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.

Celebrity Jeopardy, Pastor’s Edition

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It is a game we find endlessly entertaining. It pays lavish cash gifts to the contestants – celebrity pastors long on speaking gifts and ego. Part of the appeal is that the game appears unscripted. In reality it is anything but: First come video-venue multi-sites…necessary because “our man” is “da man.” Then book deals complete with manipulated sales. 16,000′ homes? Of course. “An ox is worthy of its hire.” – That’s biblical. Financial transparency? Not in this game, Alex. And, as celebrity stature grows, church boards are re-filled, not with parishioners, but with the pastors of other megachurches. The final page of the script is to re-brand oneself from pastor to CEO. After all, a pastor can’t take three quarters of a million in “winnings” each year. For the IRS, however, “What is a CEO?” is the answer in the form of a question for the ambitious pastor.

Last summer, in a post entitled “When did evangelicals get popes?” I pointed out the ironic similarities between celebrity video-venue preachers and the papacy that Protestantism rose in protest against. Extending the irony has been Pope Francis’ humility this year in contrast to the growing list of celebrity pastor abuses…

This new generation of celebrity preachers do not disclose salaries. They play shady games with parishioner money. They plagiarize while exhorting others not to. They shamelessly teach even children to idolize them. They bully those who would question their bad behavior. This game turns people from parishioners to Svengali following fans and renders the faith foolishness to an increasingly unchurched culture.

Yes, any public figure draws criticism, and envy is an ever present human problem. However, when you have harmed so many through your teaching and lack of financial accountability that former staff and parishioners set up websites to warn others of you, perhaps it is time for us to change channels?

I am told that I should lay off – that celebrity turnstile church pastors are “making Jesus famous”? I say they are making themselves famous, Alex. Not to mention fabulously wealthy. And when someone viewing at home grumbles we are told by the studio audience that their success validates their ministry and that we should not dare to “raise a hand against God’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:11).

I have also been told that this is a Philippians 1 issue of “whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached…so I rejoice.” That, however, is Paul saying, “It doesn’t matter what happens to me.” This is much different. This is not a leader sacrificing his wellbeing for the extension of God’s Kingdom, it the systematic fleecing of the flock by celebrity CEOs. A more appropriate scripture would be the condemnation awaiting careless teachers (James 3:1).

I have my own answer in the form of a question: Did Jesus ask to be made famous or followed?

Like celebrity obsessed groupies, the flock willingly participates in their fleecing. They arrive at video-venues by the minivan full. Then stare like pre-teen girls waiting for a pay-per-view performance of “the Biebs” as they wait for the screen to tune in from across the continent…victims of sophisticated manipulations, emotionally steered to avoid the obvious questions.

Contestant: “I will take “idol worship” for $200, Alex?”

Host: “A big lie, a big secret, and a big bully.”

Contestant: “What are Mark Driscoll’s, Steven Furtick’s, and Perry Noble’s books, salary, and treatment of their critics?”

There are tens of thousands of humble servants of God ascending pulpits and standing behind the table of the Lord every Sunday in churches small, large, mega and super-mega. Do your soul a favor, instead of being a consumer of the “show,” join one those humble folk in their humble work. Be a part of something that exercises financially transparency. Give your time, talent and treasure to a community that is about serving and reaching the world rather than the pastor. Your faith life should contribute to more than the Nielson ratings and “winnings” of the latest celebrity “CEO.”

Cut to theme music while contestants appear to be thoughtfully crafting their latest scripted answers.

How long will we remain glued to this show? Because the kingdom of God is not a game.

Hey hateful hater, big churches can be beautiful too.

Worship

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Or: Some churches I like and why megachurch pastors should be reading the cultural tea-leaves.

Even friends are beginning to ask, “Why are you so anti-mega church?” I would like to say once and for all that I am NOT against churches being large. I hope every church preaching Jesus grows. I want the Kingdom of God to be extended. I believe the local church in mission to the world is the biblical, historical, and reasonable way for that to happen.

I am also not against large church pastors. Some of my best friends are large church pastors (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). But, honestly, I don’t know a single large church pastor who does not love God and want others to know Christ. I am certain there are pastors who are shysters-there are shysters in every profession. I just don’t know of any of those, and I know a pile of pastors.

So what am I doing critiquing the dominant model of church on the American landscape? Merely raising questions about uncritically held assumptions. Why? Because EVERY good thing has a downside. Unanticipated consequences exist for every “win.” God can and does bring good out of bad…but correspondingly, every good thing has bad that can come from it. I am simply looking at our current popular ministry practices and asking, “Does anyone see the backside of this coin?” Is anyone asking, “Where will we end up if we keep driving down this road?” I have been quite surprised at the defensiveness this has caused. A defensiveness, not of core issues of the faith, but of a vision of the church less than 40 years old.

Be that as it may, I do believe big can be beautiful. I would like to list a few large churches that I really like. This is not an exhaustive list of “good” churches but a brief sample of some doing things well…

Redemption Church, Phoenix: (6000ish) They are multi-site, but each site has its own teaching pastor. They develop lots of mission-thinking preachers and leaders. Each pastor teaches the Bible in 45 minute sermons, and are packed with youth and young adults seeking “meat.”

Scottsdale Bible Church, Scottsdale: (7000ish) They planted churches and then began to do multi-site video-venues. I don’t like that part. However, they have trained and developed leaders for their own and many other churches, and they have actively given their people and money away to scads of other churches.

Mission Community Church, Gilbert: A large, fast-growing suburban church that reinvented itself as the Micah 6:8 “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” church. They have an army of suburbanites thinking about giving time, talent and treasure to create good in the world.

New City Church, Phoenix: (600) Discovering liturgy, developing young adults, trying to take people deeper. This fast growing church is riding the wave of young adults moving to downtown Phoenix.

Church of the Resurrection, Chicago: (1300ish) They have tripled in the last five years, almost all with college and young adults. Liturgy, charismatic gifts, an army of rotating musical genres, robust Christian education from Wheaton College professors, and a youngish senior pastor who might be the oldest guy in the building.

Church of the Incarnation, Dallas: (1500ish) A fast growing traditional church in the central city. Lots of different musical genres, solid liturgy, strong teaching. Decided they needed to raise double-digit millions to expand. Raised almost twice that much.

Church of the Holy Cross, Sullivan’s Island: (1000ish) Great youth ministry led to great men’s ministry. A church specializing in venues of 300 or smaller for services to become the church where “everybody knows your name.” An interesting vision in a small beach town.

St. Barnabas on the Desert, Scottsdale: (700) Not a large church, but my money is on them becoming one. They have several hundred folks involved in contemplative practice, preach from a humbling level of prayerfulness (the senior pastor prays like 25 hrs a week), a group of retirees will serve anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they have a creative young staff.

There are a lot of churches that love people, have committed volunteers and want to share the Good News of Jesus. What do the churches on this list have in common?

1) They teach the Bible 2) They value young people 3) They foster relationships 4) They have a desire to take people deeper in Christ and do that by helping them engage in Christian practices and serve rather than just learning dogma 5) and more and more, they are exploring the totality of Christian history as part of those practices.

So, there are big churches that I really like. And, yeah, in light of a growing mountain of data[1], I do have serious questions about the way popular Christianity is doing Church and whether it has staying power. Again, I am not criticizing motives but rather methods. I am leery of the way the Church has hitched its wagon to the culture of preference. When the culture changes, and it is changing rapidly, what will a church built on being “relevant” and “just like” the culture do? Will it give up beliefs and sit with empty buildings? Or will it change its theology to remain “relevant”? For centuries large swaths of the church embraced slavery to keep the seats filled. What will this generation’s slavery be? What will pastors be willing to preach or willing to stop preaching to keep the lights on? 

Pastors can defensively criticize the messengers or look at the data and try to be in front of the trends when they arrive. The failure to anticipate change in a big-box facility has catastrophic potential. If current directions continue, the donut hole of young adults will become entire missing generations.

The original mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold in bankruptcy to a new Roman Catholic diocese in 2012. The Crystal Cathedral will not be an isolated instance. That is not “hating.” It is sounding a warning before our suburban churches, built as surrogate main streets for housing tracts without town-centers, become ghost towns. Big can be beautiful. It can also be sold at auction to the highest bidder when the culture takes a left-turn evangelicalism missed.Beautiful-Bodie


[1] Including: Luis Lugo’s, “The Decline of Institutional Religion”(goo.gl/DiR6A), which describes 2008’s Pew Forum report that those in their 20s and 30s attend church at one half the rate of their parents and one quarter the rate of their grandparents. Brett Kunkle listed seven other such research reports in 2009 (goo.gl/s1vnv). Depending on the researcher, between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s (Time, 2009, Lifeway, 2010). Last year the Pew Forum confirmed the data in a follow-up carried in USA Today (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-4u). As did this year’s “Hemorrhaging the Faith” study from Canada.

Why the big-box church works for the over 35 but not the under 25.

Last year the church that kicked off the California suburban-megachurch movement, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold to the local Catholic Diocese. The decline is being seen in an attendance drop off among 20-somethings in most suburban model churches…and many leaders in those churches report that they are nervous…

Church for the over 35.

Church leaders have spent a decade wondering why the Seeker-Relevant-Saddleback-Mega-church model that works so well for upwardly mobile people 35 and older, is not working for people under 30. I believe the answer is deceptively simple: The world changed.

Ask yourself, “What world-shaking event occurred when today’s 25 year olds were early teenagers?” The answer: 9/11.

On 9/11 our fundamental understanding of what life was like changed. Forever.911

Put yourself in the mind of an over 35 year-old: In the formative years of those over 35 the world was a pretty nice place. A safe place. We knew that if we worked hard and got an education we would have a good job, make money in the market, move up the social and economic ladder, and retire comfortably on our 401k, the appreciation of our homes and Social Security. We were confident. Our viewpoint: The world was our friend.

Take a 25 year old today: In their formative years the world was not a very nice place. They do not remember an America that was not at war. People they have never met want to bomb their buildings and crash their airplanes. If they work hard and get a good education, they may work at Starbucks and will spend 20 years paying off student loans. The market is a risk and home ownership might be a loser. How can they risk being tied to a home with fluctuating value when they will have to change careers and locales multiple times? There will not be a pension. Their 401k is a crap-shoot. Social Security will be bankrupt. Will they ever retire? Their viewpoint: The world is not their friend.

The “Seeker” movement works for the 35 year old specifically because it is based on the premise that the world was our friend. On that premise we built churches modeled on the best the world had to offer – it was the church as Christian subculture: a shinier, happier version of everything secular. Think of what we imitate in our “relevant” church models: coffeehouse, concert hall, comedy club. They are all based on the idea that the secular world is a friendly place. Since, for 20-somethings, the world is definitely NOT their friend, we really shouldn’t be surprised when that secular model is not a big winner for them as “church.”

Author Dan Kimball noticed the beginnings of this cultural shift ten years ago in “Emergent Church.” In an attempt to reach unchurched millennials in Santa Cruz, California he assembled focus groups. He took them to different church environments. He found consistently that young adults wanted a church that was “churchy”…Ancient. Quiet. Solid. Holy. A place unlike the world. A place of “otherness.” Do you notice how those things whisper stability in an unpredictable, ever-changing world? Kimball’s young adults were actually surprised that the older crowd preferred “relevant model” churches. Their take: “If I wanted to go to the mall, I’ll just go. I want church to be church.”

How can the church engage the post-modern 25 year old? Certainly it isn’t easy. This generation is conflicted. On one hand they distrust large events. On the other, they flock to things with momentum. The good news is that today’s millennials seek the things from the church that the church did well for most of her 2000 years: community, a chance to make a difference in the world, and, most importantly, offer a transforming connection with the creator and redeemer of the universe. Unfortunately, we lost these as they eroded invisibly out from under the evangelical suburban cultural veneer. It is not too late. But it will take a new kind of church that is much less like the one we know and much more like the one the early fathers knew.

The big question is not whether the millennials will engage, but will the previous generations, builders of a church that fit a set of cultural expectations that are rapidly fading away, listen and respond by opening leadership opportunities to the next generation? Will the church develop new leaders, give legitimate responsibility to the next generation, and take new chances on historic ways of being the church?