends in contemporary worship or semi-worship. Suppose, for example, that you try to keep seekers in mind, and suppose you assume that these are largely non-religious people. Suppose you further assume that if you are to appeal to these non-religious people, your contemporary services must also become increasingly non-religious, at least non-religious in any traditional way. Of course, it’s hard to make a church service non-religious—it’s like making a basketball game non-athletic—but for the sake of appeal to secularists, suppose you make the effort.

You start to change things in your services. The non-religious haven’t much of a feel for the holiness of God, so you do away with silent prayer and expressions of our littleness. Secularists don’t like to confess their sins, so you remove the service of penitence. Without confession of sin, you hardly need the grace notes of an assurance of pardon: out it goes.

In general, you assume that the non-religious like things simple and upbeat. That’s where much of the popular culture is, after all, so away with lament, away with hard questions, expressions of anguish, dark ambiguities of any kind. While you’re at it, away with creeds and confessions, away with explicit references to Christian doctrine, or to the history of the Christian church.

On the other hand, seekers are interested in improving themselves, so you maximize promises of personal growth and self-realization. Secularists do like pop music, so here it comes into thes anctuary, along with semi-celebrity music performers and audience applause for their performances. The non-religious also like sports figures, so in the bigger budget services, in comes Tommy LaSorda, longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers—here comes LaSorda to tell us how “the Great Dodger in the sky” has helped him win games and lose weight.

And on it goes, in various combinations of novelty, some of them mild and some very aggressive indeed. At the most advanced level of popular worship, imagine a High Five for Jesus replacing the Apostles’ Creed, and imagine praise time beginning when somebody shouts, “Gimme a G! Gimme an O… !”

Troubling questions arise. How much of this really has anything to do with the Christian faith? Suppose, for a moment, that  some of these new services do not reflect Christian faith or worship very well. The question, then, is simple: What’s the point of having them? Why bother with them? Even if we fill the church with seekers, what have we gained? Indeed, what have we lost? What if by offering popularized religion as an appetizer for unbelievers, what if we should spoil their appetite for the real thing? Suppose your ten-year-old does not like your heart-healthy dinner menu, so you arrange a seeker meal for him in which you offer some non-threatening Pringles. You do this in order to set up his taste buds for baked potatoes. I wonder how often that would work.

So, on the one hand, wherever the new services do not faithfully represent Christianity, it’s hard to know why anyone would want them. On the other hand, if the popular changes, at least in their more aggressive forms—if the changes do represent a contextualized version of the historic Christian faith, then we are going to have to face the fact that the Christian faith is a very different religion from the one most of us learned. We learned a religion that acknowledged creation, sin and grace, with God’s glory as the main ingredient and human happiness asa wonderful, but not guaranteed, by-product. In fact, we used to hear that one of the main ways to find happiness is to renounce your right to it. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus says this in the Bible, and what Jesus says there has traditionally mattered a lot for Christians.

Suppose a seeker came away from a service of the kind I’ve been describing—let’s say a fairly heavy duty service of that kind. Suppose he came away and said to himself, “Now I understand what the Christian faith is all about: it’s not about lament, or repentance, or humbling oneself before God to receive God’s favor. It’s got nothing to do with a lot of boring doctrines. It’s not about the hard, disciplined work of mortifying our old nature and learning to make God’s purposes our own. It’s not about the inevitable failures in this project, and the terrible grace of Jesus Christ that comes so that we may begin again. Not at all! I had it all wrong! The Christian faith is mainly about celebration and fun and personal growth and five ways to boost my self-esteem!”

My question is, again, a simple one: How do you prevent that conclusion? Or, to sum up for now, let’s put the question very generally: How likely is it that a popular God is really God? How likely is it that a user-friendly God will rebuke sin? Or save people with transcendent and unexpected force? Or have to suffer to do it? Or call us to suffering and discipline as well as to joy and freedom? Meanwhile, how can we talk about sin to people, including ourselves-people who have lost an ear for some of its overtones? So far Professor Plantinga’s comments. I believe the churches would do well to reevaluate their warm embrace of contemporary worship. Worship is always reflective of what a person or church thinks of God. Much contemporary worship leads one to the sad conclusion that the church doesn’t think much of Him today. When I was in Grand Rapids for my graduation last May, Dr. Plantinga expressed to me personally his misgivings with “contemporary worship.” Although he is a man who is rather “progressive” in his thinking on a number of ecclesiastical matters, recent worship experiences as a guest preacher in area Grand Rapids churches have led him to lament. I share just one incident he shared with me. One such service began, in the professor’s words, “with a young woman in a cocktail party dress, strutting back and forward across the stage, singing a semi-erotic song to Jesus as she caressed the microphone, after which,some one from the pew yelled out, ‘Yeah!’” That was the call to worship! Whatever else one may say about it, such conduct shows little knowledge of who God is.

No doubt, not all advocates for “contemporary worship” have any intention of sinking to such levels. But what may we expect when people, even well intentioned ones, attempt to turn the God of the Bible into a User-Friendly God? In just this way, the church robs both churched and unchurched people alike of the living Lord of life. Next time we will explore further how our doctrine of God shapes our worship of God.

Rev. J. Mark Beach, is the pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa.