I don’t like that style of worship…

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.