How we ruined worship: The church of me, for me, and about me.

 Not all change is good. 

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

We humans are remarkably insular creatures. We tend to assume that our tiny slice of experience is the way things have always been and the way they should be. The here and now is the measure of our reality. Most high school seniors, for example, have never owned a non-smartphone. Yet before the iPhone was released in 2007, most of us survived with the internet bound to our desktop. Speaking of the internet, 97% of all telecommunicated information is moved over it. But twenty years ago, unless you had a government scientist in the family, you had never heard the word “internet.” When I grew up telephones were not only wired to the wall, you had to spin a rotary dial seven times and hope the person you were calling was home to answer. In elementary school a series of amazing inventions changed the way we lived: push buttons, the answering machine, and then, a couple of years later, the telephone company (there was only one) came out with Call Waiting. If you are under forty you cannot imagine what a hassle it was to call someone for days hoping they would answer. We take these things for granted and cannot remember life without them.

In a similar vein, we assume the way we worship is the way it always has been. And, as with smartphone technology, we often assume uncritically that we are better off now than before…


Technology: “Can” doesn’t necessarily mean “should.”

Today it is common to hear the “song set” referred to as “worship” in the evangelical church. The four song and a sermon liturgy is not exactly like the iPhone – 7 years old. It is more like the internet: 40 years old, widely embraced 20 years ago, and now assumed. But is it biblical? Is this a formula found universally around the world? How does it play in say, Zimbabwe or Belarus? How does 4 songs and a sermon, fog and lights, and coffeehouse and workout rooms in the church stack up next to the unbroken witness of the worship of 2000 years of faithful Christ-followers? And, most importantly, does this help us form God’s people for the building of God’s Kingdom now and prepare us for eternity with our creator and redeemer?

The word worship comes from the Anglo Saxon “worth-ship” – the act of paying homage to God because God is worthy of being paid homage to. In scripture we see the people of God bowing before God in gratitude. In scripture worship is communal, God centered, and based in God’s glory (Ex. 12:27, 2 Chron. 29:29-31, Neh. 8:5-7, Ps. 29:1-3, Matt. 2:11, Matt. 28:17, Acts 2:42, Rev. 22:3).

Yet, far too often, what we call “worship” today is characterized by…

1. Individualism: Me and my experience

2. Narcissism: Me and my desires

3. Power: Me and my potential

And, 4. Entertainment: Me as spectator vs participant (1 Cor 14:26)

So what does Sunday morning look like at your church? Is it geared to you or to God? Look up the lyrics of the song set on your smartphone this Sunday. How often does the pronoun “I” appear versus “we”? Even more telling, how many songs could be sung unchanged if “she” was substituted for “he” and it became a love song to a girl rather than God? St. Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice.” And since, as the early Anglicans pointed out, our “praying shapes believing,” ask yourself a critical question, what exactly are we being shaped into in the church today through our sung and said prayers?

We sing songs that are, in their lyrical content, silly love songs to Jesus. Songs that not only could have been written by a secular band about a girl and the pronouns changed but, I’m told from a friend in the worship “industry,” sometimes actually were. How is it then, that…

…after teaching our young to think of Jesus in the same terms as a teen crush, we wonder why our young people’s faith has all the sustaining power of one.

We evaluate our worship by our warm feelings…feelings carefully created by melody line and key change. Bob Kauflin in his helpful book, “Worship Matters” talks about the worship leader who “spontaneously” fell to his knees in a song. Then Bob realized that the musician had preset a second microphone at knee level.

Health and wealth preachers promise us our “blessing” …if we give to their ministry, of course. I once watched a pastor justify his enormous new house to his congregation by lining up his staff on the stage behind him and telling his congregation, “Don’t hate me because I got mine. God gets me out of the way in order to bless ____” (the next one in the line). “God is going to bless ___ to get him out of the line so that he can keep blessing his way down the line…to you!” It is the God of the pyramid scheme. And we wonder why our young adults, with their BS meters attuned, tune out?

God is no longer the Lord of Creation redeeming and calling humans to join in His great mission to save a lost and dying world. He is a genie in a bottle to be rubbed in order to get more of whatever I want at that moment.

We have reversed the subject and object of our worship. The church has packaged us ourselves and is feeding it back to us. As a result, for most of the church, Sunday worship is: Of me. For me. About me.

If you want to see something sad, watch what happens when a technology is bypassed…like the film camera replaced by digital, or Western Union telegraph replaced by the ATM, or the American gas guzzler replaced by dependable Japanese imports. Sometimes the technology adapts – America now makes some really good cars. Sometimes it does not. You probably haven’t sent a telegram or dropped your film off at the Fotomat recently. What will happen in the American church? Will we continue to view the church as cruise ship?


A sign at the Urban Youth Worker’s Institute conference this Spring. What does this tell us about what the church will look like in twenty years?

I do see a sign of hope. It is found in a new generation of church musicians – ones who want to know God deeply and to help others on that journey…to worship in Spirit and truth…who know the difference between a psalm, a hymn, and a spiritual song.  There is an emerging group of musicians who know that God-centered worship needs all three, and that worship is larger than just “singing.” It is a generation that understand the historic order of worship has the power to shape lives, and that the words we use in worship matter. They are not afraid of the vetted, historic words of the church. Make no mistake, they want passion…but they are not so naive as to think that emotion sustains. They long for more Scripture in sermons and more pastoring in their own lives from their pastors. They know that art gives power to the message, and that the liturgy gives a life-shaping container to both…but also that liturgy without artfulness and a clear Gospel message is like a lunch box without a meal inside.

Will this new generation of worship leaders refuse to play the good feelings game? If they do, will senior pastors adapt? Will we listen and add these young Turks critiques to what young adults are telling us with their attendance? Will we hold all of this up to the light of scripture and the great tradition? Or will we stay stuck in what we “know” from the outmoded models of the last 40 years-models that only work for a single aging and shrinking generation? If we do not, I fear evangelicalism will go the way of the Fotomat and the rotary phone.


82 thoughts on “How we ruined worship: The church of me, for me, and about me.

  1. Amen! The old songs have much truth in them. The Bible should be prominent in the pulpit. Congregational worship with lifelong friends and newer acquaintances has a life of its own that cannot be replicated in a spectator service.

    But, I really like my smart phone. And my I-pad.

    • I’m not really offering to give mine up either. Not to mention that I really like pulling in the scripture to the Logos mobile app when others are preaching and controlling sermon slides myself through the Proclaim app on my phone.

      • I tend to leave all gadgets at home. Since I am a high liturgy guy, I tend to subscribe to the first reading, psalms, second reading, Gospel, Homily, Eucharist approach. I am also a traditional hymn kind of guy to and run from the feel good fluffy stuff that is even put out in my faith tradition.

        I will tell you it is freeing when you can leave the gadgets aside and just sit in contemplation. But it is really hard if one has grown up surrounded with technology. I am in the industry, but luckily I remember a time when we didn’t have it (I pre-date pagers, remember rotary phones, card readers, FORTRAN)……

        • Hi Radagast,
          Thanks for contributing!

          We have a high tech/high church liturgical experience at our camp: procession, incense, baptismal font, altar rail…you name it.

          However, we do not have the ability to make bulletins, so the taize-Eucharist responses, readings, sermon graphics, and song lyrics are projected in keynote. The slides are run by the priest (me). I don’t think any of the high school kids or college staff think about it. They like how the elegant visuals on the enormous screen (the entire wall) take a non-descript place (a gymnasiun) and makes it feel like an ancient cathedral through the use of environmental projection. We use tech to create faux architecture and a sense of place and transcendence where one would not exist.

          So, same formula of 3 readings, homily, responses, and Eucharist, but with the sense of reverence created by tech rather than superceded by tech. .

  2. Hi Matt – in this text you speak a lot about the music aspect of worship. I think it’s interesting how divisive the whole music question can be. It can be used for such good and yet it’s so easy to start down a bad path. I’m trying really hard not be a music critic at Church and just go with whatever has been decided as best I can. But I had a question about liturgy. In Evangelical Churches, the liturgy that goes on in the Episcopal Church or Catholic Church (maybe more but this is my only experience) is really looked down upon. It seems to be thought that we do this by rote, mindlessly. How did the Church go from whatever bread breaking house gatherings that are mentioned in the Didache and texts like that to the liturgy we have now? I’ve often wondered.

    • Hi Gale,
      Music is so subjective and we have been so thoroughly trained to be consumers of our religion that I find it really difficult not to be a critic. Don’t you?

      Ancient liturgical patterns do tend to be looked down upon in free church traditions. I would guess this is because, for most, they have been told they should look down on them. For others it is, as I said near the end of the article “liturgy without artfulness and a clear Gospel message is like a lunch box without a meal inside.” Liturgy is not to be an end in itself, but a safe container for Word and Sacrament that allows room for the Holy Spirit to move.

      Great question on the development of liturgy! I have written a bit about the development of the liturgy in a couple of posts awhile back:
      How we worship and does it matter? and How we worship part 2 come to mind.

      The short answer is that it happened very, very early. Phoenix Seminary New Testament instructor, John Delhousaye, maintains that every New Testament author gives indications that liturgical and sacramental action was occurring in worship by the time they wrote. The Didache, possibly written before much of the NT was written, has a very early and Jewish sounding Eucharistic prayer. By the time Justin Martyr writes his first apology (150CE) the shape of the liturgy is complete and is treated as if it is ancient, universal and settled. 150 is as near to the writing of John’s Gospel (90CE) as John was to walking with Jesus (30CE) when he wrote. All of that, and Jewish temple and synagogue liturgies that were known and used by early Jewish Christians, indicate a very early date for liturgies that are, in essence, the shape of those used by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans today. You can check out Justin Martyr’s comments on the liturgy:

      Check out chapters 65-68 and tell me what you think!

      • re: music critic
        I used to have a hard time yes -and I totally get it! At one point I attended a Church where the Pastor & Elders basically fired the ‘music ministry’ because they didn’t feel they were attracting/keeping folks in their 20s. Although not in the direct line of fire, I had a front row seat to the hurt/pain. Ironically enough, the person they hired to replace them didn’t stay very long. They are now on their 3rd attempt. In processing the whole situation, I told this story to another Pastor not long after this and he said, yes that happens all the time. Wow! I just came away feeling God is more concerned with how we treat one another than whether or not we’ve got the right song with the right band/organ etc. I think God used the situation to teach me not to be a music critic. But like I said -I get it- only too well.
        Thank you for the information on liturgy -I will take some time to read and digest. I appreciate that you took the time to respond to the question!

          • I’m not that good Matt – I didn’t stay at that Church. I have mixed feelings about that at this point, but it was that whole situation that got me to the Episcopal Church. I’m very glad to be here.

      • Allow me to ring in as a Bible History Teacher…the New Testament Church that we love to proclaim was simply a synagogue with a complete message. Look at the churches of Acts closely and the movements of the Apostles. Paul and Company traveled through once proclaiming Jesus as the completion of the message of true Judaism, and then came back through the same groups helping them to “elect from their own membership” their leadership. They were forming a synagogue on the model that they knew from at least the return from Captivity under Ezra.

        That synagogue model was very liturgical in a time honored way, and yet inclusive of younger members and traveling (new?) messengers (apostles worked in this mode). It makes perfect sense for liturgical tendencies and methods of worship to show up it the very earliest writings.

        Our “New Testament” model, with a professional pastor, professional staff and professional musicians is thouroughly modern and almost exclusively American in origin.

        Not so very many years ago, churches in the old country started calling vocational pastors to minister to them…the chief reason being that most congregants were not taught to read and the pastor was.

        The danger, as history reveals, comes when the church controls the spiritual education of the congregation rather than equipping the congregation to educate themselves. The blackest times of history have resulted from such potentially corrupting power.

        The desire to have done with that control structure is what gave rise through the Reformation and the Victorian era to what Matt calls the free church. The old pendulum still swings!

      • what about a real born again relationship with jesus Christ. then and only then can you know and experience worship. worship is only for the redeemed soul. a confessing, embracing head knowledge has nothing to do with salvation. maybe Christianity or religion. I feel that is what is being spoken of and talked about here. someone earlier mention the “I” and not “we” how can you sing “there is a fountain filled with blood” in a modern charismatic church when half the people in attendance or only spectators and not born again believer like jesus said in john 3:3,5, and acts 2:38-39…that is why the music today is non effective….you are trying to work something up with “props” and not the operation of the spirit.

  3. I generally would agree with you. People, particularly westerners, are consumers, and we treat Jesus like a consumer “product”. But can we really lay this squarely at the foot of parishioners when most churches have adopted secular business models that are more about providing a “worship experience” and less about contributing to one. Genuine worship grows from true connection with God and simply cannot be manufactured ( Negative Example: Ananias and Sapphira). Technology and new media are not inherently corrupting of the moral turpitude of the church. In fact, maybe that is beside the point. I think many churches have forgotten their mission. These things are just tools. I think perhaps the discussion should shift away from methodology and to sincerely understanding our role as servants.

    • Good points, “Fierce”!

      I really don’t lay these are the feet of parishioners but at pastors. We have a difficult time saying “no” to the flavor of the day. This week it is the “video-venue.”

      Although I wrote this post about three weeks ago, when I edited it today I put a link to Skye Jethani’s new blog post about “the church as cruise ship.” Check it out if you get a chance. It is really brilliant. He calls out the business model thing in a very creative way. I found myself saying, “ouch” about third sentence.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope you have a terrific day of worship in preparation for tomorrow. 🙂

  4. One final word on hymns…. I did not know many growing up– unchurched heathen I was, so they have less sentimental value for me, though I sing in the music department weekly. I do believe whatever the tool we use to share the word the key is to understand the meaning of the song.

    • I also grew up an unchurched heathen. My son and I attended a very large church to watch a friend do a conference on building faith in families. On the fourth song they transitioned into a hymn and the volume of the congregation in the room went up about 30%. My son said, “Dad, did you notice how much louder people sing the hymns? I think it is because the words have more to them.” I am not sure if he is right about content or if you are on familiarity. Perhaps a bit of both.

      At our church we use a blend of contemporary, Spanish, Gospel, and hymns (about 1 hymn per week). This pretty much makes us anathema to the classical hymn/organ church music crowd, but it fits our congregation.

  5. Hi again,

    Oh! I just have to respond to this one. I can not; however, do it tonight. I will come back to this one later this week. I am a church musician in both Episcopal and Baptist churches-you hit a few things on head!

    • Oh, oh! Matt and I are both in the hot seat now! I lead the songs in an independent baptist church! And we still have a piano and organ..

      We do use the power point though…is there hope for us?!

    • Thank you, Drew. Given your perspective, having your feet in two very diverse worlds, I can hardly wait to hear what you have to say!

      Blessings as you lead both groups to the throne tomorrow.

  6. Regardless of what anyone says, no opinion will be changed. So, this is much ado about nothing. The bottom line is what makes one feel closer to God. Isn’t that the crux? Get over it and do what works for you!

  7. Are you aware of they hypocrisy of Bob Kauflin? As I am sure you know, Bob Kauflin is part of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

    Documents came out showing that the leader of SGM, C.J. Mahaney, didn’t practice a lot of what he taught and even blackmailed the group’s cofounder. Kauflin rather than require Mahaney to step down for an extended period of time supported the white washing of Mahaney’s sin. Mahaney’s hypocrisy and its whitewashing lead to a large church split within SGM with a number of churches leaving the group.

    The group also changed the rules for Kauflin’s daughter allowing her to remarry after divorced.

    Kauflin might say a lot of good things but realize he doesn’t practice a lot of what he teachers.

    • I had heard awhile back that pastor Mahaney had issues that resulted in a split at SGM. I am not sure what Kauflin’s role in that was…but in general I do not hold that we are responsible for the sins of our brothers.

    • Matt With regard to Kauflin not being responsible for the “sins of his brother” C.J. Mahaney I don’t think you can really say that. Yes Bob Kauflin couldn’t control Mahaney’s initial sin and hypocrisy. What has been really sad isn SGM Leaderhip’s response to the revelation of Mahaney’s sin.

      SGM Leadership including Bob Kauflin basically whitewashed Mahaney’s sin and hypocrisy. This includes few consequences for Mahaney despite revelations that Mahaney blackmailed the group’s cofounder and didn’t practice a lot of what he preached. With regard to elders Paul instructed Timothy to “21 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”

      Sadly there was a lot of partiality towards Mahaney. Everyone knows that if Mahaney had caught another leader doing what came out about Mahaney, Mahaney would have quickly qualified that leader.

      My point is that Kauflin rather take a stand for truth and what should have been done, conveniently ignored the truth. Maybe Kauflin didn’t want to risk the nice job he has with Sovereign Grace Ministries.

      It is now coming out that apparently C.J. covered up actions of a child molester within SGM. This possibility came out when a former member of CLC (Mahaney’s church at the time) was convicted of molesting boys back in the early 90’s. You can do a search under Nathaniel Morales and learn about this.

      Again Bob Kauflin may have some good books but has shown a lack of integrity.

      • Hi Steve,

        So Bob Kauflin was not just an employee, he was an elder too? It is organizationally bizarre and dangerous to give oversight to employees. My assumption is that, as a worship leader, he would be on staff at a church and under the authority of a local pastor, whereas Mahaney would function as a denominational leaders. If so, Kauflin was under the authority of the leadership, and specifically not able to hold someone accountable. In our system, if my bishop goes off the rails, I, as a priest, can do almost nothing about it. If my denominational leaders go off the rails I can do even less. Did they really have employees of SGM on their elder board?

        I don’t know much about Mahaney or SGM other than it is Reformed in its theological outlook. But tragic sin and abuse of power are usually not far away when power and lack of accountability combine. …And money and sex always seem to be waiting in the wings. That is one my fears with the video-venue phenomenon. There is far more power and money and far lest biblical pastoring going on-“We are ranchers not shepherds” on pastor as CEO is fond of saying. I have blogged about lack of pastoral accountability several times, but Mahaney really hasn’t been on my radar: When did evangelicals get popes? and “Celebrity Jeapardy, pastor’s edition“. Warning: they are pretty sarcastic.

        I cannot tell you how tired I am of hearing of people hushing up clergy abuse. A friend of a friend lost her volunteer youth position because the church did not want her to run a personal website that exposed the sexual abuse of minors in the church. Somehow that fell under “avoid the appearance of evil” to them. Perhaps if we just ignore bad things they never happened.

        Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  8. There are many articles being written that are calling out the current state of our churches regarding worship and the focus on the singular desires of a person. This gives me great hope. I have seen this crash coming for the last 7-10 years and there was no way to stop it, though I, and a few others, tried.

    Thank you to all who are putting these concerns in articles, blogs, and FB posts. My prayer is for a return to worshiping God….not worshipers or the songs themselves.

    • Hi Becky,

      I too am hopeful. The hope for me is in the number of worship leaders who are seeing it. Now if only the senior pastors will listen…

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  9. We sing songs that are, in their lyrical content, silly love songs to Jesus. Songs that not only could have been written by a secular band about a girl and the pronouns changed but, I’m told from a friend in the worship “industry,” sometimes actually were.

    “It’s easy to write Christian songs. Just take 20-year-old pop songs and substitute “Jeesus” for “Oooo Baby!”
    — South Park (which then contains several “Sloppy Wet Kiss” examples)

    • There was an indie movie called “Never Been Thawed” about a decade ago that did the same thing. I have a friend on YL staff whose brother is in the music industry. He swears it happens.

  10. If I cannot tell the dfference between a nightclub on Saturday night and a worship service on Sunday morning, something is askew.

    • I actually used a photo of a nightclub in a conference keynote. I asked if their church looked more like that photo or one of a hundred year old church. You should have heard the youth ministers (at least the ones under 30) gasp when I told them that it actually was a nightclub.

      • Ha! The thing that immediately came to my mind was communion and asking the priest to “hit me again”. Sorry. Could not resist.

        Music is not really the issue. The Catholic church banned polyphony for a while. Wesley wrote poems and set them to drinking tunes. I think the real issue is in presentation of worship. “Be still and know that I am God” comes to mind.

        • I think it all starts with the locus of evangelism. When we moved evangelism off of the streets and into the church we made the sanctuary a revival tent – reducing worship to a virtual warm-up concert for the preacher.

    • Bingo. I want my Sunday morning worship to be unlike anything else I experience all week. That is one reason I prefer traditional services.

  11. It probably isn’t important what us 70+ year olds find important in worship. We’ll be dead soon, so you won’t have to be concerned. I just left a Baptist church that has been a “traditional” church throughout its history. They decided that all young people want “contemporary” worship, so they changed their format to a “blend” which tended to be quite contemporary. You can look around the sanctuary and see most of the people just standing and looking at the screen. They may sing one or two hymns out of the hymnal, and singing picks up drastically. It’s not easy to find a great church with a true traditional service any more, but we did, and we’re so very happy to be able to worship and sing the way we have all our lives. The church we left has lost many people since they changed, both young and old. A church with traditional worship can be just as strong as one with contemporary worship if the church has true Bible preaching and teaching and strong leadership with a vision for the church and its people. One of the difficulties of being a traditional church is finding music leaders who have been trained in the use of traditional themes. We’ll be gone soon and you can throw your secular love songs up on the screen and the worship leader can sing accompanied by the drums, guitars, etc., while the congregation stands and listens.

    • Hi Gray,
      Thank you for commenting. I am glad you found a church home. It is interesting that the data says that both the over 70 and the under 30 are not interested in the “relevant” format. Many worship leaders are saying the same thing. Unfortunately, they often end up looking for new work after saying it.

    • This is Darrell the History Nerd again…my heart aches for the sadness and resignation in your voice. If I may stretch the subject just a little…

      You older folks are absolutely vital to the Cause of Christ. If you vacate your post, by abdication, weariness or being forced out, a huge part of Gods plan goes wanting. I will explain in a moment…but, please, stay in the fight and stop thinking of yourself as “on the way out so we don’t matter.”

      We don’t have to look any farther than the last chapter of Joshua and the first chapter of Judges to see the value and necessity of our older people. Joshua left a land secure and occupied to his posterity. Then…another generation came that “did not know the God of Joshua and what he had done.” The little words matter here. They didn’t forget. They didn’t ignore the teaching. They didn’t willfully disobey, They had not been taught that Joshua’s God was worth serving. And here is the kicker…there is not room on the timeline for it to have been more than three generations. Joshua’s great grandchildren did not know his God. And we all know the lengths God had to go to to introduce himself to them.

      Why did they not know Joshua’s God?

      Obviously, they bear some culpability in the matter.

      But, maybe their grandparents just got tired of constantly having to steer them the right direction and just gave up. Maybe their folks said, “Do what you want…you’re going to anyway!” Maybe the older set just decided to have their own class instead of “boring the young people.” (Matt has a great blog about inter-generational services). Maybe the older folks decided they had done their time in the trenches and it was somebody else’s turn now.

      The Bible example is Daddies, Grand-daddies and uncles teaching the younger men…living their lives in such a way that the younger men ask why (Deut. 6). How will we learn without teachers? Who will tell us why it matters? Who will tell us why the old ways just might have been well founded and effective. Who will help us polish those old ways and incorporate them into the 21st century church.

      Please, sir…don’t give up!

      You can sit in my pew anytime…I think you’d like my church.

      And that Pastor should be spanked for blindly disrespecting so much of his congregation and ignoring so much research and anecdotal information that says he is killing his church…Gods church.

    • Gray,
      I’m 52. I’d always attended church, and grew up in the 70s before “contemporary” services. In my opinion, if those in my generation who were raised the same way, perpetuate that that tradition through their children, the traditional service will prosper. A fear is that more of my generation will “succumb”, to their children’s (or their own) need for something that is, as one poster put it, “the flavor of the day.”
      The result will be generations who will not have learned, nor heard wonderful, timeless music. As a former secondary level teacher, I saw class after class, that knew hardly, if any, patriotic or Christmas songs.
      A choir director, I have always used “My Country, Tis of Thee”, because of its pedagogical value, to place students on vocal parts. Once I went back into teaching 13 years later, kids didn’t know it anymore. Not just a few – none.
      Church Youth Choirs were in most churches. Today, They are virtually non-existent.
      I have nothing against pop contemporary music that glorifies The Lord. Personally, for reasons stated above, I don’t believe that a worship SERVICE should include “pop Christian” music. This is coming from someone who, in high school and college, sang in pop and rock bands; and still loves and listens to it on a daily basis.
      Youth gatherings, church “events”, etc, yes, by all means, bring it on!
      But, Sunday morning, for me, needs to be a special time, different from the typical sights and sounds of all other mornings.

  12. My dad is 75. He sits in the pew behind me with my mom. There are 10 eligible and qualified and retired men in our congregation to serve as deacons (independent baptist polity). I am the oldest deacon at 54. As leadership we often have to make decisions for the church…it is difficult to get a “grayer” perspective.

    I teach the adult class at my church…until I made a huge effort to shut down the “college and career” class and put both classes together, I was younger by ten years than anybody else in my class.

    Here is a “secular” example. Just over 70 years ago, the books closed on World War 2. There are many folks in my sphere who had daddies that fought that war…that grew up in the shadow of that war and the horrors and loss it caused. Those same people are very frustrated with my generation (1 generation) and my sons generation (2 generations) because “we don’t know the lessons we learned in that war.” Yes, there is a focused effort to rewrite American History, to be sure. And it will succeed because that generation is passing from the scene without insisting that those lessons are repeated in the ears of my generation, of my sons generation. My generation, and my sons, is not fighting for the ground our forefathers bequeathed to us as Americans and a watching world…because we don’t know what we are giving up.

    Obviously, I am painting with a large brush here…but that is exactly what happened to Joshua’s grandsons. That is exactly what happened to our churches.

    Left to themselves…they “did that which was right in their own eyes.”

    Do you realize how much shorter the Old Testament would be if the first chapter of Judges didn’t have to be written?

    • Good call!

      Learning from those who have gone before (the fathers), being about the group rather than the individual, having rituals and patterns that we place ourselves under (like wedding vows) are all things that were lost when we went to the new model. The outcomes of individualism, preference, and entertainment value are all around us. We are the upside down church. Keep calling it what it is and ask your pastors to resist the urge to go for the low hanging fruit.

      In Phoenix we had a church put an MMA Octagon on stage and challenge people to get in the ring and “fight for Jesus!” When I rolled my eyes the only thing my friend from the church could imagine was that I was jealous that I hadn’t thought of it first.

  13. Thanks for this very insightful post. I am a former UMC pastor (now retired). Worship is one of the main tasks that every pastor must deal with, and should do so with great carefulness of thought to both the considerations of historical tradition and contemporary need. This can be a delicate balancing act. However when we find ourselves adopting a stance that we call “worship” more in line with contemporary entertainment and the production of emotional high, then something is indeed wrong.

    Some pastors have made changes because of the recognition of demographic changes that have resulted in the aging of membership, and over the long term the reduction in membership numbers. Superiors have pushed for changes in worship in order to attract non-churched. Thus many churches have two kinds of worship, and basically a split in the congregation.

    Recently I attended a local UMC church on Sunday morning that has tried this approach. A few years ago, after a vote that split the congregation, they built a large new building on land owned by the church. It is separated by a large expanse of ground from the older, traditional, and beautiful sanctuary. The new building was very expensive, and is multi-use in functionality. The contemporary service is held in this building. A complex sound, light, and projection system was installed. A worship leader does most of the work, with a band (a very good one) providing the music.

    The music is so loud that it is eardrum busting. The only thing one can hear is the band and the worship leader. The congregation stands through long verses of chorus, repeating over and over what is basically the same words. Eventually the pastor stands up to preach on some contemporary problem which he thinks modern young people might have. Oh — I forgot to mention — in the middle of the service there is a coffee break. People get up from seats, start talking, and get some refreshments. Before and after the service advertisements telling of various program opportunities flash across screens.

    The congregation is split now, and no healing seems to be in sight. The older people (who have the money) are not assisting in paying down tremendous debt for the new building. The younger ones are unable, or unwilling, to make up the difference.

    • Hi D,
      Thank you for sharing that story.

      I am certain that the perspective if the reader will determine someone’s response to your story. Some would say “The old group has forgotten that the church exists for those who are not yet members.” Others would say, “The level of cultural accommodation at the new church is a service about people rather than about their God.”

      I pray for healing in that body and that they would be led by the Holy Spirit to work together for the Gospel.

      Thank you for sharing this (all too familiar) tale!

    • I’m reading D’s story and thinking again how incredibly divisive this issue is for us. I can almost imagine Satan amused at how easy it is to turn us on our heads -all under the guise of ‘correctly worshipping God with the right song and the right band’. May God have mercy on us, mindful of our limitations.

  14. Hello again,

    Well, it is later in the week and I have been trying to put my thoughts together all week. They are still scrambled, but here are some of my thoughts on the blog topic:

    1. Worship always has been and always will be “self-centered.” Please hear me out. When I say “self-centered” I mean it in the context that there are always at least two distinct personalities involved: God and I. Because I am human, I also need companionship-especially when approaching the being I consider to be my creator/sustainer. It also helps that we are commanded to worship together with other believers. (In BOTH testaments!) There will always be that element of individuality in worship.

    2. I believe (I am in the minority here) that there is a church for every personality and that the present multiplicity of Christian groups is a gift of God, evidence of His/Her/Its Diversity and glorious evidence of H/H/I ‘s willingness to go to any length to reach and communicate with H/H/I’s creation.

    3. Humans have the amazing ability to go overboard quickly on any topic-expecially relating to the relationship to the Divine. We all tend to “create” (more accurately, project on to) God in our own image. God, In His mercy, works with this and turns it to our benefit. So the style of worship one prefers is a reflection of how they perceive God. (and themselves)

    4. God, who is infinite and perceives eternity and all it contains at a glance, nevertheless chooses to reveal Himself to us in stages-always mindful of the fact that we would not be able to comprehend Him all at once. We would be destroyed if we did (Elijah and the “still small voice” in the OT)

    5. So, while I am not able to attend a service lead by a praise band (see below), I acknowledge that many others are led to Him in this way. However, I also feel that this form of worship (because it focuses on the “I” of the I/THOU relationship) is necessarily limited in how much truth it can convey. It is like the Kindergarten of worship. The basics are there, but the focus needs to be shifted eventually. I am not saying that this shift of focus can not be done in this format; however, in order for it to happen there must be very mature and theologically trained leadership on stage. Here is where it falls down in most places where it is attempted.

    6. In addition to the above, there is often an arrogance in the leadership of this worship format that comes from a lack of life experience. They, in my limited experience, sincerely believe that nothing that has come before is of any value. In many cases, they are not even aware that it exists. It is like they are first-century Christians trying to work it out from the beginning again-completely unaware that the tradition that they denounce has already struggled with all of this.

    7. However, the traditional format also has its arrogance. It assumes that it HAS figured it all out-when the very nature of the God that is worshiped demands the humility of acknowledging that it will never be completely figured out. The Mystery is there for a reason. It lets us frail humans approach the Divine without frying all of our circuits

    I think I will stop this here. I could go on for another two or three pages of how I try to work all of this out as a working church musician. If anyone wants to hear some of that I will write some more. I really do want to hear other’s thoughts about what is above. I am going to retreat to the organ loft and duck and cover now.


    • Hi Drew,

      Thank you for all of the thought you have put into this.

      I am laughing out loud at the thought that you are ducking into the organ loft to avoid the arrows and bullets.

      There is a lot in there – lots of good thoughts.

      I would like to ask if you really think that the 40,000 denominations that we have created is part of God’s missionary heart to reach more?

      Historically, that is a tough argument to make…and seems to me to be putting a nice spin on an ugly history. I also keep thinking of the scene in John’s gospel in which Jesus prays for unity “that they would be one as you and I are one.”

      I have always thought it interesting that Jesus discussed growth but prayed for unity. We seem to do just the opposite.

      Surely you are correct on the arrogance thing! I too see much arrogance in the church, both in its contemporary and ancient forms. However, arrogance is neither a test of truth, nor a determiner of the purpose of worship.

      The major question to me is, “What is the purpose of corporate worship?” It seems to me that if the purpose of corporate worship is evangelistic in nature, then the great good in the church is for humans to organize worship in order to facilitate God speaking to me in my culture and in my language. If that is the purpose then we should continue to package the faith evangelistically to speak to as many different groups as possible.

      If the purpose of the church gathered is the sanctification of Christians…the changing of us into the image of Christ in order for the church to go into the world in mission, then the great good of the church is to follow the ancient pattern of reading, praying, singing and preaching the Word and reenacting that Word’s saving acts in the Sacrament.

      It is really two different views of the purpose of worship. We have to decide what the gathering of the church is for. Evangelicalism has, by and large, decided that the church building on Sunday mind exists as the revival tent or the street corner. If that is the case, what do we replace the gathered church’s sanctifying work of Word and Sacrament with? Small groups really don’t seem to cut it for those functions.

    • Wow, that was far and above the most comprehensive, cogent, and well-rounded summation of this whole issue. As the music leader for our UMC service, this is an issue near and dear to me, because someday before Christ, we will have to answer for all we have said and done. Even more so for us the leadership of the churches. I want to hear God say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” I’m aware that that feels like a bit of a selfish reason to serve God in the best way possible, but He is my Father, and disappointment from a father can be a good motivator.

    • I would add to Matts questions this observation:

      Truth is an absolute, and is therefore subject to very limited interpretation and variance of application and understanding. That said, certainly different churches, while preaching, teaching and standing on the truth can, and should, have distinct personalities in accordance with all of the cultural aspects of the membership. Age, education and location being a few of the most obvious.

      Any doctrinal deviance from truth should be taken very seriously indeed and investigated very thouroughly so that, “we can give an answer”.

      In recent years, and probably in response to the “free-love” emphasis of the sixties, the pendulum has swung to the side of “God is love.” He is. No question. But his love is always in concert with his other characteristics…justice, holiness, faithfulness come to mind…and this faults the “grandpa God” tendency in our music particularly and in our preaching and teaching as well.

      However. As a historian and a Baptist let me say that we must also avoid the other side of the pendulum swing that preceded the current “God loves me” phase which was “God is an angry God” phase (Baptists were particularly good at this phase). Both have elements of truth. Both are incomplete pictures of, and teachings about, Almighty God.

      For instance: Matts church services and my church services probably are very different indeed! He being more liturgical and me being more “free-style” as he says! But, I bet that the truth is taught in both services. There will be different emphasis to be sure…his is a city church; mine is in small town Alaska. He has a good group of young people; our church is quite elderly mirroring the demographics of the area. There will be other differences and some of them will matter more than others…and make great discussion topics! But is the truth being taught? Are the people being taught to live the truth? Is all of the truth, the “whole council of God” being taught?

      That is the question!

      And it is a question that will thin out the ranks of the tens of thousands of denominations and sub-denominations of the world today.

  15. After I posted this, I realized that I did leave one idea hanging. I am not able to attend a service led by a praise band. Why? Because every time that I have tried, I have come out so angry and upset-I could “spit tacks.” In my heart of hearts and in the context of my I/THOU relationship, I feel it cheapens my God and reduces Him to an emotional quantity that can be manipulated at will. It makes me angry. This is what I feel and it has happened EVERY time I have tried to cross this chasm.

    I wish I could find the book now, but the thesis was that there were 9 different modes of worship. Every person had a primary mode and a range of responses to the other 8. Reading this helped me understand others needs and be more open to them. So, while I acknowledge that it works for some, it does not work for me. I ask for your grace and understanding-and I will attempt to give you mine.

  16. About the Me’ism in worship.

    I urge us to “think systems.” God, me, my fellow worshippers. We form a kind of strange animal. We each bring our out-side the sanctuary/worship center selves and all those other systems we are engaged with, lurking in the shadows of our minds, as we enter to worship. So does everyone else. If couples or families are there they bring in all the good/bad stuff between them all.

    We are really a hodge-podge as we gather as a larger group with the Father to worship Him.
    Then there are all the histories of thoughts and feelings between us in the group, as individuals and groups as a group.

    My thinking is all mine, I like to believe, except Jung said we each share the strange thing he call archetypes (never did get that).

    As a retired family pastoral therapist, I find great delight in this kind of thinking. Helps me sort through my own narcissism and focus on self. The world is far larger than ever I can dream, wonderfully larger and complex yet truly orderly. We are the ones who tangle up the strands.

    Would it be considered heretic to suggest that God the Father is the greatest family therapist in the cosmos? Or might that be my own self-centeredness peeping out under the blanket?

  17. Drew; my reaction is the same as yours.

    Worship by definition is filled with awe, reverence, respect, humility, love and relationship. All of these are heightened by corporately sharing the experience with loved friends with whom we also have relationships.

    What passes for worship in a contemporary service is really celebration which might be alright except that much of the music and teaching is celebrating me rather than Him. What passes for spiritual candor and response is really an emotional response to the physical stimuli of the service. What passes for teaching and preaching is really platitude and pandering.

  18. Matt…I appreciate you being bold enough to tackle this subject, and being gracious enough to let me participate.

    It is important.

    When next I am in Phoenix I will try to arrange my travel so that I can sneak in the back row and say “hi”!

  19. A few days ago someone told me I should come worship at their church. I asked, “Why?” Their response was, “Because we have so much fun!” I told them, “I have fun playing golf, but I do not worship the game.” Needless to say, they failed to understand the comparison.

  20. Pingback: The Church Of Me

  21. Thanks, Matt, for these thoughts. I have quoted you at

    I suspect the deeper question is about the nature of God. And concomitantly about our own nature. This is not a rejection of our God-given, deep needs and desires which it is God’s will to fulfil. This is an acknowledgement that our superficial wants may war against our deep needs and desires. Are we there to follow God’s will, and in doing so fulfilling our deep needs and desires? Or do we see God as being there to follow our will, and in doing so fulfilling our superficial wants (what we might even refer to as ‘sin’)?



  22. I worship in a traditional Anglo catholic Episcopal church and sing innour choir. We sing hymns ,psalms and sacred music including spirituals. Many want our priest to sing praise music to “attract the young” but he wisely resist. Modern praise music is great during the day ,but it diminishes reverent worship. Let’s be true to our ourselves and our God and worship!

    • Thank you for contributing, Michael. My personal piety leans to high church liturgical…although I enjoy modern music when they are placed within the container of the “safe words of the church,” as well.

    • Hi Tracy. Thank you for contributing to the conversation. The “contemporvant growtivation” video is very funny. It was produced by North Point Church, one of the largest churches in the country. Someone there obviously has a great ability to not take themselves too seriously.

    • thank you for posting Tracy- I found it interesting to watch- I’ve been at churches like that -and like you, I’m very happy in TEC.
      I agree with Matt’s response also -that it is to their credit they can laugh at themselves

  23. Matt,

    When I was in theological college, we were required to do a non-credit tutorial with the dean during our second year. Affectionately but unofficially known as DeanHymn, he led us through our church’s official hymnal and talked about the hymns – what we’re good hymns, which (of multiple alternate tunes) was likely better known, which hymns were theologically (or musically) problematical. He also talked about the principles that should guide our selection of hymns.

    One of his firm points was that hymns in the first person singular needed to be treated carefully, and a good rule of thumb was never to have more than one of them in a service. The rhetorical question made the point: is this a congregation gathered to worship together or is this a bunch of individuals doing private devotions in tandem?

    There have always been banal hymns. The good thing is that the dreck eventually fades away. The bad news is that it seems to take a couple of centuries for that to happen.

    Looking forward to seeing you in Saskatchewan in a coup,e of weeks.

    • Hi Malcolm,

      That sounds like a terrific “class.” Would that we were so aware today. Our musicians try to do that. In a contemporary setting with musicians without classical training, finding that many non “me” songs is very difficult. See you in Saskatchewan!

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