The other night, my wife and I watched a Christmas parade on TV. One of the floats was very well-lit and decorated and carried a rock band playing upbeat Christmas carols. But this float did not represent a local bank, car dealer, service club, or plumber like others in the parade did. It was, in fact, from a large non-denominational church. The TV anchors read the backstory of the float entry. It was said that this church promised attendees, “contemporary worship, a relevant message, and an awesome children’s ministry.” That was it, the whole pitch.
This sort of church marketing is very common in the broad evangelicalism of our day. It doesn’t help that we are probably the most consumer-driven culture that has ever existed. People do not give their time, money, or attention to anything if there is not a clear reciprocal benefit. Even our acts of “generosity” and “charity” are often posturing to look like better people and earn the praise of man. This mentality has not been lost on the church, as the seeker-sensitive movement, church growth movement, and various other fads have become not only common, but in most places the norm. People don’t want to know what they can do for a church, they want to know what the church can do for them.
Sales pitches like the church in the parade offered reflect a certain set of presuppositions. For a church to offer “contemporary worship,” it is presupposing that other forms of worship are inadequate, boring, or outdated. It is assumed that people don’t want to sing the psalms or hymns of the faith, and that a band with electric guitars, big solos, professional-grade singers, and concert-worthy lights and sound are needed to provoke a heart of worship among the 21st century parishioner.
But are those assumptions true? As I’ve written here before, our Reformed church sings hymns and psalms with a simple accompaniment. And people join their voices and sing the deep, profound truths contained therein. This is not dead, rigid traditionalism. We simply want to sing what is true, important, and glorifying to God, not man.
Lest I be accused of speaking of what I don’t know, I served for several years as a “contemporary worship” leader and team member in a wide variety of churches. Many of the songs we would sing or people would want us to sing were vacuous, repetitive, and empty; the dreaded “7-11 songs” (songs where phrases of 7 words were repeated 11 times). The 7-11s are good to whip people into a good emotional frenzy, but do they convey meaningful truth to the people, and truly quicken the heart and mind and focus them upon Christ’s glorious works? I fear the answer is often “no.”
Our worship is not something meant to give us the feels. It is a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). The thing about sacrifice is, it requires one to lay aside what pleases oneself for the benefit of another. We don’t worship God by seeking out what we personally enjoy. We worship God by doing what is pleasing to Him. God desires worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Much of “contemporary” worship is heavy on spirit, full of energy and emotion, but utterly starving for truth.
Similarly, a church offering a “relevant message” implies that other kinds of messages are irrelevant. I have visited churches where “relevant” messages were offered. These messages are often something of a topical motivational speech about how to have a better life, better marriage, better kids, and be a better person, with cutesy illustrations, maybe some cool video filler, and just enough Bible sprinkled in to pass for a sermon. This is not preaching the whole counsel of God. This will rarely result in preaching on difficult or uncomfortable topics, because that might offend people and make them uncomfortable and unwilling to return. And if the tough topics are approached, they are typically done so in a way that is provocative and crass, borrowing more from worldly norms than from God’s revealed truth.
The truth is, nothing is more relevant to the life of the Christian than consistent, exegetical preaching of God’s word. Preaching through whole books of the Bible removes the possibility of skirting difficult topics. Hearing robust, theological interpretation of scripture prepares believers to think and live in an ever-hostile world. Besides, God has plenty to say about marriage, family, work, and children within a proper biblical context.
God has spoken to us in the pages of scripture, and we may hear his very words if we are only willing to listen. Sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd (John 10:9), and it is life-giving to the soul. If the Bible is not central to preaching, then what is being offered is not preaching at all.
Awesome Children’s Ministry
Finally, the offer is made of an “awesome children’s ministry.” Now, no one is disputing the importance of ministering to children. The question is why and how. In many churches, the youth ministry is basically a social club for preteens and teens to play games, listen to loud music, and break for a nice (but not very deep) moralistic message that borrows from the “relevant” norms laid out above. Sunday schools and young children’s ministries borrow from similar formulas but contextualize as age-appropriate, swapping the CCM for silly kids’ songs and the games for crafts. Some of these ministries even meet during the normal church service, separating children from the life of the church. And many parents in this framework, being consumers themselves, believe that between church attendance and involvement in such programs, the child is being discipled and raised in the knowledge of the Lord, and little attention is paid during the rest of the week. No family worship or prayer. No catechesis. And it is wondered why three-fourths of high school Christians go apostate in college.
Children, like adults, need to be taught the Word. They need to understand that worship does not revolve around them, but is centered on Christ. They need to be taught not only at church but also at home, even if it is difficult and inconvenient. And they need to know that they are an integral part of the church and learn to serve and minister therein.
“Contemporary worship, a relevant message, and an awesome children’s ministry.” This is the three-point offer of much of the modern evangelical movement.
Perhaps I can provide a three-point counteroffer: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. It is the formula laid out in the New Testament. It was the formula of Calvin and the Reformation. It probably won’t play as well in the Christmas parade. It probably won’t draw in too many worldly consumers who want to know what’s in it for them. It won’t appeal to the new and the cool. But it is the formula God laid out in scripture, it still works, and it will still work long after the radio-friendly tunes, motivational speeches, and kids’ games fall silent. ♦