Modern Worship: I'm Okay, You're Okay?

Question
I've noticed many churches, including my own, changing their worship services to a more charismatic environment. There are more "worship sets" of standing and singing, and the preaching seems to be diminishing. Our pastor, who once was known of stepping on a few toes, is now telling cute stories from the pulpit. A friend from another denomination has noticed the same thing. Where is the meat of the service? Are we quenching the Holy Spirit by not helping convict people of their sins? Are we getting away from the Bible and moving toward a dangerous area where we say, "I'm okay and you're okay"?
Answer
Many churches are moving to services that meet the perceived desires of a great many church-going Christians. This often results in shorter sermons that one used to hear years ago and more music. The preaching itself tends to be illustration driven, and to be more "seeker" friendly. Seeker friendly preaching is primarily evangelistic and focuses on positive aspects of the faith. It can be significantly different from more traditional preaching which was primarily designed to bring existing Christians to maturity and/or to lead Christians into worship. The music, in turn, is tending to become more contemporary as younger Christians and newer generations have greater voices in determining the shape of the worship services. Contemporary music is also frequently employed in seeker friendly settings because it is thought to be more attractive to seekers.

Basically, a large proportion of believers today don't want to hear long sermons, like cute stories, and enjoy contemporary music sets. Also, many churches are rethinking the basic idea of a "worship service" with an outward focus on evangelism rather than an inward focus on maturity and worship. This has resulted in the type of worship services you and your friend have encountered. Certainly in some churches, the idea of "I'm okay, you're okay" holds strong influence, and this is a terrible tragedy. But in many cases the changes are occurring due to shifts in emphasis and in philosophy of ministry rather than because of changes in theology.

In my mind, not all these changes are bad, but some are or can be. The problem is that the Bible nowhere explains to us the specific elements that ought to be in a weekly public worship service, and it nowhere tells us that we must emphasize one particular thing or another in those services. In the past, it is probably true that the trend was to emphasize such things as sin, conviction and repentance, as well as preaching itself. These emphases necessarily caused a relative deemphasis on everything else, such as music and celebration. The older forms also emphasized the intellect as the primary means of approaching and meeting God. The newer forms, on the other hand, seem to have arisen partly in reaction to the emphases and deemphases of the older forms. That is, people grew tired of looking at their lives primarily in terms of sin, conviction and repentance, and wanted to start emphasizing celebration instead. They also decided that the intellect was not the only valid means of approaching or meeting God, and so began to look for ways that they felt worked, such as through the emotions. Preaching is a very good way to meet God through the intellect, but music seems to be a very effective way to meet him through the emotions.

Besides the fact that Scripture doesn't tell us precisely what to do and how much to do it in a worship service, we also have the problem that not all people and not all generations are wired the same way. That is, some of us respond better to conviction, some to celebration and encouragement. Some of us respond better to preaching, some to music. Some of us respond better to newer music styles, some to older styles. And evangelism is a legitimate thing to emphasize just as is the maturity of the church. No one service can do all of these things justice, or can minister equally to all people.

I suspect that the current trends are somewhat exaggerated because they are somewhat reactionary. In many cases, the perceived overemphases of the past are being answered by new overemphases in the other direction. But I'm not sure these new forms are all that much worse than the old ones in every case; mostly, I think they're just different. Of course, the more extreme the reaction to the older forms, the more imbalanced will be the new forms, and the greater the imbalance, the greater the possibility that the new form will be even worse than the old form, if prolonged.

My own opinion is that we ought to seek balance by meeting all legitimate, biblical desires for worship in their own way. Probably this means that we'll should have a liturgy that changes periodically rather than one that remains the same every week. Some weeks should have more music, some less. Some weeks should focus on sin and conviction, some on encouragement and excitement. Some weeks should focus on Christian maturity, some on evangelism. We can't do everything at once, but we would be wrong to think that we are not obligated to do everything at some point. In my mind, it is a mistake to think about the structure of public worship by looking at a single worship service. The question ought not to be, "What should a weekly worship service look like?" Rather, the question should be, "What should the worship life of the people of God look like?" One weekly worship service is insufficient to do everything that the worship life of the community of God's people ought to be doing. I think we need to think in terms of broader time frames, deciding what to emphasize in part by looking at what the current, legitimate, biblical needs are, and in part by looking at what we haven't emphasized in a while.

What I have left out of this answer is a discussion of biblical aesthetics and a discussion of the primacy of the intellect. Both of these are areas of debate in which I am not in full agreement with more traditional thinkers. I do not believe that it can be sufficiently demonstrated that the intellect is so primary and emotion (or art, or whatever) so secondary that modern worship fails to find legitimate or effective ways to approach God. I also do not believe that we can establish a single biblical aesthetic theory to prove that God thinks traditional music is better and therefore more appropriate in worship than is contemporary music.

In summary, it may be that you are wired in such a way that the modern services fail to meet your spiritual needs, and fail to help you worship as effectively as the older style of services did. I would suggest that there are several options open to you. One is stay where you are and to realize that there are other people for whom the newer forms are more effective and whose needs are better met by the newer forms. Your sacrifice in this area is their gain, and it is important to build up the entire body of believers. A second option is to find a new place to worship that better meets your spiritual needs. Unless you have taken a vow to remain in your congregation, there is nothing wrong with worshiping with another part of the body of Christ. All believers are united in Christ, and no congregation or denomination has a claim to Christ superior to that of the others. A third option is to talk to the leaders of your church and to ask them what their reasons are for changing the service. It may be that they express legitimate and compelling reasons to you, and that you change your mind about your objections. A fourth option, and I do not by any means intend this as any type of accusation, is to think of the newer forms of worship as a way to expand your Christian experience and to grow spiritually. Perhaps you have been under convicting preaching long enough, and now need to learn how to receive encouragement and how to celebrate.

On a final note, it may well be that Christianity is moving away from the Bible and quenching the Holy Spirit. At times, I fear this trend on a global basis. This is a terrible danger of which we should always be aware, and which we should always battle. I'm just not yet convinced that the newer worship forms are either responsible for this trend or a result of it. I think they are separate issues.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.