This post is a follow-up to my post about Zeitgeist and how it affects us without us knowing it.)
When I was in college, I worked for two summers as a pastoral intern. The church where I worked was between pastors, and hired a kind and retired pastor named Jimmy to fill the pulpit as the interim preacher. I loved Jimmy. He was an old country boy from the coal fields of West Virginia. He was intelligent, but mostly self-taught. He loved to laugh and never seemed to take himself too seriously. We would sit in Tuesday morning staff meetings, which he didn’t lead, and I didn’t have much of value to add, and he was constantly passing me notes and playing jokes on people. I was trying to be serious and impress the other pastors, and Jimmy didn’t care. He was wiser than me.
We were at lunch one day, talking about pastoring, and he was telling stories. He was always telling stories. At some point he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Never forget that what it takes to get ‘em is what it takes to keep ‘em.” That’s the best practical pastoral advice I’ve ever received.
I contend our method of worship and our message in worship need to mesh or the message becomes confused for the hearer. I’m speaking against a particular way of thinking that gets repeated incessantly like a mantra, “Your method can change, but keep your message the same.” I’ve always had trouble with this idea because it seems inherently illogical and short-sighted when it comes to making disciples for the long haul even if it is true when we’re talking about our method of persuasion.
I don’t view the worship service as an evangelistic event if by evangelism we mean getting people to “make a decision for Christ.” Let me be clear, I certainly don’t want to say that God can’t and doesn’t use worship to call the unbeliever, the doubter, or the wanderer to follow Christ. There is a theological sense in which worship is giving us the “good news” again, but this is different than Revivalism’s desire to make converts. Good worship has a discipleship and spiritual formation function for the believer, and is not meant primarily for making converts.
Big Z’s Lie: Narcissism
Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water. He loved himself so much that he couldn’t take his eyes off his own beautiful face. His love for self caused him to stay, gazing at himself until he died and faded away.
According to several sociologists, we are living in a narcissistic age. In fact, some have said we are living through a narcissistic epidemic. If this is true, then we need to ask ourselves if modern Evangelicalism has fallen for one of Big Z’s tricks. Are we just going along with the spirit of the day? Are we striving to get bored narcissists to love us by shaping and re-shaping worship and message in an endless dog-chases-tail struggle to stay relevant? I believe we are.
If we want to get Christians to stop being self-focused, we have to have a worship that forms us by forcing us to put our eyes on Christ. Our wills are broken. Without guidance, we will not create worship that is pleasing to God or helpful to us. We need a reformation of worship. Why worship? Why not preaching, or teaching, or some other aspect of ministry?
My argument for worship reformation is three-fold:
- We have raised almost two generations of narcissistic Christians because we have catered to them, giving them Therapeutic Moralistic Deism, instead of teaching them to submit to the active, grace giving, suffering Christ.
- Our method of worship sets the context for how our message is received. It isn’t enough to say the right things if the package we put it in sends an entirely different message.
- If our culture’s sin is narcissism, then our job is as the voice in the wilderness calling people to repentance and the proper veneration of Christ. We must be counter-cultural or we are irrelevant.
Worship sets the context for message. Context is king. Messages are always interpreted through the lens of method. If the method reinforces the message that worship is about Christ, then we have continuity between the two. If the method tells the audience that God is here for their happiness or convenience, then there is discontinuity when we then try to remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and that Christ must be put above all things in our lives. It doesn’t work to win people to your cause with candy while attempting to convince them to love vegetables. You have to teach them all about the vegetable and its long term benefits even if in the moment green beans aren’t all that exciting.
The best example of the method/message mesh I’ve heard recently came from a source I would not normally recommend. There is large church down the road from me that preaches the prosperity gospel. One Sunday morning – I got this story from someone who attended for 8 weeks to get a feel for what was going on at the church – during the altar call, the pastor promised Steelers tickets to the first 50 people to come down the aisle. They reported 100 decisions for Christ that day. That’s just genius! Their method (Steelers tickets) matched their message (prosperity gospel) and they won converts to their cause.
Until very recently in history, worship was always treated as the place where Christians came to together to hear from God in the Bible preached, and the Communion taken. Both of these parts (Scripture and Communion) were pointing the Christian to the Word (Jesus) of God and reminding us of his grace given to us. Our responsibility is to present ourselves as living sacrifices to God and respond to his will and declaration of himself in an appropriate way. To re-learn how to worship, we must draw upon the lessons of the past. Worship is flexible within boundaries set by scripture and historic precedent, because method sets the context for the message, and is therefore inseparable from it.
Jimmy was right. If we are attracting people with slick tech, great sound and lighting, clever preachers, and new buildings, then that is what the crowd is attracted to. Get rid of those, and the people go away. At the end of the day, are any of these things really necessary elements of following Christ? Of course not, but we like them. What it takes to get ’em is what it takes to keep ’em.
We have a parallel to this in the ministry of Jesus. At the peak of his ministry, he was being followed by thousands of people. The more truth he told about himself, the fewer and fewer people followed him.
If we structure worship to appeal to the masses, how can we then tell the crowd to present themselves as sacrifices to God, or to take up their cross and follow Christ? We have falsely believed that by appealing to the selfishness in people, we can get them to follow the Christ who died for the world.
Good worship needs a threefold pattern of sin-grace-faith. We need to be reminded we are sinners. We need to be reminded of God’s grace to us. We need to be encouraged to go forward in the faith of Christ. Certainly, I know that not all “contemporary” churches are narcissistic. I also know that not all mega-churches are appealing to selfishness. Yet, and I stand by this, I think far too many churches really are simply catering to zeitgeist.
Next Post: What It Takes To Get ‘Em 2: Thinking about the mega-church