Last month I wrote an article on contemporary worship (The Outlook, Oct. 1995). In it I raised concerns about the “User-Friendly” movement that has been sweeping over churches in the last two decades. I indicated that the motives of many User-Friendly advocates may not be impugned, but that the effects of much User-Friendly worship were harmful. Chief among my concerns was that User-Friendly methods of evangelism are doing to the message of salvation and to the doctrine of God. I quoted a lengthy excerpt from Calvin Seminary professor, Dr. Neal Plantinga, in which he expresses alarm regarding what he calls “democratizing God” and “domesticating worship.” I echoed his alarm and urge you to read that article before continuing with this one.
I write this article in follow-up to the previous one because I do not believe it is enough to merely expose the dangerous flaws in the User-Friendly movement. We must also diagnose what has brought on the aberrations. As I wrote earlier, worship is always reflective of what a person or church thinks of God. If that is true, and obviously I believe it is, then it is incorrect to reduce changes in worship (and what accompanies it), as simply matters of “taste.” What is happening to evangelical and reformed worship is not a change in taste. It is a change in what we think of God. In other words, an alternative conception of God has emerged in the church.
David F. Wells in his perceptive book, God in the Wasteland, believes the shift in the church’s thinking about God may best be described as “the weightlessness of God.” What he means is that God has become unimportant not merely in secular society but in the church. This lack of importance isn’t just a spiritual problem in the church. It is a psychological disposition. Christians don’t think much of God—in both senses: they don’t think God is much, and they don’t think about Him much. They are on “easy terms” with Him. He comes in handy for “satisfying their needs.” In the designer religion of the 90s God is appreciated but not feared. Baby boomers want to experience God but they don’t want to define who God is. They are comfortable with finding a church that markets a God/god who fulfills their needs. Religion is personalized and honed to fit personal cravings. It is designer religion. God increasingly becomes (re)shaped in our own image. in the process the Christian God becomes so internalized, so like us, so for us, “so tamed by the needs of religious commerce, so submerged beneath the traffic of modern psychological need that he has almost completely disappeared” (Wells, p.101). The net effect is that God has become a passive bystander, weightless.
In the marketplace of religion, God has become a commodity. Here the consumer is sovereign, and the product (which now is God) must be subservient. What we should not miss is that this “God” is just as much an idol as the gods of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Idolatry is always a worship of the “self.” So today, the idol of self is destroying God and, consequently, the worship of God.
What this means, according to Wells, is that the church is turning to a God it can use rather than to a God it must obey. The tables have turned. Roles have been exchanged. More and more Christians are looking for a God who satisfies them rather than a God who changes them. They don’t want a God to whom they surrender themselves. They want a God from whom their selves find fulfillment. Again, the marketplace has taught us to think of God this way, certainly not Jesus or the Bible (Wells, p. 114)
In the therapeutic culture in which we live, secular people, and now Christians too, have come to think that “the great purposes in life are psychological rather than moral” (Wells, p.114). Inner tranquillity and serenity are the highest goals, which means obedience to God or doing the right thing must take second place, at best. This is what explains the new taste for lite preaching and the theological shallowness of many in pew and pulpit alike. The therapeutic religion of the marketplace brings on spiritual senility, with its lazy whine for simplicity. Worship of such a therapeutic god scores high marks for joy, but lacks solemnity. Indeed, in the designer worship that has emerged, seriousness is avoided as the plague. Joy is the only emotion that is important, an end in itself.
You see by now, I trust, that when you change your doctrine of God you change your worship of God since worship is directed to God. This, I believe, is the most forgotten aspect of the worship experience itself. Today people are so preoccupied with what they are feeling, they forget to whom they must offer and surrender those feelings. The church has a diminished awareness of God’s presence. It suffers symptoms of Spiritual Alzheimer’s disease, brought on by its infatuation with therapeutic religion (i.e., religion centered upon the needs of self). Ought not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be the object of our adoration and affection? Ought not the God of history, performing His mighty acts of salvation, be the center of our religion? How is it that the self has come to occupy center stage?
The answer Dr. Wells proposes is that the church has lost the sense of God’s “otherness.” We have forgotten that God is holy! This is why we think of God as our “chum.” This is why we resent moral demands. This is why the only attribute of God most Christians care about is love. In fact, this is why God is weightless. The church has traded in God’s holiness for His love. Most people think that an affirmation that God is love “constitutes an adequate theology in itself” (Wells, p. 135).
Do you find talk of God’s holiness intrusive? A bother? Boring? Does it annoy you to think of a God who is so different than yourself? Can love really say all we have to say about God? It’s like the believer who was witnessing to an unbeliever, saying to him, “Friend, God loves you,” to which the unbeliever replied, “Well, in that case, everything is just fine, isn’t it?”
Holiness constitutes God’s most defining characteristic. By contrast, according to Wells, the God being worshiped by many Christians today “is not nearly so morally angular as the God of the Bible. His sharp edges have been ground down to make him less threatening, more comfortable, more tame. He is rarely perceived as the God of the outside, who in his awesome greatness, summons his people to worship, to hear that Word of truth that they cannot find within themselves or their world, to become agents of righteousness in a world that scorns this righteousness as alien and contrary. Robbed of such a God, worship loses its awe, the truth of His Word loses its ability to compel, obedience loses its virtue, and the church loses its moral authority” (p. 136). The choices we face are stark and they evidence themselves in corporate worship: Will we love and serve a God of therapy or morality? Will we opt for mysticism (unbridled feelings, emotions and new revelations) or the Word of God in Scripture (which clearly expresses the content of our faith and dictates our moral behavior)? Will we choose self-fulfillment or personal surrender? Will we use God or obey Him? Will we remake God in our image or worship Him as His image-bearers?
I think the modern evangelical or Reformed person needs to be reminded that the God who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, did so by first telling him, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5). Can we relate to the Psalmist’s words, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker” (Ps. 95:6)? Or when the Psalmist says: “Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11)? When Isaiah was shown a vision of God in His temple, the first words out of his mouth were, “Woe is me! I am undone!” (lsa.6:5). The seraphs spend eternity adoring and worshiping God before His throne; day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8; also see Isa. 6:3). The author of Hebrews reminds New Testament believers that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28). That’s who God is—a consuming fire!
Large segments of the church today have entirely lost this vision of God. They divest Him of holiness as they invest Him with an extra dose of love; the result is that He becomes a play-thing. But a holy God is not a play-thing. He may not be trifled with. The casual familiarity exhibited in some worship traditions, especially the contemporary variety, at worst dances around the edges of disdain for God and at best falls into profanity.
Where psychological tranquillity becomes the most pressing unfulfilled desire, God is required to accommodate Himself. His worship is likewise compromised. Many Evangelicals and Reformed people are worshiping a God who is kind, compassionate, loving and merciful, but who is also harmless, impotent morally insincere and robbed of any holiness that matters. That’s not the God of Jesus or Paul or the author of Hebrews.
This god is an idol of our own making. In the consumer Christianity of the 90s, the object of our worship is friendly, well-mannered and thoroughly civilized; one need not feel threatened by this god. He is without claws, without fangs. He growls at evil but never attacks. He mentions Jesus Christ as a triumphant example to follow but not as a Lord to whom we owe submission or service. Sin has little to do with things here. It is little more than human failure. Missing is any sense of sin as treachery or personal rebellion againstGod, incurring personal guilt. Grace, consequently, has no focus.
Where God is not worshiped as holy, but is “democratized” and “domesticated,” to use Plantinga’s words, Christianity unravels. The seriousness of the whole gospel message is lost. Truth is robbed of earnestness. Calls to repentance dry up and fade away. Godly behavior and the Christian life are transformed into the therapeutic promise of being well-adjusted and happy—all because of Jesus, of course. Preaching itself digresses into the pep-talk. When God has no weight, such are the consequences.
Obviously, to recapture the proper worship of God will require that we recapture the proper understanding of who God is, an understanding of His holiness. Most believers could start by reading R.C. Sproul’s book, The Holiness of God. Beyond that we can reevaluate how we prepare, assemble and participate in our worship of God. It is not enough to say, “Oh well, we are traditional in our style of worship. We sing the old hymns. We recite the creed. We’re used to long sermons.” That’s to miss the point altogether!
I believe traditional churches must reform their worship, too. What we need in worship is the manifest presence of God in His holiness, goodness and love. We need to expect to meet that God! Then we will come with anticipation and reverence. This worship demands that we lose self. Honest worship requires it.
To worship a holy God also requires preparation. It isn’t just a get-together with friends to chat and chuckle. We have to prepare our hearts. That’s what the traditional “prelude” is about. It’s not for watching worshipers come in, but for silence, for reverent meditation. That’s why the sanctuary should be filled from the front to the rear (besides, the worship leader should never have to speak over empty pews in the front). The focus belongs on God.
Preparation for public worship begins in private. If you have not spent any time with God in private, how can you be ready for the public worship of God? All worship leaders (including organists, musicians, soloists, choir leaders) with the elders and deacons should join in earnest prayer together before corporate worship begins. This honors God. It also brings us to humility before Him and reminds us of our dependence on Him.
Moreover, to worship a holy God will cost us our pride. In both the Old and New Testaments, the key words for worship mean “to prostrate oneself” and thus manifest reverential fear and adoring awe and wonder. Worship requires that we lose our pride and become transparent before God. Meaningful worship means we abandon our efforts to hide from Him. We expose ourselves and express our adoration for Him. Since God is the audience and object of our adoration, we being His subjects, when He speaks to us, whether in a summons to worship or a word of greeting or blessing, and especially in His Word proclaimed, we open and offer ourselves to Him in willing submission. Such is worship of a holy God, a God with weight. May we recapture this vision of our Creator and Savior, for what we think of God inevitably shapes our worship of Him.
Rev. Beach is the pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa.