At our ARC All Access Conference in Baton Rouge in May, I heard Priscilla Shirer describe how “Christianity began in Palestine as a fellowship – a relationship. It then moved to Greece where it became a philosophy – a way to think. It moved to Rome where it became an institution – a place to go. It moved to Europe where it became a culture – a way of life. It moved to America where it became an enterprise – a business.” Perhaps you’ll agree that is painfully true.

Considering, you can imagine my delight to see this month’s cover article in Worship Leader magazine which focuses on the shift “away from commercial worship.” Though the article doesn’t come right out and define it, I think I like the term. I’d venture to say commercial worship is worship we package and sell to spectators sitting in audiences. Commercial worship is performance and not so much encounter, entering in, beholding, or even so much as participation.

As I was writing the first draft of this article this morning, a tweet came in from church growth expert Ed Stetzer (tweets from Ed come multiple times a day as he’s typically on location from the variety of church leader meetings and conferences across the nation that he is invited to address week after week). His most recent tweet reads: “Cool Stage, Nice Logo, Smokin’ Band.  Must be a denominational conference.” I don’t interpret his tweet as any sort of dig at denominations, but see it more as an observation from one who frequents all the “camps” noting how commercial worship is now the norm nationwide.  Thinking positively I thank God we are giving God our best in worship, that all the arts are being redeemed and that all flavors of churches are experiencing life-giving dynamic worship.  Yet, I’m reminded of a comment from Allen Hood at the Onething ’08 conference… “Jesus did not die so you could worship at a synchronistic shrine.”

Worshipping at a synchronistic shrine

If you are unfamiliar with the term syncretism, it’s a missiological term used to describe the over-contextualization of the Gospel… when we embrace and adopt so much of a culture that we inadvertently dilute and lose the Gospel.

I first encountered a syncretistic shrine in the mid-80’s as a youth pastor taking my youth group to a Stryper concert. Only a few years before, I was a lost soul, deep into the rock and roll occult world myself (I’m even in some of the footage in the old Hells Bells video on the dangers of the occult and rock and roll.) I vividly remember being at that Stryper concert seeing the smoke, the band dressed in torn black clothing, wearing dark make-up on their eyes and pale/corpse-like make-up on their faces, gyrating in front of red lights which were pulsating like a heart from behind to the beat of the drum. The lyrics were unintelligible though I knew they were “Christian.”  I remember thinking – Yikes – this is no different than what I was just delivered from – aren’t we supposed to avoid even the appearance of evil?

To be clear, I’m not in any way concerned about the appearance of evil as I write today about this shift away from commercial worship, and I take no issue with lights and smoke. The purpose of me recalling that story was to illustrate the extreme of the synchronistic shrines that have crept into Christian worship in America. I’m suggesting we rethink how it is that our worship services aren’t looking much different than concerts these days.

Lucifer loves to divert our worship

The first thing the Bible tells us about Lucifer is not that he is powerful but rather that he is crafty and subtle.  We know from Isaiah that he was a musician in heaven before he envied the attention God was getting (Ezekiel 28:13, Isaiah 14:11 – his very being was made up of instruments from the day God created him). His sole aim today is to divert worship off of Jesus. My assessment is that he works more to divert our worship off Jesus than he does to distract us from the Word. If Lucifer can control the atmosphere in a room by diverting worship he thereby diminishes the ability of the congregation to be open to the Word and encounter the presence of God. God inhabits the praises of his people (those who “come before him with singing”) and to the degree our adversary can control the atmosphere in the room through subtle shifts in the dynamics of our worship focus, he can quench the presence of God.

A few days ago a friend of mine posted an article on his blog that used the word “theo-tainment” in the title to refer to how much of the American church amounts to not much more than entertaining people with God each week. The article states: “The modern idea of a church, or ecclesiology, is that church exists as a venue to attract the lost through dynamic programs, performers and events – the more dynamic the better.” It’s amazing how far we’ve come from the days of the early church where it was supernatural signs and wonders and deeds of compassion that turned the heads of the lost toward Jesus. There is a great longing in me to fully shift back in that direction.

An expensive succession of cheap light and smoke shows

Recently, I was ashamed to visit with an unbeliever who actually told me she sits back, shakes her head and watches with great interest the expensive succession of light and smoke shows the large churches in her city promote in an effort to attract her attention. As she spoke I was praying, Forgive us Jesus.

Later that same day a friend of mine told me he visited a church that previous Sunday that was literally “rockin” as people came in – he said the band was playing “Rockin’ Robin” and people were in the aisles, swaying, clappin’ and enjoyin’ the music. Then he reports they were greeted, seated for the worship set as the band performed a couple of Christian songs, throughout which no one stood, no one sung along and they clapped when it was over. As he was talking I was praying, “Forgive us Jesus that we’d dance to Rockin’ Robin but not even rise to praise your Name.” Lucifer had to just love the worship service that day!

More therapy than theology

Sociologist Dr. Christian Smith reports his conclusions from a study detailed in his Soul Searching book… “we suggest that the defacto dominant religion (in the contemporary US) is what we might call moralistic therapeutic deism. This of course has very little to do with historical orthodox Christianity.” This indeed has been the trend: Sunday’s are more about therapy than theology.  By “theology” I do not mean to suggest we need return to dry dogmas.  By “theology” I mean the fervent pursuit of the knowledge and person of the Living God. By “therapy” I’m suggesting many churches today only offer people shallow inspirations that help them get through another week, tips on how to have a better marriage and manage their depression and money better. There is no deliverance, victory or true freedom in the context of Theo-tainment and Commercial Worship.

Beholding “His Terrible Beauty

This morning my wife read to me Psalm 96:4 from The Message: “His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap.”  Though extremely expensive to pull off, commercial worship is cheap. A worship leader’s job is to get out of the way and lead people to behold “his terrible beauty.” Those who behold Him become worshippers.  The greater revelation we have of Jesus the louder we sing, the more extravagant and less dignified we are before him.

The prophet Amos spoke of the time when God says: “I cannot stand your assemblies… though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” (Amos 4:21-24) The prophet continues with an exhortation to loose the justice stream of God from heaven to the earth and Amos ends with a line about God raising the fallen tabernacle of David at the end of the age (9:11).

God did not say he would raise up Moses tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple, he liked David’s tabernacle best.  The difference between David’s tabernacle and the others is that David’s tabernacle didn’t have a veil that separated God from his people. It was more intimate.  And, David appointed and paid for 288 prophetic singers and over 4000 musicians to minister before the Lord full-time… “to make petition, to give thanks and to praise the Lord” day and night (1 Chronicles 15:1-17:27). That Davidic night and day prayer continued for several decades and God loved it so much he said he will raise up David’s fallen tent again here in the last generation. If there is to be a major shift in the worship of the church it must be in the direction of intimate and sustained worship and prayer, continually keeping the fire on the altar hot, “it must not go out.” (Leviticus 6:13)

The number one thing I’ve found to counteract commercial worship is to disciple musicians. It’s been my observation in days past that the musicians have not been expected to rise to the standards of piety, heart holiness and wholehearted devotion we expect of others who minister. One of the reasons I sent my son to the International House of Prayer in Kansas City is because they are cranking out a hundreds of musicians right now but firmly stating: “IHOP is called ‘the singing seminary’ – we don’t buy into the nonsense that musicians don’t do the Bible.'” Their main focus is on raising up musicians who “eat the scroll,” cultivate and enjoy intimacy with God, and behold the “terrible beauty of God.”

The next battle in the worship wars?

As a pastor who survived the first round of worship wars a couple decades ago – hymns vs choruses, organs vs guitars – I’d suggest we are entering into a new phase of worship wars – commercial worship vs encounters where we behold his “terrible beauty.”  We started to make that shift a decade ago in our church and I still speak of this in each new member class… how a “win” for us used to be pulling off a great service and how a “win” is now a God-encounter.  A great service and a God-encounter are not the same thing. What it takes to entertain people and what it takes to attract God are very different things. It’s a tough choice for pastors to make but I encourage them to make it knowing that the presence of God is what changes lives and attracts the lost, not stunning performances.

A little book that helped us, and is still helping us, navigate through these tensions is “Following the River: A Vision for Corporate Worship” by Bob Sorge. Sorge writes about the great difference between Levites leading worship and band members just playing through set lists as they would at any other gig.

What I’ve written here I’ve written with some awareness that it might ruffle some feathers. A few years ago I opened my mouth in similar fashion and spoke publicly against “Christian” screamo bands suggesting that one couldn’t scream angrily under the anointing of God. I offended some of the younger generation in our fellowship. And so this article has been brewing in my spirit for some time and honestly I hesitated to write it because my heart is not to provoke an argument. Even so, I sense an obligation to stir and provoke people to go to deeper levels of adoring Jesus and beholding his “terrible beauty.”

On the one hand, no one should presume to judge the worship preferences or styles of music enjoyed by any one else and an article such as this could very well be interpreted as such and result in raised defenses. On the other hand, those such as myself who are called to plan worship experiences for people week after week need to talk honestly about what we are doing.