Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.


Teflon Megachurch

Jake Meador blames the poor styles of Jen Hatmaker on the megachurch. Evangelicalism of the 1990s relied more on personal branding than on churchly boundaries. The result is Hatmaker’s inability to see what’s at stake in LBGT debates. She’s a product of her megachurch culture.

Meador is especially hard on Bill Hybels and Willow Creek:

At the heart of this evangelical movement was the megachurch, which we have already mentioned. But the suburban megachurch calls for closer attention because it is in the megachurch that we find the methodological keys to understanding both the evangelicalism of that era and the second-generation spin on this same model that is embodied by women like Hatmaker as well as her friend Shauna Niequist, herself the daughter of the founder of this movement, Bill Hybels.

The seeker-sensitive movement began with a simple idea: Charitably stated, it was that the Christian faith was increasingly nonsensical to modern Americans and it needed translators who could listen to the culture and then speak about the faith in ways that were sensible to them.

Unfortunately, the way that Hybels and others like him attempted to do this work of translation depended far too heavily on secular ideas about marketing, branding, target demographics, and so on. The faith became a product, churches became places of entertainment and commerce, and pastors became the heroic CEOs with the right vision to grow the business:

So churches like Willow Creek leaned on a method for doing evangelism and outreach that essentially amounted to selling the Gospel using marketing strategies targeted at specific demographic groups. They did market research, figured out what people wanted in a church, and began shaping church services accordingly.

The problem with this method is that it can only ever be reactive. Seeker-sensitive evangelism and churches can only react to what they learn in their market research and what they gather from observing mainstream culture. But they cannot create work that drifts from the basic grammar and vocabulary that they inherit from the culture they’re attempting to reach.

My question is why does Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC get a pass? Redeemer is a megachurch, uses strategies designed for its urban context, and it came along at the same time as Willow Creek.

Meador may object that Hybels is not Keller when it comes to communicating or defending the truth of Christianity. But Meador forgets that Lee Stroebel was a big part of Willow Creek’s brand back in the 1990s and no one could apologize better for the faith than an atheist-journalist who studied at Yale Law School turned Christian teacher.

Plus, if you consider where some of the junior pastors in Keller’s New York City outreach landed, Meador could conceivably add Redeemer to his lament about evangelicalism and millennials. Anyone remember this (two years before Jen’s hatmaking went haywire)?

This aligns with our existing core vision: the doors of this church are as wide as the arms of the Savior it proclaims. We remain passionate about having as many people hear the gospel as possible. City Church will continue to receive into membership all those with a credible profession of faith and expect the same commitments represented in their membership vows.

On the other hand, we want to be clear what this now means. We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.

So I ask, what gives?

Blame Trump on Sunday School

Stay with me.

It looks like evangelicals who go to church don’t support Donald Trump:

Across all the states, the March 15 elections showed that, on average, a super-majority of 60 percent of evangelicals voted for someone other than Trump. Furthermore, there continues to be strong evidence that the more religious a voter is, the less likely they are to support Donald Trump. For example, in Missouri exit polls, which tracked church attendance, Trump performed much worse than Ted Cruz. Of those who attend religious services “more than once a week,” Cruz garnered 56 percent of the vote, outpacing Trump by a full 26 percentage points. Among those who attend religious services once a week, Cruz earned 50 percent of the vote, which was a full 17 points above Trump.

In contrast, with those who only attend services “a few” times a year, Trump won 48 percent of the vote to Cruz’s 29 percent. If Missouri’s numbers are indicative of voters in other states, then Trump does much worse among those who actually take their faith seriously enough to attend religious services consistently.

So, who is responsible for nurturing evangelicals who don’t go to church (and vote for Trump)? Sunday school is.

Church leaders sensed that Boomer parents wanted the one hour break from their kids—that they wanted to focus on their own spiritual life for an hour away from the distraction of their children. And, again, we assumed, reasonably so, that worship targeted to adult boomers would not be all that engaging for kids. So dynamic Sunday school programs were created to engage the kids at their level in their language while their parents were in worship. In fact, some churches didn’t (and don’t) allow kids into big people worship at all.

The result: Many of these innovated congregations had a positive, significant impact on the lives of disenfranchised Boomers and their kids. Many saw their congregations and their children’s ministries grow exponentially. The evangelism imperative to reconnect with Boomers seemed to work.

But there was (and is) one huge unintended consequence: We have raised the largest unchurched generation in the history of our country.

Admittedly, there are many reasons why each generation in our culture is increasingly distanced from the church. Some have to do with societal shifts that have nothing to do with the church. Some have to do with the inability of the church to articulate the Gospel in compelling ways.

But perhaps one of the reasons has to do with the Sunday School shift…as we shifted kids out of the main worship experience, en-culturated them in their own program, and robbed them of any touch points with the rest of the body of Christ. Another way of saying it: by segregating our kids out of worship, we never assimilated them into the life of the congregation. They had no touch points. They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults. It was a foreign place to them. And so…once they finished with the kids/or youth program, they left the church.

In other words, parents who forced their kids to sit through boring church services and eat broccoli at Sunday dinner reared people who vote — wait for it — for Ted Cruz.


Good News — Megachurches Are Facing Retirement

. . . and will be in nursing homes within 15 years.

That, at least, is a plausible conclusion given how closely the megachurch experience correlates with baby boomer demographics:

Even though megachurches only account for 0.5 percent of the 320,000 Protestant churches in America, nearly 10 percent of Protestant churchgoers attend one.

Only 21 percent of megachurches were founded in the last 20 years (the median founding year: 1977), and only 22 percent were founded by their current lead pastor.

The average (median) age of megachurch lead pastors is 55, while nearly 1 in 5 are under 45. Only five percent are under 40. (CT recently noted how one of America’s youngest megachurch pastors drew scrutiny for how his building a “big house” was connected to his bestselling book.)

Meanwhile, some aspiring sociologist needs to figure out why Delaware, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont escaped the megachurch bug (and why South and North Dakota did not).

When Will Justin Taylor Notice?

pie chartActually, even if Taylor doesn’t, for the Gospel Coalition Michael Pohlman does notice, and holds open the possibility that multi-site churches may be a fulfilment of the Great Commission. Still, the blog watch on Tim Keller has been remarkably silent about the feature story in USA Today about multi-site churches in which Redeemer NYC figured prominently (especially compared to the reaction from his lecture at Google and the recent story in New York Magazine). In one of the bigger surprises after the USA Today story, Keller’s fiercest on-line critics, the Bayly Brothers, praised the NYC pastor their “hero.”

This could be, as observed previously, an indication of the kind of media outlets that count among those who follow Keller. USA Today and the “700 Club” don’t achieve the same degree of cool as do Google and New York Magazine.

But the silence could also stem from some less than appealing associations that Keller owns thanks to the story — ties that Keller’s proponents would rather not notice. According to USA Today, multi-site churches make sense from the perspective of efficiency and maximizing resources:

It’s a growth strategy that works for churches of any size because it doesn’t require new buildings or fighting for zoning or parking space, says Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, where the institute is based.

“They just rent a couple of extra theaters and high schools and put together a church in a box. Most pastors wouldn’t give this as the primary reason, but clearly it’s a distinct advantage,” says Thumma, co-author of a 2008 study examining eight years of growth and change in megachurches.

Of the USA’s 100 largest churches, 67% now have two or more sites and 60% of the 100 fastest-growing churches also have multiple sites, according to the annual listings of the USA’s largest churches in Outreach magazine’s October issue.

Then there is the pastor from Oklahoma, a multi-site proponent like Keller, who is apparently following the business model of Filene’s Basement. Craig Groeschel’s LifeChurch.tv is “the second-largest church in the USA. By video some 26,776 see his sermons at at 13 meeting sites or campuses from Phoenix to Albany, N.Y.

The report adds, “Groeschel sees the multi-site route as a way to offer a classic evangelical message — “the Bible is true and salvation is only by grace’ — at bargain volume rates. His website boasts that LifeChurch.tv reached 1 million people in July, at a cost of 7 cents each. ‘For us, multisite is only a tool, nothing more,’ he says.”

Of course, Keller is not using video and the story concludes with a contrast between Keller and Driscoll. Keller prefers taxis and public transportation to Driscoll’s use of video to deliver his sermons.

Not to be missed are differences among Gospel Coalition leaders over multi-site church mechanisms of delivery. While Keller has disavowed video, John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist uses it for its three-campuses-as-one-congregation model.

Whatever the reason, it is odd that when an evangelical pastor receives favorable coverage in a national newspaper, the pastor’s supporting cast of bloggers do not mention the article. It could be a valuable discomfort with multi-site churches, or that the story did not include a pie chart.

Keller Endorses Clark

clark recoveringNot exactly, but the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City did say in his interview with Mike Horton at the White Horse Inn that confessional Christianity is the answer to the problems confronting the contemporary church. Okay, he said, “confessional evangelical” Christianity, which to confessional Protestants is a bit of an oxymoron since evangelical stands closer to pietist than confessional on the spectrum of Protestant Christianity. Even so, there Keller was telling Mike and company that teaching the Heidelberg, and adding more liturgy, is what the ailing Protestant witness needs. Along the way, Keller said that confessional churches were the proper antidote to megachurches, which at least in his experience are too slick, too entertainment oriented, and too consumerist for the sophisticates who reside in Manhattan.

I sure wish Mike had asked Keller more about confessional Protestantism and where Redeemer Church is exactly on the faith and practice of Reformed Christianity. Granted, Keller was on to talk about his book, Reasons for God, which is a work of apologetics, not pastoral ministry. Even so, the discussion was revealing if only because reaching unbelievers is something that has bound Redeemer closer to Willow Creek than Keller let on with his contrast between confessional and megachurch churches.

What Keller did not concede is that he and Bill Hybels have emerged as gurus for an approach to church planting that is “seeker-sensitive.” The seekers may be suburban Chicagoans or cosmopolitan New Yorkers. But in both cases the stress has been more on winning people over than on discipling the won in the whole counsel of God, as in the Great Commission’s “everything I have commanded you.” This is not to say that evangelism is wrong or bad. It is to question whether evangelism is the paradigm for a full-service church in the tradition of Reformed confessionalism. I mean, if you classify your worship services according to musical style as Redeemer does – classical or jazz – you may not exactly have read through Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession about the nature and piety of confessional Protestantism.

What makes this point even more plausible is something that Keller wrote about a month before appearing on Horton’s show. At his blog Keller wrote:

The time at Willow led me to reflect on how much criticism this church has taken over the years. On the one hand, my own ‘camp’ — the non-mainline Reformed world — has been critical of its pragmatism, its lack of emphasis on sound doctrine. On the other hand, the emerging and post-modern ministries and leaders have disdained Willow’s individualism, its program-centered, ‘corporate’ ethos. These critiques, I think, are partly right, but when you are actually there you realize many of the most negative evaluations are caricatures.

Keller goes on to say that with the assistance of John Frame he has come to a new appreciation for Hybels and Willow Creek. (Note: Keller and Frame share more than tri-perspectivalism in common; they also understand the nature and character of Reformed worship in ways that contravene the regulative principle as found in both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity.) According to Keller, applying Frame, Willow Creek manifests a “a ‘kingly’ emphasis on leadership, strategic thinking, and wise administration.” Keller admits that sometimes the Willow Creek model “obscures how organic and spontaneous church life can be.”

But that concession leads Keller once again to give another of his “with-presbyters-like-this-who-needs-evangelicals” stands for the Reformed tradition. He writes that “Reformed churches have a ‘prophetic’ emphasis on preaching, teaching, and doctrine” but the danger is “a naïve and unBiblical view” which assumes “that, if we just expound the Word faithfully, everything else in the church — leader development, community building, stewardship of resources, unified vision — will just happen by themselves.” (To complete Frame’s triangle, Keller credits the emergent church with an emphasis on community, liturgy and sacraments.”)

This perspective on the Reformed ministry does explain why Keller didn’t endorse Clark’s book. It also indicates why Keller and the rest of Redeemer’s staff need to read it. Confessional Protestants do not believe simply, to paraphrase a line from Field of Dreams, “if you preach it, they will come.” I know pastors in the Redeemer NYC diocese who accuse the Reformed tradition of being logocentric. If that means affirming the formal principle (sola scriptura) of the Reformation, then I’ll accept the label.

But church life is much more than preaching and teaching the Bible and our Reformed confessions teach this. They say all sorts of interesting things about word, sacraments, prayer, discipline, worship, the Lord’s Day, communion, ordination, and polity. They all assume that these teachings require the efforts of pastors and elders who attend session and consistory meetings, presbyter and classis, General Assembly and Synod, visit with families in their homes and the sick in hospitals, catechize the youth, practice hospitality, and prepare high-carb casseroles and jello salads for pot-luck suppers.

That kind of hands-on, local ministry is what animates confessional Presbyterianism. As Old Lifers know, it is seeker-sensitive in the best sense of the phrase, namely, serving the God who seeks Christians who worship in spirit and truth.