One of my favorite TV character is Mr. Bean, played by Rowan Atkinson. One of my favorite scenes is his experience of church. Mr. Bean goes to church and then we see what he experiences from the singing to the preaching. Although his caricature exaggerates the worst of worship experience in the Anglican Church, I suspect that there’s more than a grain of truth in this little skit. The fact is, the church’s tradition and ethnic association affect every single congregation. It’s impossible to get away from these social factors when it comes to worship, but we have tried. One area in which we have made some efforts is our worship style.
There’re many good reasons for updating our worship styles and some not-so-good ones. Here’s one that seems sub par. If our music sounds like rock songs or pop songs, people will come. I call it the secular argument for updating church or simply the “evangelism by coolness argument.” I wish it were that simple. I think we can learn a lot from the media portrait of church. Let’s put aside what the Bible says about church just for this blog and look at church experience from the unchurched person’s point of view.
So, let’s call our visitor Mr. Seeker. Let’s see what Mr. Seeker expects. Mr. Seeker comes into church, and he sees a bunch of people playing music that contains some crazy words about God and water and love and some other metaphors. What do you think come to Mr. Seeker’s mind? Coolness? I doubt it. He’ll probably quickly become Mr. Confused. It gets better. Mr. Seeker then sees people standing up and sitting down and raising their hands. Some are smiling with their eyes closed, swaying back and forth like they’re on some drug trip. Why are these people doing this? Why do some raise one hand while others raise two? What is this? The only time Mr. Seeker have seen people raise their hands to music (but probably not smiling strangely) is in rock concerts.
Comparing the two, we have to ask one question. Would Mr. Seeker think that just because he didn’t get what he expected that church is cool? Let’s break cool down for a second. Oh, by the way, what I mean by “cool” is what sophisticated Christian people call “relevant.” Would a bunch of people raising their hands, smiling with their eyes closed and repeating a few words over and over again be cooler than the robed choir and preacher along with an organ? I don’t know. That’s a real tossup. Mr. Seeker probably finds BOTH equally uncool or at least irrelevant.
I’ll tell you what Mr. Seeker thinks is cool and relevant. He probably thinks going to a Metallica concert is a lot cooler and more relevant. Those guys are in Metallica are the epitome of cool. So, how come cool churches (you know the kind with nightclub-looking interior and rock and roll contemporary band) are growing in some areas? It is because they attract other CHRISTIANS who believe in this coolness. In other words, let me put things quite bluntly. Cool churches are often (but not always of course) doing sheep swapping. They swap out their older discontent traditionalists with a younger (equally fed up with traditional church) crowd. All this does is lowering the average age. It has nothing to do with coolness or relevance OR EVEN CONVERSION.
I recall bringing one unbeliever to church once (not here, but somewhere else long ago), and he kept wanting to put money in the offering plate because of “cool” worship-centered event. He treated the worship like a show and offering plate like the box office. I just couldn’t get through to him when I explain offering because he has NO concept about offering or giving. He does have concepts about paying at the box office. AND since he had to pay (though we all told him it was FREE), he never saw the need to come back to church again. After all, NFL on Sunday morning TV is a lot cooler AND you can get it for free.
Cool? Nah, it’s overrated. Change in worship style may not be the silver bullet that kills the werewolf of church attendance decline many think it is.
Now I don’t want to end my blog on a negative note. What can people get out of a more modern style of worship? Let’s say, for the moment, that all the songs are theologically sound and so on. Younger people who are raised in church will get something out of the modern service. They are just more exposed to the modern musical genre than the older folks, and the religious words still make sense to them. Thus, modern style of worship has its place. However its main function would not be outreach. Its main function may be lamb retention.
Of course, we may also want to exercise caution when we implement anything new. We may want to consider whom we may alienate. Any change can alienate unnecessarily if it is not done right. That’s something every church would have to think about. For starters, a good example would be the alienation of the older folks via modern style of worship. Some modern services are just too loud for old folks with weak hearts. I mean this literally and seriously because I’ve been told by seniors that this is the case and I’m pretty sure they were not lying.. This is one reason why many churches have two different styles of worship in two services. I won’t go into the pros and cons of such a scheme. I only say that to illustrate that we could well lose a lot of wise old folks who served and built the church since its opening. While it is fine for young members to enjoy the fruit of the old folks’ labor, it would not be good to say, “There’s the door if you don’t like the change.”