Again, just lay your prejudgments on the table. What critiques do you immediately want to offer as you picture all of this? What words come to mind? (I promise I’ve thought of them before, too.) Spectacle? Sure, call it spectacle. Entertainment? That depends on what you mean. Entertainment can mean something exciting that holds your attention, but it also frequently carries a pejorative connotation along the lines of “all flash, zero content.” Detractors would probably categorize everything about the worship team’s performance as gimmick but really: does a pop culture-informed methodology make whatever you do a priori inferior? Why does it seem that for many observers who share my doctrinal persuasion, simply noting that these elements exist in a church’s philosophy of ministry is enough to condemn it- where’s the warrant? What biblical principles make Ira Sankey pleasing to God but Hillsong United anathema? Or any of the other arbitrary non-issues that are inflated into ecclesiastical Maginot Lines to guard the borders of our precious, comfortable preferences? A fresh sense of the ridiculousness of much of the worship wars cascaded over my consciousness as I felt my spirit begin to soar with adoration of the God who delights in the exuberant singing of His people.
So yes, I discovered a number of things to like about this church’s style: it’s down to earth, intelligible to the average secular humanist who gets pressured into checking out his buddy’s church, non-threatening, and even has at least a modicum of orthodox theology. The people who attend this church look like the people you work next to Monday through Friday; none of them look like militia members who spend their free time field stripping their rifles and writing manifestoes or like the hysterical street corner shouters who distribute apocalyptic literature in their ankle length skirts even when it’s -20 degrees out. They seem so disarmingly normal. Normal, by the way, is pretty wide ranging: hip college dudes with flannel and skinny jeans, with it thirtysomethings sporting goatees and North Face vests, grandmas and grandpas in cashmere and corduroy… This was definitely not a big college age love-in we were attending. Here wounded, self-conscious millennials, Gen-Xers, and disenfranchised boomers could all come to hear answers to questions they’ve never been able to articulate and not fear they would be identified as pariahs upon entering. I found myself feeling incredibly at ease in their company, felt like the church’s existence as a maligned substratum of society really was due to the miracle of new birth and not due to reactionary tribal distinctions that have calcified within our various traditions.
Not everything was revelatory or praiseworthy though: two crucial aspects of the worship service were majorly disappointing, the second of them catastrophically so. The lack of congregational singing was the first to be brought to light. Calling it lackluster would be generous. It was so surprising, downright unnerving even, to realize that practically no one else around me was singing as second by second I was steadily getting more psyched to sing and, well, emote. I can’t even say that the style of the songs had anything to do with it; it simply appeared that the congregants were used to observing the band perform and not to participating themselves. This is a shame- the racket we could’ve all kicked up together would have been stellar, but even more than that I’m saddened that so many of them are consistently missing out (if that morning is a reliable indicator) on the experience of amplifying one another’s adoration of God and on ministering to one another by preaching in lyric and melody and movement. I think it’s a leadership failure that this apparently isn’t emphasized as a duty and a delight of the congregation- you can tell the opposite is taught (at least by example) when the worship leader shouts, “All right, now you!” and holds his mic out to the congregation to sing the repeat of the song’s bridge. The “contemporary music trains congregations to watch a performance and not to worship as a congregation” argument is often little more than a straw man, but it sticks here, I’m afraid. The disconnect was palpable; the spectacle onstage seemed no more entertaining to them than watching TV at home. How fitting then that the preacher offered his Law-disguised-as-Gospel platitudes chugging along on a treadmill from Who Knows Where via the behemoth screens commanding our attention up front. His offensively mediocre pep talk pumped decibels and data into the room without ever once engaging living, hurting human presences. The congregation tuned in, the recording ran, and- well, that was it, really.
Then, suddenly, everything sucked. The pastor up at the front returned to center stage after the band finished their final song to announce the end of the service. He told the congregation they could stay if they wanted to watch the rest of the baptisms but if anyone had kids in nursery to go pick them up. No sooner did he finish speaking then most of the audience rose, grabbed their coats, and filed out of the auditorium, scattering in ones and twos to wherever it was they had to go, all while baptisms just kept on going. I stayed and watched, clapping all the louder after each emergence, trying desperately to suppress the rancor I felt rising in my heart at this outrage. How can so many people completely miss the point like this? Don’t they remember the desperation of baptism, that plunge from the precipice of old life into the looming unknown of the new? Were all of their priorities so out of whack that they seriously thought being on time for lunch came before cheering on new believers and welcoming them into the fold? Have they forgotten what was so apparent in the expressions of those climbing into the baptistry, that mixture of fear, excitement, repentance, mourning and exuberance that is a part of every conversion? The giant screens captured the flurry of smiles and tears and earnestness that accompanied the minister’s questions and burst in ecstatic relief to come out the other side of the baptismal waters but few cared to linger and be caught up in the drama. The fragmentation we late capitalist moderns intuitively feel as normal beckoned everyone out of religious recess and back to the disordered, self-centered busyness of “real life”. It was a shameful thing, and my heart aches for those who climbed out of the baptistry to find only a few scattered onlookers and a camera crew watching, projecting silent images to no one in particular.