I don’t like that style of worship…

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

The “worship style choice” lines reminds us how deeply we evangelicals have become commodified and “market driven.”  Market driven language pervades contemporary evangelicalism at every turn.  This democratizing spirit tacitly assumes that there are no higher points of reference for establishing the shape and practice of the church, ministry and worship than popular opinion and the will of the majority.  The premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s needs are king, and the customer is always right – and yet, as David Wells has argued in God in the Wasteland, these are the very points which the Gospel refuses to concede.  There are surely many good reasons for starting a separate contemporary worship service, but what concerns me is the lack of theological reflection about what just might be lost in the process.

Separating generations over worship just might be cutting the very relational tie between elder and younger which is so crucial for discipleship.  Providing worship style options just might be reinforcing that worship is somehow “for us,” i.e. to meet our needs.  Endless discussions over the style of music just might obscure the deeper, often neglected, conversation about the content of our words of worship which is increasingly drawn from the world of Christian entertainment and performance, not from the church.  Furthermore, the “style choice” emphasis pushes the Psalms even further from the heart of Christian worship.

Evangelicals are, of course, masters at dodging any criticism that we ourselves could ever be co-opted by culture.  We disguise our lack of theological reflection by our constant commitment to “relevance” or saying that we are reaching people “where they are.”  Of course, who would deny that the church needs to have a profound understanding of “where people are.”   That is not the problem.  We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are at best careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally.  So, for example, if the wider culture has become apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions, the value of history, or the necessity of intergenerational relationships, then, no problem, we say, it is the evangelical version of the prime directive to always adapt to culture.  But what if these very prejudices are actually part of the cultural malaise to which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative?  How easily we seem to forget that the Gospel doesn’t need our help in being made relevant.  The Gospel is always relevant, and it is we who need to be made relevant to the Gospel!  If we spent as much time really immersing ourselves into apostolic orthodoxy as we do trying to capture, if I can use Tom Oden’s phrase, “predictive sociological expertise” on the latest cultural wave coming,2 our churches would be far better off.  We have accepted almost without question certain definitions of success and what a successful church looks like.  However, we must not forget that, as I told this past year’s graduates, if the cross teaches us anything, it is that God sometimes does his greatest redemptive work under a cloak of failure. Only sustained theological reflection is able to penetrate and unmask the pragmatic, market driven assumptions which largely go unchecked in today’s evangelical churches.

(Part 2 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

1 David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, ) 82.

2 Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology:  After Modernity, What?  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 191.

Comments

    • Joe Cox says:

      I affirm that we have made the act of worship about us. We refer to ourselves us people who usher others (consumerism) into the presence of God when we should all be the priests and priestesses that create tabernacle moments and carry the presence of God.
      However, I am not sure I could affirm the separation of generations in modern (avoiding the pitfalls of the word contemporary) worship. Within the last 12 years I have served in several UMCs that offer modern worship services. Those services have actually demonstrated to be more inter-generational than the traditional services which favor older busters and boomers. I will not rant about the commonalities of projectors and stained glass. Keep writing.

  • “There are surely many good reasons for starting a separate contemporary worship service, but what concerns me is the lack of theological reflection about what just might be lost in the process.”
    I have that concern too.

    Maybe my heart is more traditional than contemporary. Sometimes, I think that contemporary worship service could serve as a transitional point that could lead towards traditional worship. Or maybe this is my personal hope when I see younger generations or “new saved souls” in contemporary worship.

    “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37).

    We the workers, servers, believers and followers of the Old and New Testament cannot give up and pray that whatever we do pleases God before it pleases us.

  • “There are surely many good reasons for starting a separate contemporary worship service, but what concerns me is the lack of theological reflection about what just might be lost in the process.”
    I have that concern too.

    Maybe my heart is more traditional than contemporary. Sometimes, I think that contemporary worship service could serve as a transitional point that could lead towards traditional worship. Or maybe this is my personal hope when I see younger generations or “new saved souls” in contemporary worship.

    “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37).

    We the workers, servers, believers and followers of the Gospel cannot give up and pray that whatever we do pleases God before it pleases us.

  • I don’t read that Jesus was accepted in his society, they executed him. The kingdom he served was not bent to fit the culture where it was proclaimed, but the other way around. Maybe the values the market drives now are the problem, not our solution. The proclamation should call them into question, too.

  • J Belgrave says:

    “There are surely many good reasons for starting a separate contemporary worship service, but what concerns me is the lack of theological reflection about what just might be lost in the process.”
    I have that concern too. Thank you for pointing it out.

    Maybe my heart is more traditional than contemporary. Sometimes, I think that contemporary worship service could serve as a transitional point that could lead towards traditional worship. Or maybe this is my personal hope when I see younger generations or “new saved souls” in contemporary worship.

    “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37).

    We the workers, servers, believers and followers of the Old and New Testament cannot give up and pray that whatever we do pleases God before it pleases us.

  • ME McNeill says:

    I agree that the perspective consumerism has taken over many areas of American life, including worship and community. But does the use of contemporary music in a worship service automatically rule out “ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions, the value of history, (and) the necessity of intergenerational relationships”? Would we be making the same assumptions if the discussion was about services in Latin vs services in English?

  • T Tennent says:

    I have seen some wonderful, inter-generational worship services which were moderately contemporary or blended. With intentionality and thoughtful reflection all my concerns can be met. I have seen powerful models of theologically rich, God-centered, Trinitarian worship built on the model of revelation-response.

  • JAy. says:

    I agree completely that, at times, the church (in general, not picking on any particular denomination) has become too consumer oriented.

    However, I would say that this started long before the current wave of evangelical “modern” worship. Churches have been forgetting much of the apostolic knowledge for hundreds of years. When was the last time that you saw a Protestant church offer communion more than once per month? And I have been to several that offer it only a few times per year. Was this the apostolic teaching on communion? Was this even Wesley’s teaching on communion.

    I have put a bug in the ear of one of my pastors that I would like our local United Methodist congregation to offer communion more regularly, and I am learning that I am not alone in this desire. Perhaps we can start a trend of rediscovering what I consider to be a very important means of grace.

  • Daniel Woods says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking reflection. After several decades of hearing about the need for evangelicals to “engage the culture,” I am tempted to think that many have used that imperative merely to wallow in worldliness.