The title of this article likely brings the story of Esau and Jacob to the minds of many of you. Esau, who was famished when he came in from outdoors, sold his valuable birthright to Jacob for a meal of stew (Genesis 25:29–34).
In the providence of God, many CRC members, including myself, were born to parents who were professing members of the church and thereby inherited a valuable birthright. Our birthright included being baptized as infants, giving us the privilege of being a baptized member of the church. That position gave us the valuable birthright of hearing Biblical preaching twice a Sunday, receiving Biblical catechism preaching and training, and singing meaningful Psalms and hymns. I believe it was God’s providence and blessing in my life to have been given that birthright. My question now is: Is my birthright and the birthrights of others being sold by our church leaders, worship committees, music coordinators, music committees, church councils, and others for a mess of stew?
This article will tell about some worship experiences in various CR churches; but I think members of many Reformed churches can identify with a number of the experiences cited. My husband’s retirement has placed him and me in the position of looking for a church in which to place our membership in our home area. This situation and my husband’s preaching in various churches have brought us to a number of different churches. Without mentioning any church names, I would like to relate some of the things we have encountered. It has been both an eye-opener and sometimes very disappointing. However, there is an encouraging note—the sermons preached have been both Biblical and edifying.
Music is one area in which I question whether our birthright is being sold for a mess of stew. I am not referring mainly to music tastes and styles but rather to the content or the message of the music used.
In one of the churches we attended, the song “God’s Not Dead” was sung by a group of children. I do not know the name of the song writer, but these are the words of the song:
God’s not dead, (no!) He is alive. (Repeat two times) I feel Him all over me. I feel Him in my hands, my feet, I feel Him in the church, the street, I feel Him in the air, ev’rywhere. I feel Him all over me.
The thoughts expressed in the words of this song come too close to the New Age teaching that everything is God, including me. I believe it is an inappropriate song for use in Reformed worship.
In a number of churches, short choruses are being sung with much repetition within the chorus and then the chorus itself is repeated two, three, and sometimes four times. This adds up to a sizable number of times the congregation sings one single thought or line, causing excessive repetition to the point of redundancy. When does our singing to God become vain repetition? When songs have new thoughts and expressions to or about God in most every line as do many of the Psalms and hymns, they convey more thoughtful and meaningful expressions of our praise and worship rather than just the same thing over and over and over again. (Along with all these choruses and their many repetitions come long periods of standing for the congregation during the singing of them. Worship planners, please be considerate of those who cannot stand for long periods of time and of parents holding small children.)
One of the choruses many churches are using includes the words: “I hear the brush of angel wings,” and “I see glory on every face.” Can we? I can’t sing those words honestly because I fail to hear the brush of angel wings, and I do not see glory on every face; and, as far as I know, the Bible does not say we will or must.
An Irish folk song which was played on a dulcimer was designated as a call to worship in a church we attended. It was a-l-o-n-g musical performance, but it certainly didn’t call one to worship, nor did it help prepare for worship. A call to worship should include Biblical. verbal content. It appears that some of the worship committees are construing the purpose of a call to worship to be nothing more than another opportunity to get a musician or group to perform one more time in the service.
Some song messages can be misleading, especially for children and non-Christians. One of the songs states that Jesus is here; by listening closely you will hear Him call out your name; and you can touch Jesus. Can we? One day we will see Him, but we can not physically touch nor see Him in our worship here on earth; nor can we literally hear Him call our name, no matter how closely we listen. There certainly are less misleading song messages available.
The chorus of a popular song used in many of the churches begins with the words: “Shine, Jesus, shine.” Must we or should we tell Jesus to shine? Jesus doesn’t shine by greater and lesser degrees; nor does He turn off and on like a neon light. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5b). John 8:12b states: “Jesus…said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
The following is a verse of a song printed in the bulletin for a worship service:
God’s gonna move this place, God’s gonna move this place, God’s gonna turn this place upside down! God’s gonna move this place, God’s gonna move this place, God’s gonna turn this place upside down!
Is this the best song that could be chosen? Does God promise this?
It is my concern that we are showing a lack of caution and discernment in some of the theology in the words of songs that are being sung in worship. Even if most of a song is Biblical, if it in any way misrepresents Scripture, the danger should be avoided. Under the label of contemporary, innovative, progressive, and other umbrellas, music is being sung which has questionable teachings and dangerous theological weakness. I believe our music message should be as biblically grounded and closely guarded as the preaching of God’s Word. Just a catchy or fun tune with a religious sound to the message should not qualify a song for church worship. The Bible tells us that teachers are held very responsible, stating in James 3:1b that those who teach will be judged more strictly.
Psalms and hymns are being exchanged for some of the songs listed above and others like them. I believe we should seriously evaluate the substitutions being used for the singing of Psalms and hymns.
When the worshiper sings the Psalms, the words being sung often directly address God and express the concepts of the given Psalm. Each line contains much thought and content. The worshiper is singing Scriptural words and thoughts when singing the Psalms. A problem with using the Psalms set to music in the gray Psalter Hymnal is that many of the Psalms are arranged in tunes which are difficult to sing and in a minor key, which, I believe, has not helped the singing of the Psalms in the churches.
All the above factors bring me to the question: Is our church music birthright being sold for a mess of stew?
A number of worship services seem to tend toward entertainment, showing the approval or disapproval of the congregation by the people clapping loudly, weakly, or not at all. In one worship service, the congregation even applauded for an organ prelude which was performed well musically, and very loudly. The danger in this situation is that it appears to be a demonstration of the organist’s ability, calling much more attention to the organist than preparing people for worship. Also, how will the next prelude player feel if not applauded? Is that prelude inferior to the one applauded? Is our worship for person recognition and applause, or are we there to worship God?
Worship, I was taught, is God speaking to us and our responding to Him. I fear our worship, or parts of it, are tending toward performances, rather than the Christian responding to God. This happens particularly when an individual or a group play an instrument or instruments, using a song which is unfamiliar to the worshipers, or when solo or group singing is such that one cannot understand the words. I believe an unknown melody without the words heard or read does not evoke an appropriate response to God from the congregation. In addition, any musical performance is of spectator or secondary significance as a response to God from the worshiper in comparison to the worshiper responding with both heart and voice in congregational singing of meaningful songs. When a song addressing any of the persons of the Trinity is sung by the congregation, it allows for a more definite, concentrated, conscious and meaningful response from the worshiper than when he or she just hears someone else saying the words to God. (When you love someone, would you prefer to say the words expressing your love, or merely listen to someone else saying it to that person? When someone loves you, would you want that person to say it to you or have the person just listen to someone else saying it to you?)
Because performance is becoming so much a part of the worship service, we are obliged to listen to long solos and other vocal and instrumental musical numbers—as many as three and more in one worship service. If a Christian wants to hear religious vocal or instrumental musical renditions, one can tune into a religious radio or TV program, or buy a cassette or CD with many of the same songs professionally performed, and listen to them any day of the week. Sunday, besides religious holidays, is usually the only day of the week that one can go to church to share a worship service with other Christians and sing with them. Now our churches are taking that privilege away by feeding us musical entertainment instead.
Some praise teams and song leaders can be very distracting to worship and almost take on a form of entertainment. The people in front in some cases, perhaps unconsciously, become an exhibition, calling much attention to themselves by their actions (talking together, jumping around with and playing rhythm instruments, swaying, tapping hands or feet, or moving the body to the rhythm), gestures, facial expressions, dress, and loud singing. Is the congregation incapable of singing on their own? If the congregation can’t sing well enough or must be taught to sing songs, why must people detract our thoughts from God by making us watch them in front?
Lately screens or song words printed on the bulletin are all in vogue. If a church had only screens and no song books, what a wail the Council would hear for the need of books to see the music with the words. We have costly books with approved songs in the pew and often are leaving them there and substituting what the music and/or worship committees find pleasing and fashionable.
Another area where I believe our birthright is being sold for a mess of stew is in some of the children’s messages (often misnamed “children’s sermon”). I wonder if some of the object lessons really help clarify. Some of the vocabulary used is too difficult for a child to understand. Some analogies and applications seem quite far-fetched and even misleading; and, at times, the whole performance can appear to be used for cleverness, comedy, handing out candy, and the telling of personal anecdotes by the leader. I fear some children’s messages may do more harm than good.
In one church service, a lay person was given a lunch pail by one of the children, and the person, not knowing until that time what was in the lunch pail, was required on the spur of the moment to produce a meaningful, Biblically sound children’s message about the object in the lunch pail. How sad! It’s not even fair to require it of someone, but most of all it is unfair to the children. Anything taught in error is worse than not taught at all.
On another occasion, the lay person in the children’s message and the minister in his sermon in the same worship service taught a detail of a parable with two contrary interpretations. Both explanations were taught as the correct representation of the parable detail. This is confusing, especially for children.
In one church, the pastor gives the children’s messages, often using his talk with the children for clarifying meaning within his following sermon. He does a commendable job, and his teaching appears to be helpful and meaningful for the children.
I do find it difficult to discover the wisdom of having the children come to the front of the sanctuary to hear the children’s message and to have anyone without proper training and supervision give the messages. I assume the purpose of speaking particularly to the children is to teach them a Biblical truth and to teach them to listen and participate in the worship. I see much more purpose for this being given by the pastor from the pulpit with the children listening from the pew or from a parent’s knee. This would also eliminate the remainder of the congregation having to look at the speaker’s back during the children’s message. Furthermore, the pew is where the children will have to develop good listening habits, and it is the minister whom they must learn to listen to if they are to be responsive worshipers. A worship service occurs in a covenant family setting, and it should be handled as such. Taking a group out separately can give the impression that the specific segment is just for them, and not the rest of the worship service. We take children out of the worship service for children’s worship and out of the pew for the children’s messages, and thereafter we expect them to be trained pew listeners and participators. Has this contributed to older children and youth sometimes doing other things rather than listening and participating during worship? When and how do children get the training for attentiveness and listening in the pew when their major group training is done with them out of the pew?
Something which I believe can be a hindrance in our response to God in worship is the constant use of new songs. Some worship services have as few as one or two songs which appear to be familiar to the congregation. This distracts in their communication to God by forcing the worshipers to concentrate more on the tune and less on the words being sung to God. This makes it more difficult to sing freely and joyfully and promotes hesitancy or no singing at all among the worshipers. Even the new songs are not being learned because they are constantly replaced by other new songs.
Another instance of concern was when in a Good Friday service we attended a pantomime was acted out while a first reader read parts of Scripture followed each time by a second reader, who speculated and extrapolated about the happenings in those Scripture passages pertaining to the last Passover and following. The children, or anyone who didn’t know the Bible well, would have a hard time distinguishing Bible facts from fiction. I believe this method is dangerous as a teaching method because it promotes confusion and error in learning Bible truths. That particular worship service also included partaking of the Lord’s Supper. In the pantomime a person portrayed Jesus. I found it a hindrance to my worship to see someone who was acting the part of Jesus when I was there to worship Jesus, who in His resurrected body is in heaven, and whom the Bible commands me to worship in spirit and truth. Someone representing Jesus in that worship and communion service was much more detracting than helpful.
I have understood worship to be communication between God and His people. Our worship services used to be guarded to reflect just that from the call to worship and greeting to the benediction and our response with a doxology. In many present-day worship services we have come to God’s house, but we talk a good part of the time amongst ourselves rather than to Him, or listening to Him. One very evident place I see this happening in worship is when we greet one another. In some services, God’s greeting is given; we are not even given an opportunity to respond, but we are told to promptly turn and greet each other. It’s similar to our inviting someone to our house. When they come to our house, we greet them. They hear us, but they don’t have the courtesy to respond to our greeting. Instead, they greet the others who have come also. If God greets us, we should have the courtesy to respond to Him rather than speaking to other worshipers.
Other instances in worship in which we are communicating with each other are: clapping for worship participators, announcements, performances, and reports within the worship time between the greeting and benediction. In our worship services, it sometimes appears as though the awareness of God really speaking to us and we to Him is somewhat lost. Speaking to and caring about other members of the body of Christ is vital in the church, but if we are going to invite people to worship, let it be that and not a social or entertainment event. There is plenty of time for greetings, announcements, socializing, reports and entertainment before or after worship and during the week.
In his book, Just As I Am (p.191), Billy Graham relates his conversation with General Dwight Eisenhower:
“General, do you still respect the religious teaching of your father and mother?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, adding softly, “but I’ve gotten a long way from it.”
…He told me that he had become disillusioned with the church early on when some preachers seemed to detour from spiritual essentials to merely social or even secular matters.
UNINTERRUPTED AND INTERRUPTED WORSHIP
Rather than identifying worship as traditional or contemporary, I would like to distinguish worship as uninterrupted and interrupted worship. My discussion of worship in this article defines worship as God speaking to us through Scripture and we responding to Him in our singing, praying, speaking, thinking, and giving of offerings with our hearts, minds, hands and voices.
Uninterrupted worship is worship in which God and His people communicate back and forth without interrupting that ongoing communication from God’s greeting to the benediction. The call to worship and God’s greeting is God’s beginning blessing as His invitation and welcome to His people gathered in His house; and the benediction is God’s parting blessing to us, with our singing the doxology as our response. Uninterrupted worship fosters a sustained communication or conversation between God and us during that time. Meaningful changes in worship certainly are acceptable as long as they are Biblical and enhance uninterrupted worship. Our conversing with God ought to be the constant goal of our worship, not pleasing or entertaining one another.
Interrupted worship, in contrast, is broken or disrupted communication with God. Anything which distracts, disrupts, or breaks our concentration and focus on our communication or conversation with God is an interruption. God is conversing with us, and we interrupt our concentration and focus our attention on our communication with Him by concentrating on and talking to and with other worshipers instead. I believe interrupted worship is becoming very common today.
When we are speaking with someone, we appreciate their undivided attention. However, we seem to feel totally justified while in God’s house, to give Him our divided attention and concentration, with our communication being interrupted by horizontal communication greeting one another, applauding one another, and reporting to and performing for each other. Have you ever tried holding a concentrated, effective communication with a mother on the telephone while her child repeatedly interrupts the mother, making her break from the conversation with you to talk to her child a number of times? In my experience, I have found that kind of interrupted conversation to be communication which produces loss of interest, confusion, lack of effectiveness, and often loss of message. Are we giving God that type of communication?
I believe the forcing of interrupted worship in churches is causing dissatisfaction and dissension in many churches. I have heard too many people express sadly that they are experiencing a sense of toleration of some of their church’s worship services rather than the joy previously experienced in worship; therefore, my feelings of deep concern.
Ironically, today more education is being required for becoming a minister, but after a minister is ordained, the major part of the planning of the worship is frequently being done by a worship committee, the majority of whom often have little or no training in theology nor worship planning. In some churches the minister, who is called to lead the church, is left with the sermon and one song to choose. The remainder of the message and tone of the worship service is set by a music and/or worship committee. Does this show wisdom or even common sense?
FOCUSING ON ONE GROUP
Another present-day factor which, I believe, is causing disunity and unhappiness in the churches and in worship is the present promotion of a program in which a church focuses on one particular age group or category of people within the church for a number of years even as long as five years and more. The entire church is a family, the family of God. Is it prudent to focus on just one group within a family for a period of years? Think of your own family. If your parents or you, as a parent, came to your family and said: “I’m sorry, but since we cannot afford the money nor time to focus on each of you children, we will just focus on one of you for the next number of years.” How long do you think you would have a happy family?
The group which is often chosen for this special focus seems to be the young people. Major amounts of money are being spent for youth leaders and youth programs. Young people are beginning to insist that they lead parts of the worship service (as much as once a month or more). Youth groups and youth leaders, who in some cases have little or no theological training, are permitted to plan and lead significant parts of the church’s worship. Christian maturity in leadership is sacrificed for youth’s innovations and ideas. In some instances, youth groups are allowed to be absent from their church’s worship service to attend so-called “Contemporary Youth Services” or services designated by other catchy, inviting names and descriptions. What message is this giving to our young people? Why aren’t the same promotions and advertisements presented for their own church’s worship services? Do churches expect to keep the young people when giving them the message that they should go to another kind of service to get what they need in worship, and thereby promoting their absence from their own church’s worship service? It is difficult to understand why anyone—youth, middle-aged or elderly—is bored or uninterested if there is genuine communication between the worshipers and the God whom they love.
Esau sold his birthright for a meal of stew and had to bear the consequences of his own act. Today, I believe, church members are being given a mess of stew by others within the church with little or nothing one can do to stop it or prevent it. What concerns me is that many church leaders and workers seem no more concerned than was Esau about their selling our birthright for a mess of stew. Our precious heritage is being sold for shallowness, innovations, and the fads of the culture and the evangelical world. Esau lost his blessing by selling his birthright. Jacob gained the birthright blessing. Other churches are gaining the membership of the people who do not want to sell their birthright for a mess of stew. Are we counting the cost?
Hebrews 12:16 and 17 say this about Esau: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.”
There is an explicit warning in the word “afterward” and what follows. Esau could bring about no change of mind. There may well be an “afterward” in our churches. If we sell our Reformed heritage, I believe it will be both improbable and likely impossible to return to it. Our birthright will have been sold, and we will bear the consequences. I would urge each of us to count the cost of losing our heritage of Reformed worship. As the covenant family of God, I believe, our primary and consistent goal for worship must be to focus unitedly on our triune God and our communication and relationship with Him.
My plea is: Please do not sell my birthright for a mess of stew!
Jan Groenendyk was a Christian school teacher for twenty seven years. Her husband is Rev. Marion Gronendyk and they are members of First Zeeland CRC, Zeeland, MI.