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

 Not all change is good. 

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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…

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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?

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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.

How do millennials experience your church?

I asked Christopher to guest post after his comments on my “Kinnaman” post were so eerily similar to statements made by millennials in a recent Q & A hosted by one of the nations most effective ministries to millennials led by millennials, PhoenixOne.

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church: A suggestion.

By Christopher Jones

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I graduated college two and a half years ago. Unlike many in my generation, I haven’t stopped attending church. I have, however, stopped being part of the church.

According to most metrics, I haven’t “left.” I still show up on Sundays. But wherever I go, I find myself almost completely ignored.

Our problem: Most American churches are structured around families. If you don’t have a family, you are put into a box. Youth ministry. College ministry. And after that? No one knows what to do with you.

In the modern American church, if you’re not married, you’re not an adult. And we millennials are part of a generation that’s getting married later and later for economic reasons.

It takes a lot longer to build a stable career today than it took our parents’ generation. My parents had me when they were 25. I’ll be 25 in four months. By that time, I will have been enrolled in higher education for nearly twice as long as my parents. I’m unmarried, have never been in a serious relationship, have hardly any money, and have moved regularly to pursue my education. Its next to impossible to work towards marriage in such a situation. My situation is hardly unique.

Inter-generational economic differences are another huge rift in the church that no one is talking about. At one church I mentioned to a middle-aged woman that I was likely spending the next year unemployed. She burst out laughing. For some reason the pressure and debt our generation faces to develop future competitiveness in the emerging job market was humorous.

From the minute we step inside the doors on Sunday, post-college millennials face a wall of negative judgments and assumptions. Those with successful careers wonder why we can’t just “work at a factory or a newspaper like I did when I was your age.” The assumption is that we are lazy and think that we are entitled. A better explanation is that those jobs simply don’t exist anymore. Married people, in both overt and covert ways send us the message that the purpose of Christian singleness is marriage (never mind that Paul said the exact opposite in 1 Corinthians 7, but I digress).

Our generation graduated into a world of part-time jobs, unpaid internships, and student loan debt. A world in which shrinking paychecks meet inflated living costs. Yet from the pulpit we still hear sermons attuned to yesterday’s economic concerns. Sermons about not working too hard and not making your career into an idol ring hollow when you’re working late hours struggling to make next month’s rent.

Whatever the cause is, it is certainly not that the church is too conservative. If liberal politics were why we left the church, then we’d be flocking to churches with liberal politics. Yet mainline Protestant churches have declined much more sharply over the past ten years than conservative ones.

No, we millennials often embrace liberal politics as a substitute to fill some of the void that the absence of religion leaves in a person’s soul. Liberal politics provides a supportive community working towards a common goal and offers a promise of an ultimate end state of justice and equality. It’s a substitute for religion, not a cause for rejecting it.

A person can personally believe in salvation through Jesus Christ without going to church. A person can feed the poor and care for the sick without belonging to a congregation. What they cannot do alone is become part of a fellowship of believers. And if our generation doesn’t find that fellowship at church, we’ll stop going.

In short, we millennials just want to be treated like adults. We don’t want to be catered to. We don’t want to be entertained. We certainly don’t want to be eyed suspiciously as some sort of dangerous element by people more interested in passing judgment than trying to understand what life is really like in your twenties in modern America. We want to be included. It’s not that hard. We’re human beings like the rest of you, and we’d like to be treated as such.

*Christopher Jones is an aspiring historian of the ancient Near East currently working towards completing his Master’s Degree in Biblical Archaeology at Wheaton College. He blogs about the ancient Near East at http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/.