When it comes to the atmosphere of worship services in the next generation, something's got to give.
More and more churches are focusing on the centrality of the Word in worship. The resurgence of Reformed theology among younger evangelicals, the reestablishment of a rock-solid belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures in the Southern Baptist Convention, the revival of expository preaching… this wave that we're riding is about to collide with an even bigger wave: the dominance of contemporary worship styles across the U.S. and the world.
For many churches, the biggest requirement for a "worship set" is novelty. We're aiming for an experience. So we put together a worship service that is more influenced by the latest hits on Christian radio than by theology or history.
We also try to put people at ease. "Good morning… Let's try that again, GOOD MORNING!" There's a chatty, street-level style of worship that has become prevalent in evangelicalism. And I'm not sure how our pursuit of novelty and casualness in worship is going to mesh with hearing the Word of God expounded upon in all its glory.
Can a contemporary, casual service bring worshippers face to face with the glory of God in a way that buttresses and upholds the magnificent truths being expounded from the Word? I think the answer is yes, but not always.
It's like eating steak on a paper plate.
My wife is an excellent cook. Her Romanian dishes dazzle my tastebuds, and her American cooking is terrific too. In the past couple of months, she has been using paper plates frequently. I understand why. We don't have a dishwasher. She wants to save time setting the table, and she doesn't want me washing dishes after dinner. Paper plates are easy and disposable.
But after a few weeks of paper plates, I told my wife, "Your cooking is too good for paper plates." Slapping down a hot dog and baked beans on a paper plate in the middle of summer is just fine. But when my wife makes her famous pork chops and rice, or her Romanian cabbage rolls, or steak and mashed potatoes, paper plates just don't cut it. I said, "Let me wash the dishes. But at least give us dishes!"
When it comes to worship, we are frequently told that form doesn't matter. Style is not what's important. I get that. I'm not downing contemporary music or advocating a return to liturgy, organs and hymns. I've been in contemporary worship services that have put me on my knees before the holiness and majesty of God. Cultural forms adjust and adapt.
But in worship today, there is a tendency toward casualness. The emphasis on feeling God's closeness in worship may short-circuit the possibility of being transformed by a glimpse of the Transcendent One. There's hardly any room for feeling awe in worship, and I can't help but think that part of our problem is the form.
Form and content mirror one another. A church with serious Bible preaching is going to have a serious worship service (contemporary or traditional isn't what matters, but serious it will be). A church with a feel-good preacher is going to have peppy, feel-good music.
Christians need to sense the weight of God's glory, the truths of God's Word, the reality of coming judgment, and the gloriousness of God's grace. Trying to package the bigness of this God into most casual worship services is like trying to eat steak on a paper plate. You can do it for awhile, but at some point, people will start saying, "I want a dish."