Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Necessity of Correct Worshiping

In my previous post, I pointed out that in many of the churches I visited that many of the biblical elements of worship have disappeared or suffered from neglect. Is that important?

In Ezekiel 8, the prophet in a vision is brought into the inner court of the temple. There he records, "...at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. Then he said to me, 'Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here....'"

The vision of people gathered at the temple in Jerusalem and worshiping a pagan deity is a vivid and disturbing one, and some would argue this couldn't happen among God's people in our day. However, this presents in clear terms the danger of worship that is disconnected from its biblical moorings. Can worship being conducted in a Christian church descend into mere idolatry? Anyone who thinks not should take heed lest he fall.

Worship will always be flavored with local cultural tastes, but it must be regulated by the Word of God. Unregulated worship carried on based on personal tastes and community desires poses a danger to the worship of the true God.

This post is a part of a year long project. The Table of Contents is here.

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Reformation Project: What is Worship?

Over the course of 20 posts going back to early November, I have written descriptions and analyses of my visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. For ease of locating this material, I have also provided a Table of Contents.

Having completed that portion of this project, I now want to spend some time thinking about what this work may indicate about the current state of the church. Certainly, the churches visited were not identical, and there were some outliers in terms of the overall trends. Nonetheless, the churches showed some remarkable areas of similarity that can be examined with a view of what they mean in terms of how modern Christians understand the purpose of the church and the nature of the Christian life.

In this post, I want to begin posting some thoughts regarding worship.

Beginning with the "Jesus movement" of the 1960's, and with greater fervor over the last couple of decades, American Christians -- particularly those who lean toward evangelical faith -- have engaged in what has been termed "worship wars." That phrase is arguably misleading, and even problematic, in that the "war" has actually been over only one aspect of worship -- music -- and has rarely engaged other elements of worship. In fact, for many younger Christians the word "worship," at least in a corporate context, is more or less synonymous with the word "music."

Thus, in many modern American churches, many elements of worship have been de-emphasized or have disappeared entirely with very little notice. While tremendous amounts of attention are given to musical production, matters such as the reading of Scripture (except, perhaps, the text of the sermon) and prayer have the appearance of being afterthoughts or have disappeared altogether. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper has become less frequent. While baptism continues to be practiced as a means of entering the church, its significance for the church community as community has been significantly degraded. A generation (or more) of evangelical Protestants have no experience of a worship service involving a confession of sin and a pronouncement of assurance of pardon by the minister (some might even think that a Roman Catholic concept). Do the majority of Protestant churchgoers any longer know the meaning or purpose of a call to worship or a benediction? For many, there is no point in asking about the recitation of a creed, as they recoil at the mere mention of the word.

A review of the accounts of the churches I visited will point to the fact that in the rapidly growing sectors of American Christianity, these types of elements have either disappeared or appear to be minimally important. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one, to suggest that these churches, and those that emulate them, view what happens on Sunday morning as involving 30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of a talk from the pastor. Of course, there are announcements.

While these trends are accelerating, it would be a mistake to regard them as new, as they find their roots in American revivalism, especially in the Second Great Awakening of the early and mid 1800's and its aftermath. As revivalists, and the churches longing for the results they offered, emphasized the use of extraordinary measures designed to produce those results, they downplayed -- or even ridiculed -- elements of ordinary worship that didn't seem geared toward building momentum toward the moment of decision. Thus, the understanding and nature of the worship gathering began to be fundamentally altered 200 years ago.

In the modern church, that has also meant a widespread change of terminology and outlook. What once was called the "worship service," is now referred to in most of the churches I visited as a "worship experience." This is not a merely semantic change. While most Christians would still likely say that they come to church to meet with God, the "worship experience" terminology suggests that the focus of worship is no longer a dialogical encounter with a God who exists outside of themselves and is more oriented toward the inward experience of engaging in worship activity. That being the case, churches must reorient themselves to make sure that they provide this experience to their congregants (customers?).

This means that much of the content of worship has been eliminated while the emotional uplift of the music has been accentuated, but this creates a long term problem for the church. Lacking a sufficient basis for getting excited, one wonders how long the energy of worship can be maintained. Sports fans often complain about fans that do "the wave" instead of watching the game, but churches that create largely content-free experiences would seem like a stadium where people gather to do the wave even though there is no actual game being played.

The elements I briefly described above have been practiced for centuries in churches because they were deemed to be required by Scripture. The question of scriptural fidelity has rarely been considered as changes in worship have been made to address the wishes of attendees. In addition to not asking whether practises are called for in Scripture, advocates of revised worship practises have rarely questioned whether anything is being lost by the truncation of worship into little more than music. I will mention just a few:

1. Inclusion of these worship elements provides a structure for re-orienting those in attendance toward a God centered and cross centered faith and away from a self-centered faith and performance oriented ministry.
2. In many Protestant church traditions, the various elements of the worship service provide a trinitarian structure that is important for Christian teaching. The struggles that many Christians have with understanding the triune God of Christian teaching would be helped by a return to proper worship that included prayer and the use of creedal and confessional material expressing trinitarian faith.
3. Incorporation of elements of worship such as confession of sin and assurance of pardon makes them key to the ongoing understanding of the church and the ordinary meaning of worship, which is where they should be. If these elements are not part of worship, then it becomes the job of the pastor to make sure that they are covered in the sermon. That is too much to do in a sermon on a weekly basis, and, as will note later in the posts on preaching, it does not happen.
4. All of this being the case, one should easily see that in providing for these elements of worship, the Spirit of God is active in worship teaching us, convicting us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. The elements may not drive an emotional response in the way that marketers would have us run the service, but they are central to Christian understanding.
5. The elements of worship require active involvement of congregants. Where they have disappeared, they have often been replaced by performance from the stage (I used to think that the term "stage" was an insult, but now I find church leaders using it routinely). Engaged participation is more healthy as a worship practice.

When I visited these 10 churches, my intent was to worship with them even as I studied them, but I all to frequently left with the sad thought that the God presented in worship was hardly worth bothering with. In a future post, I will deal with music and preaching, but I am writing about other aspects of worship first because the reformation of worship understanding is a foundational issue in our day.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to St. John Baptist Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to St. John Baptist Church. In this one, I will provide some analysis of that visit. Because the prior post is foundational to this one, I would recommend that the reader look back at that one prior to proceeding here.

I did not know much about the church prior to the visit, though one past action by the church has gained some attention in the local religious community. Several years ago, Pastor Denny Davis opened his pulpit to Joel Gregory, the former co-pastor at First Baptist Dallas, thus beginning the rehabilitation of his ministry. 

St. John Church, with a reported average attendance of 8,800, is the 10th largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. While some aspects of the church service were high tech (the use of video to make announcements), overall the service was more traditional in nature than any of the churches visited for this study. Black churchgoers from past generations would have recognized the liturgy, music, and sermonic style of the service.The advertisement of upcoming revival services represented a look back at an era that is now largely past.

Thus, the musical selections used for both congregational and special music were repetitive and emotional, though, as noted in my earlier description, the songs did contain Gospel content. While the presence of such is a positive, one should note that the music also contained some of the weak theology common in modern evangelical churches. Thus, the statement that the singer knows that God is real "because I can feel him in my soul" falls far short of biblical defenses of the faith, which rely on more objective considerations, such as the empty tomb. Nonetheless, the congregational music was more singable -- and more widely sung -- than what was experienced in other churches that were involved in this study.

The sermon had as its theme the cost of discipleship, and the pastor made a serious effort at expounding the text and applying it to his congregation. At one point, he even referenced a resource that he had relied on to help him in his understanding of the text. While he did a good job of handling the scripture, the sermon might have been improved by pulling in thoughts of Christ's dying and rising for us, as well as of the Spirit's work in calling the believer to serve Christ. While those thoughts were not in the text itself, bringing them in as a means of showing the motivation and power that God gives to the believer to fulfill what is required in the text would have been helpful.

This is the last post summarizing my visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In future posts I will begin to draw some conclusions based on these findings.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting St. John Baptist Church

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas, March 2, 2014 -- Located in a working class neighborhood in Grand Prairie, the church has only small parking lots, and many of those arriving for the service are forced to park on small neighborhood streets.  The church holds multiple services in order to accommodate its crowds, and it was of interest to realize when arriving for the 9:00 a.m. service that the earlier service, which began at 7:00 a.m., was relatively full.

Entering the front of the building, one finds himself in a small, crowded lobby. As the 7:00 a.m. service was still ongoing, those arriving were asked to line up along the right side so that those in the earlier service would be able to file out. Other attendees waiting were friendly. A woman standing near me struck up a conversation, asking if it were my first time attending and telling me how much she liked coming to church here. Several ministers wore clerical collars. When, after entering the sanctuary, I asked one for help finding a restroom, he started to give directions, realized it was getting difficult to follow, and took the time to walk me in the required direction.

The sanctuary was by far the smallest of the churches attended for this study, and at first I wondered if the attendance figures reported by the Hartford Institute were inflated. However, the church has two campuses, multiple services, and children meeting elsewhere for separate services, making the claimed attendance possible. The pulpit area was also relatively small, with a band and choir squeezed in behind a traditional pulpit area that included a white marble podium. For some reason there were NFL football pennants attached around the pulpit.

The facility is aging, but well-kept. Banners, which appeared to be home (or church) made, hanging along the side walls contained titles for Christ such as Lamb of God, King of Kings, and Lion of Judah.

The choir entered around ten minutes after the stated starting time wearing white and navy choir robes. The service began with two energetic songs, led by a song leader and praise team and an instrumental band of guitarists, drummer, and keyboardist. The songs were repetitive, but contained gospel content. One entitled “I Just Want to Bless your Name” included a verse discussing being ransomed by the blood of Jesus. The song leader led in prayer.

After those songs, several announcements were delivered via video. The St. John Bible Institute has the purpose of providing more detailed Bible study for laymen. Other announcements concerned an upcoming mission trip, a class for those planning on getting married, an upcoming emphasis on fasting, discipleship groups, and a holy week revival featuring a speaker from out of town. A short video highlighting the church’s singles ministry talked about focusing less on who to marry than on why.

Another video featured the work of a scientist named George Caruthers, who is a black Baptist and a renowned scientist. A prayer of Thanksgiving was offered.

After one of the ministers made some additional announcements not on video, visitors were asked to stand. Only a few did so. This was followed by a fellowship time in which members milled about shaking hands while music played.

At this point, the choir performed an animated anthem, with much rhythmic clapping and swaying involved. Some in the congregation stood and clapped along with the choir during the performance. After that, Pastor Denny Davis came to the pulpit and asked for those having March birthdays to stand. After leading the congregation in singing Happy Birthday, he made some additional announcements about upcoming meetings. A soloist, along with the choir, then sang a song entitled “God Is Real,” which claimed that “God is real because I can feel Him in my soul.”

By the time Pastor Davis stood to preach, the service was nearly an hour long. Wearing a Geneva gown, he announced after a prayer that the title of his sermon was “Whatever it Takes,” taking for his text Luke 9:57-62, which reads as follows (ESV):

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus[a] said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Rev. Davis pointed out that in the text Jesus was exposing shallow commitments by some would be followers. After humorously referencing some secular love songs that make verbal commitments to one’s love that go well beyond what most men will actually follow through on, he pointedly stated that many Christians will sing, “I surrender all,” when they mean: “I surrender some.”

From this text, the pastor first talked about “the cost of followship.” He contrasted Jesus’ promise of the possibility of homelessness with the claims of modern prosperity preaching. He contended that Christians should not expect prosperity, but hardship, but added that rather than complain about our plight, Christians should remember the things that Jesus endured for us.

Second, the pastor spoke about “the urgency of followship.” Acknowledging that verses 59-60 appeared to be harsh, the pastor told the congregation that he had relied on a book entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus (F.F. Bruce) to help explain the passage. Ultimately, he urged upon the congregation that we must move beyond past pain and be ready to move forward to the future in order to follow Jesus.

Finally, he spoke about the “commitment of followship,” which is to the King. One cannot follow Jesus and follow self at the same time. The pastor contended that no one can follow him and follow self at the same time. He argued that Jesus is saying here, “I have developed the rules. If you want to follow me, you have to live by the rules.”

From this point through the end of the sermon, the pastor began to use a melodic delivery that was punctuated by chords played by the organist. He closed by relating children’s games such as Simon Says to the necessity of following the words of Jesus and praying for the congregation.


An invitation for people to come forward was then made as the choir sang. The service concluded with an offering and communion taking place simultaneously while the choir and a soloist sang “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power.” Prayers were made both prior to and following the offering/communion ceremony.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Watermark Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to Watermark Church. In this one, I will provide some analysis of that visit. Because the prior post is foundational to this one, I would recommend that the reader look back at that one prior to proceeding here.

Watermark Church, with a reported average attendance of just under 9,000, is the 9th largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The nondenominational church was founded in 1999 with a determination to evidence authenticity of their faith in Jesus Christ. That focus on authenticity is the reason for the church's name. While the church is not a part of a formal denomination, its beliefs are baptistic and dispensational.

While some of the music used in the service contained good content, it seemed overwhelmed by the performance focus of the service. In fact, the entire service, from the pop style performance music to the emotionally anxious lead singer to the preacher clad in untucked shirt telling 10 minutes worth of jokes before giving practical advice from the Bible gave the appearance of a giant youth retreat. That is not to suggest that all that happened here was bad; it is just that the service, for better or for worse, had a vibe to it.

So, the minister on this Sunday offered up practical advice on the subject of marriage. This is something that the Scripture certainly addresses, and to the pastor's credit, he utilized a lot of Bible passages in his sermon. Even so, the sermon left me with a somewhat vague sense of uneasiness. In thinking through it later, I realized that the uneasiness largely came from the realization that the minister over promised: that is to say, in his zeal to offer therapy in the midst of our therapeutic culture, he stated assurances in a way that goes beyond what God has promised to us.

Consider the following ideas expressed in the sermon:

  • If the church started getting marriage right, it would be the most earth shattering thing that the church could do;
  • Marriages can't be made right unless the Gospel enters the marriage; and
  • In a list of characteristics of successful marriages, he stated that they radically depend on Christ.
While no one should doubt that good marriages among Christians would be a positive for both church and world, the first of those bullets is biblically false. Jesus himself pointed out that even if one rose from the dead that many would not believe, and the truthfulness of that statement was demonstrated in the aftermath of his own resurrection. If the resurrection of the dead and the proclamation of the gospel lack earth shattering impact, what makes us think that our marriages would have the same? We should encourage one another in our marriages without giving to ourselves such a sense of self-importance.

The second and third bullets are demonstrably false. All of us, I suspect, know non-Christians with wonderful marriages, and we likely know Christians that have struggling ones. None of this is to say that the believer's relationship with Christ makes no difference to his marriage, nor would we deny that the Bible offers practical guidance in this area. However, in this age of the already and not yet, God's common grace to all men frequently permits them to enjoy happiness in marriage, just as the incompleteness of the sanctification of believer's often means we do poorly at marriage in this fallen world. Again, none of this should be used to excuse Christian failures (I certainly don't want to be guilty of excusing my own). However, the situation is simply more complex than the minister described it, and all of the above thoughts need to be included in wise pastoral counsel.

Good pastors should give wise counsel from Scripture about our family life. The Scripture, and the preaching of law and gospel, form the center of the pastor's message and expertise. Getting the gospel right is the most potentially earth shattering thing that the church can do. This is what must be offered to both the church and the world.

In my next two posts I will conclude this portion of the study by looking at the tenth of the largest churches in this region.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Watermark Church

DALLAS, Texas, February 23, 2014 -- Watermark Church had taken over and renovated an office complex on the south side of the Lyndon Baines Johnson freeway in North Dallas. At the time of my visit, significant construction had been ongoing, affecting both the freeway and the frontage road along which the church facility was located.  While that certainly could not have helped attendance, the church seemingly has flourished during this time of extended inconvenience.

Entering the building, one finds an enormous lobby that once functioned as the central lobby of the office complex. A large section to one side is filled with small tables at which people are seated chatting and drinking coffee. The coffee is free. Unlike many of the other churches visited, the café space in the center of the lobby is closed for Sunday. Around the café area, one can find brochures about various church activities and functions, including one describing a ministry called “re:generation.” This is a sort of recovery group. It was interesting to note that an important theological term was reappropriated for the purpose of branding that ministry.

From one side of the lobby, one can also see a children’s area that includes a jungle gym. Going through a door to that side, one finds a small pool such as is common at suburban office complexes. 
Going back inside and into the church auditorium, one finds himself in a large, semi-circular room that has a small feel due to the width of it. The room is crowded, as the passage ways between the seating sections are small. The large stage has faux wood paneling on either side, as well as two large video screens running a series of announcements about church ministries and events. At some point, a countdown clock begins displaying when the service will begin. The eight member band comes to the stage, and music promptly begins to play when the clock hits zero.

The service began with a set of five songs mingled with some talking by the worship leader and a prayer. The first song did contain some gospel content. At one point, the leader urged unbelievers to pay attention to the next song, as it would teach about who God is, but the song actually had little to say about God. The group of songs concluded with  “Cornerstone,” which consists of the lyrics to Toplady’s  “The Solid Rock” with a new tune and chorus that strings some thoughts together without any discernable purpose. Seemingly coincidentally, this song had now been sung at four of the nine churches visited to this point for the project.

In addition to the video screens, sections of the wall behind the stage changed colors frequently.
Following this singing, Pastor Todd Wagner came to center stage, using no pulpit as he spoke to the congregation while dressed in an untucked white shirt with light patterned stripes, jeans, and sneakers.

Wagner said that he would be talking about marriage today. He declared that if the church started getting this issue right that it would be the most earth shattering thing that the church could do. He claimed that marriages can’t be made right unless the gospel enters into the marriage. Citing statistics showing the impact of divorce on children, he quoted from Malachi the statement that “God hates divorce.”

Before launching into the body of his sermon, Pastor Wagner told a series of jokes about marriage, each concluding with the statement “…that’s when the fight started.  He then quoted and made brief comments about several scriptures related to marriage relationships, though he didn’t really expound any of them. Ultimately, he did use a variety of Bible passages to support his contention that there are five characteristics of individuals that have successful marriages:

  1. They resist the lies that push them into a bad relationship in the first place;
  2. They ruthlessly commit to their marriage;
  3. They regularly consider themselves to be the biggest problem;
  4. They radically depend on Christ; and
  5. They relentlessly live humbly in relationship with others.
While dwelling on the first point, Rev. Wagner made an extended and passionate argument for sexual purity prior to marriage. He closed the sermon with prayer. He mentioned that he had a video that he wanted to show, but they were out of time. Instead the service closed with a pictoral montage on the video screens of the pastor and his wife, as well as others, while the band played music.

In my next post I will provide some analysis of the service.