At the outset of this post, I remind you again of an overarching (or underlying) principle that has dramatically shaped the Cultural Christian Wars in America – each American’s right to choose. It is / has been a key catalyst in what I have labeled the Cultural Christian Wars. Particularly in terms of worship, the right to choose has been expressed as the right to innovate or to experiment. In this week’s post, I hope to show that same impetus (“I have a right to…”) fueled the rise of what is typically labeled “contemporary” worship.
The liberty of Americans to pick-and-choose what they like in all other areas of life – not in and of itself a bad thing! – has understandably produced fertile ground for an ever-growing diversity of denominations, worship styles, parachurch ministries, and even cults. If an individual cannot find a religious group that suits his felt needs or does not line up with his opinions and/or preferences, he can start his own “church” or pressure an existing church to change. This tendency is nothing new, as first seen during the Second Great Awakening (see previous post).
For a helpful commentary on cultural Christianity, I highly recommend Jesus: Made in America by Stephen Nichols, in which he traces Americans’ reactionary proclivity for syncretizing culture and religion.
However, tracing the origins of the Second Great Awakening is somewhat easier than tracing the origins of “contemporary” worship. Whereas the SGA had grown out of America’s cultural infancy, contemporary worship grew out of a much more mature, uniquely American culture. Consequently, the influences were much broader, more diverse, and even more conflicting. And rather than setting forth an extensive commentary on the origins of contemporary worship (which I have tried to do for the last few weeks and has held up my writing), I thought it would be better to let you read a few articles that I have reviewed over the last few weeks. Here are the links:
Have Church Your Way: The High Cost of the Worship Wars
Is the New Evangelical Liturgy Really an Improvement?
Cessmaticism: The Strange Hybrid of Contemporary Christian Worship
Strange Lyre: Early Beginnings of Pentecostal Worship
How the Seeker-Sensitive, Consumer Church is Failing a Generation
Or simply type “origins of contemporary Christian worship” into your favorite search engine…
After reading through those articles – and many others over the last few years – I have found that preference, not biblical warrant, rests at the heart of the push for contemporary worship. Consequently, emphasis upon the individual (e.g. my experience, feelings, etc.), which is a (the?) central focus of contemporary worship, has dominated recent “theologies” of worship. This emphasis on the individual (and personal preference) has affected those not only on the contemporary side, but many (most?) on the traditional side as well.
Despite whichever group might be more “right” or “wrong” (e.g. traditional or contemporary), the woeful consequence of the worship wars has been an almost dogmatic elevation of personal preference in shaping worship. Both sides engaged in a trench warfare, hiding behind “my preference” (“I have a right to…”). And as both sides of the worship wars retreated behind their preferences and as churches began offering two Sunday services with two “styles” of worship, the average churchgoer concluded that preference was, in fact, a legitimate means of shaping worship. The long-term fruit of this shift in American churches was that worship became less and less about someone else (God himself) and more and more about my “worship experience.” The underlying logic, whether conscious or unconscious, was as follows: “If, as an American, I have the right to choose what I like in everything other area of life, then why, as an American Christian, should I not have the right to choose what kind of worship (or church) I like?”
Thus, today’s average churchgoer – again, whether consciously or unconsciously – believes that worship “style” is a matter of preference, not faithfulness; pragmatism not orthodoxy; subjective choice, not objective command. In practice, choosing a worship style or church has become little different than choosing between cleaning wipes. Should I choose Clorox, Lysol, or generic brand? Which wipes do I usually use, are currently on special, have the best results, smell the best? Are not those the questions most ask when choosing what to buy? (Yes, that is a ridiculous example but was an actual dilemma I faced last week.)
Now consider what questions are asked when comparing churches (i.e. where to worship). Which church is the most welcoming, has the nicest building, offers the most programs, is closest to my house, has the most upbeat music and most “relevant” preaching? Are not those the questions (just to name a few) most people ask when considering where to worship? Please hear me when I say there is nothing wrong with having preferences, but should preferences be the primary factor in determining where / how to worship?
And as preference increasingly shaped worship during the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, entire generations grew more and more accustomed to relying upon preference in all church-related matters. Because worship is the central activity of the Church, it affects all other activities. As soon as you tinker with worship, everything else is affected. Is this not exactly what happened throughout the OT (see especially Judges) when Israel turned to other gods (i.e. adopted non-biblical, cultural thinking)? It should come as no surprise that churches now leave matters of human sexuality, social justice, and other hot-button issues to what??? Personal preference!!!
Brothers and sisters, I repeat now what I said in my first post about the cultural Christian wars. The battle is not as much “out there” (with the world) as it is “in here” (in the Church). The centrality of preference for most American Christians has created a cultural Christian war. Yes, the two (or more!) sides might differ on specific issues, but the common denominator on nearly all sides is a continuing adherence to personal preference (rather than biblical revelation).
In closing, I do not want you to think that the cultural Christian wars are unique to America. Every culture in history that has been heavily influenced by Christianity has experienced disagreements within the Church / among churches. However, the challenge for us at CPC is to lay down the uniquely American “right” to choose what we like and instead to search the Scriptures diligently for what God actually commands. Firstly, as Christians, we are constrained by God’s word in all things. Secondly, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are constrained to show love, grace, humility, and deference to each other and to the leaders God has appointed. Thirdly, as members of a PCA church, we must allow our denominational standards to inform our practice and to restrain our preferences. When we took vows in the PCA, we sacrificed some of our “rights” as American citizens (though by no means giving up liberty of conscience) so that, in turn, we might gain the blessings of God’s church.
So, then, let us again re-examine how cultural Christianity has affected us, lay aside the convenience of personal preferences, and prefer the certain knowledge of God’s commands. Only by doing this can we hope to avoid even more casualties in the cultural Christian wars…