"And you can even bring your coffee with you into the service!" "That line helps introduce a new selection of 'worship venues' at a popular southern California megachurch," according to Eric Landry. A worship venue is "a different location on the church campus that carries a live feed of the pastor's message but features different styles of music, different levels of audience participation, and different décor. Here are some of the venues from which you can choose: Overdrive: 'Overdrive is worship with guitars, drums and lights in a concert-like setting.' Ohana: 'Our island-style venue, complete with hula and island-style music. Get away to the islands for a time of worship with the same message!' Elevation: 'E1-current Venue Tent 2 (ASL Interpreted): Edgy Christian radio hits and cool lighting effects! E1-basic Plaza Room: Progressive praise & worship with an introspective delivery. Designed for young single adults.' Passion: 'Passionately encounter God through a more intimate atmosphere in Venue Tent 2. The whole service has a younger feel...and we have plenty of parking!'"
Placed upon us is the responsibility to be careful when God's people gather to worship Him. Scripture is replete with condemnation of false worship. After all, we are talking about Holy God. We should never do anything that is man-centered and not God-centered. Nor should we motivate people toward being entertained as opposed to giving worship to God. We must never persuade by, or cause people to focus on worldly wisdom or technique, but rather lead them to rest in the Lord. Paul warned about this dynamic in 1 Cor. 2:1-5. It is this mindset that caused me to be very leery of different styles in worship a number of years ago.
At the same time, there is no Scriptural prohibition for different worship styles. Yes, the regulative principle of worship is indeed correct, that is, that we should do nothing in worship other than that which is prescribed by Scripture. The elements of New Testament worship are clearly laid out in the New Testament. Yet, there is liberty in Christ and style is not a New Testament issue. In other words, we must sing in worship as Paul prescribes such. But, we must not engage in what is termed interpretive dance. The New Testament knows no such form of worship. Yet, the New Testament gives no direction in terms of music style. Thus, style is largely a matter of cultural preference.
This point was elucidated well for me when I was talking with our missionary to Trinidad several years ago about worship style in his country. I was lamenting the fact that in some of the worship services in some of the church plants there, most of the people seemed to be doing little more than going through the motions of worship, particularly in the area of singing. These churches were planted by American missionaries and had adopted American worship styles. The Trinidadian people are much different in their musical preferences. It seems to me that the expression of worship is much more heart felt when persons are able to express their worship in terms of their own redeemed cultural context.
That is not to say that worship is mere feeling or merely culturally driven. Redemption transforms feelings and cultural acclamation. But, American worship style is not superior to Trinidadian worship style. God does indeed save people out of the cultures of the world. From these brief considerations of the New Testament and the diversity of culture God has placed in this world, we deduce that worship style from one congregation to the next, even in America, is largely a matter of preference based upon culture and/or subculture.
Having said the foregoing, the differing worship venues at the aforementioned California megachurch ought to give us pause. Preference is one thing in terms of expressing oneself to God within the context of elemental New Testament worship, but the offering of worship venues falls into the context of the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of the Lord. It smacks of consumerism and caters to the consumer driven, unredeemed culture in which God has placed us. The language of vacation marketing is even used in the promo. Our calling is not to cater to the culture but to transform the culture with the gospel of Christ. The worship of Almighty God cannot be treated as a commodity to be peddled in a buffet line. Worship is encounter. It has nothing to do with the contemporary drive for choice. Away with the carnival type snake oil salesman hawking his wares. Consumerism is a plague to be overcome with the gospel, not incorporated into the church of Jesus Christ or the worship of Almighty God.
Part of the problem lies in our own submission to culture. None of us is immune to being influenced by the world around us. It seems normal to us to have massive auditoriums where the congregation can serve the role of spectator and the pastor or choir or whatever can serve as actor. We have cultural myopia. To the credit of some, they have tried to create participatory worship in such an atmosphere, but in the end, something is still missing.
What would we do if we did not have our auditoriums, power point presentations, and praise bands? Would we worship? No doubt many would feel as if we could not. It is that feeling that speaks volumes as to what people believe the nature of worship is, even in so-called spirit-filled churches.
Do we have to have the trappings we're told we have to have to reach people, or even keep ourselves interested? Do we not have enough entertainment in other venues that we shouldn't have to be entertained on Sunday? Further, must we compete with the world on Sunday mornings? And by the way we can't. Our worship concerts and presentations don't have the slickness of those we see in the world. We don't have the money or the time to compete with professionals. In my estimation, we come off looking just plain silly sometimes.
Here's the real question though. Whatever happened to the simple understanding that the church exists to glorify God in the world through gospel advance? Biblically, we gather to worship, that is, get filled with the word to motivate us for works of service, fellowship with the saints to get encouragement for works of service, partake of the Lord's Supper to remember what it's all about in our works of service, and pray for empowerment that we might perform those works of service. We then go out and do those works of service. We don't spend most of our money on so-called worship centers nor do we spend most of our time planning for so-called worship services. Do you think the apostle Paul ever in his life planned a worship service? That notion is laughable.
The suggestion here is not to eschew excellence in that which we do. As Christians, we above all people should strive for excellence in all that we do because all that we do must be for the glory of God. He is excellent above all things. We send the wrong message to the world if we are slipshod in what we do. Neither is the suggestion that in our cultural context of inherited church buildings that we don't plan worship. The suggestion, or rather the question, or perhaps the challenge, is to think clearly about the nature of New Testament worship and engage in that dynamic in the context in which God has placed us. Sometimes, in order to think clearly, the scales have to be removed from our eyes in drastic fashion. Thus, the questions concerning worship venues and worship centers and worship planning must be raised.
Again, what would we do if our buildings were destroyed by a Hurricane for example? Perhaps we would continue "steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42)." We might even sing a few songs together simply for joy, whether we had instruments or choirs or not.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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