God is, like, my pal

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Let us turn now to the “come as you are – no need to dress up” line. Richard Weaver in 1948 (Ideas have Consequences) and the linguist John McWhorter in 2003 (Doing our own thing:  The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, like, Care), among others, have argued that the contemporary preference for informality and the movement away from formal language in reference to God or human authority structures is deeply tied to cultural suspicions about authority and distrust of hierarchy.  Post-modernity flattens all hierarchies: no high king, no high God.  There are deep theological moorings behind all of this informality which have not been understood by pastors in the evangelical landscape.

Somewhere in America at some church meeting a decision was reached to change the name of the place they worshipped from the word “sanctuary” to “worship center” or “celebration center.”  Furthermore, they decided to build a space which could be used as a gymnasium during the week and a place of worship on Sunday.  Having a dedicated space only for worship seemed liked a shocking waste of money.  Indeed, they had at least five good reasons for doing this. What concerns me is that they probably never stopped to reflect theologically that there just might be six reasons to not do it.  Of course, maybe there were only four and the “celebration center” in the gym would have carried the day.  The point is, that reflection never even happened.

Somewhere in America on some Sunday morning the first man or woman walked into a worship service with a baseball cap on and a cup of coffee in their hand.  It is now quite common. The pastor would surely offer three or four impressive reasons why this was the “missional” way to go, but I can assure you that when the decision was made, serious theological concerns were not invited to participate.

These examples all seem so small and insignificant.  Yet, that’s how all drift happens.  You see, liberal Protestants never woke up one morning and said to themselves, “Hey, let’s adopt an Arian Christology, shall we?”  No one said “Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if we could devote the next 50 years to undermining the apostolic faith.”  No!  I’ve read their writings.  They were deeply concerned, as we are, to make the Gospel relevant to modern people.  Evangelicals have not openly abandoned apostolic Christianity.  No one set out to cheapen the Gospel, diminish God’s holiness, or downplay the cost of discipleship.  It’s just happening.  A baseball cap here, omitting the word “wretch” from Amazing Grace there.  “The pressure to bring in new members made it best to just drop the required confirmation class for membership.  Besides, people are just too busy to attend a new members class and it might hurt our annual membership goals.”  The call to career missions slowly became short term missions which slowly became vacations with a purpose.  It all happened so seamlessly.  “We brought in a new youth director.  He doesn’t have any biblical or theological training, but, oh, how the youth love him.”  “You should see the new worship leader we have! He doesn’t know any theology, but he’s just picking the choruses each week, and he can really play the guitar!”  You see, it happens in ten thousand small skirmishes, rarely in any big, bloody battle.

(Part 3 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

Just joining this series? Go back here to start at the beginning of this 6 part blog series.


  • Robert says:

    I agree…mostly. Externals in worship, to a certain extent, seem to change. What became traditional and “sacred” ways (and so-called apostolic orthodox) of worshipping seems to have had its beginning in being somewhat “releveant” and placed in later worship as something attractive to “crowds” i.e. liturgical garments, bells and smells, pomp and circumstance. What initailly attracted the ancient crowds, in some respects, morphed into the “sacred.” So what is truly apostoic worship? What is worship in “spirit and truth?” Aside form mechanisms, under what circumstance did Christ promise to be present when people gathered in his name? Perhaps later posts will sort these things out. However, I agree: apostasy in worship is evetually leads to an apostasy in theology. A healthy fear of God and grattitude for his grace might do us all a bit of good, despite what mechanisms we use in worship. Thanks.

  • Brett Marko says:

    I am going to challenge the past three posts in a lot of what your saying save one main point that we agree upon. Our relationship with our God and Jesus is of tantamount importance. Theologicially why does it matter what we call where we come together to worship our God and to build our relationships with fellow believers? I don’t recall Jesus giving us a diagram from where we should worship. The early church met wherever they could. In houses, crypts, and catacombs, all these were places where early Christians met. Talk about dual use facilities. God tells us that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, He is there.

    What is more holy? A coat and tie or someone in a baseball cap? It is said in 1 Samuel that God does not look at the outside of a man, but he looks at his heart. That’s what is at issue here, it the condition of our hearts. I think that it matters not what we look like when we come to our God but that we do come to build relationship with Him and devote ourselves to him.

    What does it matter if we have high rituals or not? The last time I checked my Bible, Jesus wasn’t so keen on the Pharisees’ high rituals and their exact way of how they dressed with their phalacteries and other ceremonial garb. What is ritual anyway but a reminder of the relationship we have with Jesus and our God. Any ritual done in a way where it rises above our high purpose of being in relationship with our God becomes idolatry anyway. After all, the liturgy was formed as a reminder of the biblical verses where Jesus gives us his promise to us. But if someone does that just in rote and in form only, the liturgy is for naught.

    The same thing goes with styles of worship and what music is played when we worship together in community. I think that how we engage our God in relationship should reflect who we are as people. Abel was a farmer so he brought produce for sacrifice and Cain was a herder so he brought an animal. Where Cain messed up where many of us do too is that he gave God what he didn’t want. He gave him the left overs. So it disappoints me that you castigate many fine Christians who are seeking to be a light in a dark world by engaging the world on their own turf rather than bunker up behind our churches of safety where our faith is seldom challenged and our faith is safe.

    Let’s call out what the real problem is. It is the same problem, man has always had. It is syncretism where we debase our beliefs through incorporating other belief systems with our relationship with Christ. Many of these syncretic churches grab onto the latest fads or formulas for church growth. If they see a church is growing because it is engaging the culture and let people come as they are, they do it. If the fad is for a church to be missional, they do it. They do it to grow their churches in vain attempts to be relevant. They don’t do it to reach people to share their relationship with God but to increase their numbers. So it rings hollow. I have been in these churches. Many are just trappings for a single man’s vanity to be noticed as a great evangelist or preacher. They have ceased being places where people gather to be in relationship to God and each other but rather become the best local purveyor of religious goods and services in the areas that cater to people shopping for their salvation.

    I see syncretic aspects merging American consumerism, political thought, other belief systems, self help mentalities and all sorts of junk being thrown into the Christianity of these types of Churches. The true church is one that emphasizes people coming to relationship with Jesus and our God and growing in that relationship as they grow in relationship to other believers. It doesn’t matter the cultural trappings they take on to do this as long as this is the mission of sharing the Good News and the reason for the hope we have. As long as they don’t conflict with a relationship with God then they are permissible. Historically, the Greek church was very different culturally from the one in Jerusalem, from the one that grew up in Syria. They were united in their love of their relationship with their God and thus being made better through it.

  • I appreciate these observations of the culture-driven church. I spent my life doing culture-driven church and am face to face with the alternative, Ancient Christianity. Thought not pragmatic, theological and faithful to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Timothy, I like where you’re going with this uncomfortable probing. The little foxes spoil the vineyard.

  • Chris says:

    I have to say, I agree with Brett.

    The idea that how we are dressed sounds more like legalism to me and less like the gospel. Dressing up for church has its place as symbolism, but it also has its place as oppression; you can’t come in a suit because you can’t afford it, or we dress up because it shows off our wealth to those around us, or we dress up because we think we have to come as something we’re not. That, to me, has absolutely no place in theology. It’s not about respecting God for our culture, it’s about showing off to each other; the meaning has changed, and so must the theological expression. For us, to come as we are, to be VULNERABLE takes the place of dressing up; in a culture where the self is valued above all else, offering that self freely becomes much the same as offering one’s best outfit on Sunday.

    That is to say that the “deep theological roots” to these practices are cultural, as far as I can tell, and not scriptural (perhaps you would point them out if I’m missing something). They are outworkings of the way we practice faith in a culture of wealth. With respect, postmodernity DOES flatten EXISTING hierarchies (though I’d argue it creates new, unspoken ones). It also, however, assumes no god, and so perhaps instead of creating space based on a concept foreign to the culture, it takes contextualizing that concept intentionally (we can’t lament something that, as far as the people are concerned, never existed). I’d also suggest that the lack of hierarchies has a place as well: God became man, leveling our playing field, becoming one of us to show us on our own level rather than from on High. Yes, He then returns to the throne, but Revelation shows Heaven coming to earth again. A tension to be maintained between poles of a paradox, not a theological problem to be solved.

    Likewise, renaming the sanctuary to be a worship center or whatever is also not a problem to me – I like the way that the “sanctuary” label speaks to a culture that is always in a rush, but I also recognize that it has been used as a way to transform the identity of the Church from a unified body of Christ followers into a building, and that doesn’t sit well with me. People now behave as though the sanctuary itself is what’s important, rather than its mere function as a place of gathering FOR the church. Yes, the OT has places of sacred space, but we’re past that now … the whole universe is God’s Temple, there is no place not sacred! I love the way Rob Bell says it in Velvet Elvis, that we are to be tour guides, showing where God is already working because God is already there! And so a sanctuary or celebration space or whatever is set aside, but if we attach too much importance to the space itself we become rooted in a building rather than mobile missionaries.

    Just my two cents as a missionary to the West (and as a worship arts pastor trying to help his congregation think of themselves as missionaries and spirit-empowered culture-creators rather than victims of spiritual oppression).

  • Dear Brett and Chris (and others who share their concerns).
    Let me begin by saying that there is so much that I agree with in your reply posts. I agree that in the New Covenant the “place” of worship is universalized to wherever God’s people gather. I have worshipped in the Crystal Cathedral in California and I have worshipped under a grove of mango trees during monsoon rains in India – and the presence of Christ was there. I also affirm that whether the poor are coming before God in simple rags or someone comes in a three piece suit is a matter of indifference to God (James 2:2,3) The crucial point is the place of our hearts (though we cannot separate our hearts from either our mind or our actions, postures, words, etc.. as Psalm 51 makes clear. I also agree with the points about the dangers of cultural syncretism made by Brett. Indeed, this part of his reply gets closer to my intent.
    Let me clarify where I think my intent may have been misunderstood. First, I did not actually say that it was either right or wrong to re-name the sanctuary a “celebration center.” (Though let me go on record and say that I would strongly discourage it). My point was to say that when this decision was made theological concerns and deeper considerations were not invited to “weigh in.” I know this from having talked with dozens of pastors over the years about how these decisions are actually made. It is true, of course, that part of the reason we gather to worship is to celebrate. Psalm 150 has its glorious place in our worship. But, we also come to church to lament. We come to repent and cry out in anguish over our sinfulness and need for God’s renewal and cleansing. Psalm 51 must also be a part of our worship experience. By calling our worship space “celebration center” we inadvertently set up certain expectations about what is to happen inside. This needs careful thought.
    My address (or blog) also did not really address attire per se. My deeper concern is not whether someone is wearing a fancy suit or simple homespun clothing. I am concerned about the causalness with which God is approached in many American worship services today. My concern is over the expectations which are set into motion when we encourage people to come into worship with a cup of coffee in their hand. It is difficult to fall on our faces before God with a cup of coffee in our hand. By encouraging such practices we may unintentionally be sending the message that we do not expect gathered worshippers to come into the actual, real presence of Christ. Rightly did Chris (in his blog reply) note that we must be “culture creators.” This means that we must resist being co-opted by the culture and, instead, demonstrate profoundly different postures and words and movements and expressions which are part of the new life we share in the presence of the Risen Christ.
    Finally, let me say that I realize that there must be at least 50 million evangelicals who think my concerns are unwarranted. However, this message was written (and delivered) to a seminary convocation of men and women preparing for full time Christian service. On the one hand, I wonder whether it was wise to post on a blog in six parts to anyone, what was originally a coherent whole and delivered to a specific audience. On the other hand, the value of the blog is that it does allow rank and file evangelicals to “listen in on a future leaders meeting” and hear about some of the discussions we are having.
    Thank you all for your input and taking time to write replies. This is precisely the kind of discussions and interaction which these posts were intended to stimulate.

  • Brett Marko says:

    Timothy, thank you so much for the reply. I do want you to know that I read all your posts relating to your address and even listened to your entire convocation address. After all, I am a part of the tradition you espouse here, being an Asbury seminarian. I decided to go to seminary after being on the front lines of Christianity for almost a decade daring to share my faith with and building relationships to people who have been hurt by churches or have grown up with a lack of religious background much like I did.

    I agree that words and decisions have consequences and that it is important that we maintain a consistent and powerful testimony for our belief that Jesus is Lord. You argue against what I would describe as a Laodicean church of lukewarmness or as you put is “casualness”. I see what you’re saying underlying this address. It is very valid. I’m going to evoke a little Francis Shaeffer here in saying culture is amoral and is not the enemy. The true question is best framed up by a question John Wesley would ask many in his meetings. “How is your soul?” If we are preaching true Christian community and a Christian faith, then we just will have to have people on hand to clean up coffee spills when the Lord compels us to “fall on our faces”.

    Theologically speaking, the enemy is not how we do things, how we sing, how we dress, what’s on our signs, or any of those other trappings. Those are merely tools in our hands. The enemy is anything that distracts us from our relationship with God including our own religiosity and rituals. I see churches looking for gimmicks rather than truly “walking after the Spirit” as Wesley would put it. It must be remembered of the dangers of an Ephesus style church (Rev 2) where we forget our first love or do the right things for the wrong reasons. We also must be aware of the dangers of a Pergannum style church (Rev 2) where we incorporate wrong teachings in with our Christianity. These relate to that great question, “How is our soul?”

    These are the dangers I see facing the American church today. When we have people at Claremore saying we shouldn’t evangelize those of other faiths. That is an issue. When we have people in the United Methodist polity trying to force something upon the denomination that is expressly forbidden in scripture, that is an issue. When we have churches that are less worried about the message they are putting out. opting to worry about following the latest worship fad, reading the latest Christian self help book, building profit centers such as coffee shops and bookstores and offering a myriad of other “religious goods and services” as if Christians were consumers, that is an issue. When we can go for years being in church and hear very little about salvation, justification, and sanctification. Almost nothing about the three states of man and the fighting between the spirit of bondage and the spirit of the Son as Wesley so aptly puts it. We have people going on mission trips and never building relationships with the people they are serving. This is wrong. Churches need to be called back to biblical community. And thus I end this with a quote from Lesslie Newbigin. “The best hermeneutic of the Gospel is a community of men and women who believe it and live by it.” And that is how we should live.

  • T Tennent says:

    The theological catechesis inherent in the shape, form and practice of worship is, I believe, profoundly formational. As I said in the message, the biblical position stands in clear opposition to the populistic evangelical view which says (in a 1000 explicit and implicit ways) “anything goes as long as your heart is in the right place.” Wesleyan Christianity seeks to put your heart, mind and feet all in the right place.

  • We dress up for weddings, for work, for dates, for funerals… But not for God? I wonder what that says to our children… And to us?

    It might say that God is part of our everyday life… or that God is no more important than anything else in our everyday life?

    How do we worship a God who is “high and lifted up?” how do we worship a God who “took on flesh?”

  • Great post, Dr. Tennent. I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out the lack of theological reflection as the main problem with the slide toward informality / irreverence (although the outcomes are certainly problematic as well). In my own research on the changes in evangelistic practices in the 19th century, it seems that pragmatic practices & goals drove the theological changes in an unhelpful way (though the question of whether theology drives practice or practice drives theology is often difficult to determine)