In this series, we’re applying the concept “the medium is the message” to our modern church services. Last time I covered some recent church history and told you about some changes we made to our services at The Meeting House. This post will wrap up things up with some practical advice.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’ll assume you agree there’s tension between between the form and the content of a modern church service. A room set up like a rock concert sends a message that’s a least a tad out of alignment with Jesus’ humility and self-sacrificial love. But, as I’ve already hinted, I’m not ready to throw the whole thing away.
Under the Old Covenant, worship had a particular form based around tabernacle and temple. But, under the New Covenant, the gospel spread faster than any cultural form could keep up with! It’s no surprise that, after a few years, the early Christians backtracked to hash out some of the cultural implications of a movement that was rapidly losing touch with its Jewish roots. If you want to read up on the history, have a glance at Acts chapter 15.
I believe God can reach anyone precisely where they’re at, and He’s not afraid to roll up His sleeves and get His hands dirty. So I don’t believe there’s any disqualifying style or form of doing church. But that’s not the same as saying the form doesn’t matter. I believe it matters a lot.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial.” While he doesn’t specifically tackle the issue of rock-concert church, he’s rebuking a common Corinthian Christian catchphrase – “I can do anything I want, right?”. If we compare his two examples – 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 1 Corinthians 10:23 – we see that Paul’s careful corrective applies to issues of outright sin (sexual immorality), and more delicate matters of conscience (meat sacrificed to idols, the stronger/weaker brother principle). Given the breadth of application in the text, I’m inclined to apply broadly in our context too. We have incredible freedom in Christ, but not everything is beneficial. We have incredible freedom in our form of worship, but not everything is a good idea. Paul’s advice in this circumstance is very fitting:
“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”
– 1 Corinthians 10:14-15, NIV
So, under the guise of a sensible person, here’s some advice:
Know your messages. Identify the unspoken messages in your church and talk about them as a team. Debate them. Figure out what they say. Make it a regular part of the way your plan and review. Is your stage high or low? How big are your screens? Do you put camera images on the screen? If so, how big are they compared to real life? Some elements will be within your control, others won’t, but they all have messages embedded in them. Figure out what those messages are and factor them into your creative decisions.
How things look, sound and feel are very important – we should continue to talk about these things. It’s my job to think about these things! But I think a healthy process should go past that to include the question “what does it say?”
Stop performing. It may be that every element of your service seems to scream “performance” but that’s exactly what it can’t be. It can’t be an act. It can’t be artificially hyped up. And song leaders, no matter how well it fits the theme, you can’t say or sing words you don’t mean! Our services, our songs, sermons, even our announcements have to be real or they just aren’t cutting it.
Jesus leveled a lot of criticism at religious leaders for their empty words, fancy clothes and place of honour at worship gatherings. Let’s not assume we would be exempt. Yes, this may mean there are songs on CCLI that you just can’t do that week, or at all. Yes, this may mean reworking what you were going to say after a rough weekend. It could mean a bit less hand raising, or a bit more! It can’t come from your assumptions about what you should do. It can’t come from the crowd’s expectations, either. It has to come from your heart, in submission to God and your community.
“The ongoing temptation of religion is to put on a facade, to tape fruit to a dry branch.”
That quote pretty much sums it up for me. Let’s be honest, growing fruit takes a lot more time and effort than taping it in place. But one approach is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, the other is empty human effort. If this is hitting home, Andrew Stanley has some great advice on leading when you don’t feel like it. There’s also a fantastic resource of honest worship songs that will scare the crap out of you. It’s called the Psalms. It’s in the middle of your Bible and there’s good stuff in there.
Keep your hands open. Your current form of worship is probably less than a decade old. It will change over time. If you grew up like me, you may remember what it’s like to be slightly ADD in a church service that is painfully unengaging for your generation. You may remember how closed-minded “old people” were at the time and how hard it was to steer the ship in a different direction. You may remember being pulled aside and informed that “there were no drums in the holy of holies”. You may have been instructed to not move the headstock of your guitar more than an inch or two, lest you stumble into the sin of pride.
But oh, how quickly we forget …
The world is changing. And I don’t just mean a progression along a straight line, I mean changing! Dramatically! And not for the first time. So push for change when the time is right, when you’re passionate about the new direction and you can see the way forward. But remember to be open to change when the time seems wrong, when you’re not excited about it and you can’t quite tell where this is headed.
As soon as human culture stops changing, we’ll let you know so you can settle in. In the meantime, just like in the early church, change continues to be a necessary part of reaching people with the good news of Jesus.
Thanks for reading! I tried to push a few buttons and I recognize not everyone agrees with me, but I hope the discussion has been helpful. In keeping with our 1 Corinthians theme, I leave you with this unrivaled statement of focus from the Apostle Paul.
I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
– 1 Corinthians 2:1-5