Monday, February 21, 2011

Hollywood Holiness ?

Spoiler alert:  If you are a reader who is offended by fair criticism of the American church, you may want to skip this post.  I plan to be fair, and I plan to criticize.  Just wanted you to know.              &   &   & 

Sunday morning in North Carolina and I went to church.  Yes, I am over 2,500 miles away from my own home congregation. I went, not out of obligation, but because I truly like to set aside time at the beginning of each week to worship God and ask for guidance in my walk with him.  It helps - sometimes.

This morning, it did and it didn't.

It was a modern, community-oriented congregation of a few hundred attendees. The parking lot was manned by the church's volunteer parking attendees, all of whom had on matching T-shirts and wielded their parking wands conscientiously.

The door-greeters were friendly and they began on time (always a plus-point for someone who worked in a time-sensitive business role for years). So far, so good.

Then, as service began, we went dark.  I do not mean that they dimmed the lights a bit; I mean the congregation sat in such complete darkness that those arriving late had to be ushered to a seat by someone using a flashlight to locate empty seats.  It reminded me of going to the movies when I was a child, before they had the floor runner lights.

As the house lights went down, the stage lights went up and the band began to play.  I love worship music.  I have loved it since I was a little girl singing full-throated hymns and anthems with the congregation, hearts lifting right along with the melodies.  We clapped to the rousing choruses, and we bowed our heads in humility when we sang the doxology.

It did not surprise me that I did not know their songs, as different regions of the country often favor different music;  and thus, I did not sing.  But it did surprise me that no one else sang either.  That is other than those standing on the stage. Or should I say grand-standing on the stage?

The congregation stood as one when the music began and I felt the little frisson of expectation I always get when God's people worship. But as the lead guitarist riffed and the lead singer posed and fist-pumped the anticipated worship did not follow.

Worship is so necessary to God's people, and according to his word, necessary to God as well.  "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.  Bring an offering and come before him; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness."  (II Chron. 16:29 NIV)

This is not a suggestion from God, it is a command.  We should not take it lightly.  I am not suggesting that this well-meaning congregation took it lightly either; but I believe they have taken it amiss and they are hardly alone in doing so throughout America.  We face the same struggle in my own church.

My middle son has made a living as a professional musician for nearly twenty years.  He lives overseas and plays five-star resorts with his band.  He is not famous nor will he likely ever be; but he does recognize staging, lighting, performance art when he sees it. When he visited the states he accompanied me to church and was blown back in his seat. 

"Whoa, Mom.  Church has sure changed here in America."

One of my primary concerns, and I have several, is that my nightclub-playing son would be more and more at home on the stages of many churches, and those on church platforms would be more and more at home on the same bandstands where my son makes his living.  In my opinion, this is not a good trend.

Back to the worship leader at the service I attended.  He gave clues as to when we would be expected to participate, and only once did that include singing along with the band.  He helpfully informed us that the offering would be "received during the first song in the second set".  The second set? 

That is a term used by musicians playing live entertainment.  You generally have a first set (group of songs played/sung), a 15 to 20 minute break, followed by the second set.  Then the band is done for the evening. By then end of this "second set" the floor was vibrating with the drums and the rack-mounted strobe lights flashed in syncopation with the music.  I could not quite locate the disco ball, but it must have been there somewhere in the dark.  My son, the drummer, would have felt right at home.

When did performance art, however well performed, become a substitute for the worship of a congregation of neighbors and friends who come together once or twice a week to celebrate God's goodness in their lives?  When did entertainment replace heart-felt worship of the One who redeems us from sin?

It was Super Bowl Sunday the day I visited this church, so perhaps it was more glitzy than is their custom; but I doubt it.  One pastor mentioned a "casting agent" of his close acquaintance who had assisted him and his staff to produce the commercial they showed us, after he impressed upon us that he:
a) knew a casting agent, indeed perhaps had one personally, and

b) that the video we were about to view was, in fact, professionally produced and had been entered into a national competition to win a million dollars.

Alllll righteeee then.

After the offering had been collected (catching me by surprise, because I did not see the basket coming in the dark), the senior pastor took the stage.

First he did a couple of take-offs on the Packers v. Steelers (it was Super Bowl Sunday after all - and my pastor at home is a Cowboys fan, and I have forgiven him for that, so I could hang with the friendly rivalry being bandied about).  This, however, was followed by a reminder that this service was being carried live, via the Internet, "all over the world" (really?) and that we should all feel blessed to be part of it.  Duly noted.

He then carefully stepped to his mark for the cameras, and never moved more than a couple of feet in any direction thereafter, wherein I deduced they were working from a fixed camera station.

I am not opposed to theatricality - my husband and I enjoy a good concert or play from time to time.  My concern is that the church has adopted Hollywood theatrics as a pitiful substitute for pursuing the kind of spiritual worship God requires of us.  I am pretty sure He has heard plenty of slick renditions and well-modulated deliveries; but I suspect He may be looking for a humble heart to bow before Him to say, "Thank you for your faithfulness.  I bow before your holiness.  I am grateful for your grace and forgiveness."

As one well known song says, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship...I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing we've made it."

Well, we saw two more spiffy videos and listened to a well-crafted and Biblically-based message (I told you I would be fair) and then we were dismissed to attend our respective Super Bowl Parties (this from the pulpit).

I decided to skip the VIP table, although I had been assured that if I would only stop by, I would receive a free T-shirt as thanks for attending today as a first-time visitor.

I really didn't need another T-shirt, but I sure could have benefited from some worship.  Sadly, I left without that either.

I do understand that we must use modern tools to reach a modern world.  But I fear we have confused the mechanics with the mission, and that we have blurred salvation with a sales pitch.  The church at large does not need my approval, nor my approbation.  Likewise, I have an HDTV and dozens of cable channels.  I don't need entertainment.  But I truly need the church to be the church, the body of Christ.     
                    &   &   & 
Do you think the modern church is too secular, or is merely trying to stay relevant to the current generation?

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.  John 4:23-24


  1. This is so well-stated. I fear we have indeed "confused the mechanics with the mission" as you so aptly put it. I don't think it's a "small church vs. big church" thing either. It's a mindset, and I've seen the temptation to "put on a show" at both.

    The song I keep playing over and over is called "Let the Worshipers Arise" by Philips, Craig, and Dean. That is truly my heart's cry.

  2. You are so right. As a military family, one of our hardest task is finding a new church every 2-3 years. I can't tell you the number of churches I just walked out on because I couldn't take it anymore (yes, during service) and I'm embarrassed to say how many months (and possibly at times years) we didn't attend because we just couldn't find a Bible based, God fearing church.
    I am so thankful to have found one at our current duty station, and it's one of the reasons I am praying we retire and stay here!

  3. oh boy! I have nothing to add, you have said it so well. It's a huge concern of mine as well, even in my own church, where we usually arrive a little later so we miss most of what you have described. The rest of our service is wonderful, but the music... I miss so much the true worship we used to have in our churches.

  4. Am I understanding you right that the congregation stood during worship time but didn't sing?! Really? What a gyp.

  5. Marsha, you always write things that make me think! I still feel I have so much to learn about worship - honoring and praising the God of Heaven. Thanks fro the valuable thoughts.

  6. hi marsha!

    i came over from sonja's to make a visit, and
    i'm glad i did. it's a shame to have the worship
    of a congregation transition into a performance
    from the worship team.

    even your son understood that there is a time
    and place for performance. there should be
    another time for worship.