Ken Tanner informs me that my attempt last Sunday at blogging in epigrammatic style was not as successful as I hoped, for he has come upon some testimony that the following was found ambiguous by some readers:
As nearly as I can tell, the theological justification for the musical program of the megachurch is that it brings in far more people than it drives away.
I shall here try to remedy the defect.
The observation arose from meditation on the horrifying visit my wife and I made to the Evangelical church where I grew up, evidently now conducting itself as a megachurch wannabe, as many of these churches presently are. We live (in several senses) in a different state, and had not been there for more than twenty years. The service we attended was identified as “traditional,” and we expected something not too far removed from the order of only several decades ago—what the older people in the church would be more comfortable with.
Nope. The liturgy began with the Worship Leader giving a Tonight Show downbeat to the band: “a-one-two-three-four . . . .” And then it began: “CELEBRATE!” everybody bawled, “CELEBRATE!” As the jubilation continued I looked at my wife, she looked back at me, and we mouthed the question, “Traditional?” at each other. I looked over at the anciennes veuves on the other side of the aisle. They were quite unfazed—the old ladies were celebrating right along with the rest. The noise was incredible, and the climax of the piece was coming. Finally the band and the congregation reached it, crescendoing from the original fortissimo to a tutta forza, and then, when it was over, fell back into a satisfied release. A good time was clearly had by all but us. Some kind of sacré du printemps had ended, at least for the time being, and we, embarrassed, like people who have accidentally walked in on someone else’s lovemaking, left the church as soon as we could, glad there were few who had recognized us.
Now granted, dear reader, you may not be as taken aback by these things as we were, but the point here is that we were. We didn’t like it, not one little bit. It’s not simply that it impressed us as orgiastic—for that there might be some justification—but as shallow, stupid, irreverent, and ugly. Responsive to popular taste? No question about it, just as any entertainment enterprise must be to remain in business. This was the religious equivalent of AM radio.
The main line of pastoral and hence theological apology I have heard for the kind of service that concentrates on what is generally attractive is that it is—generally attractive. It brings people in, worldly people, people from the streets and suburbs who might not otherwise come to church and hear the gospel. This virtue covers the multitude of sins that might be alleged against it. People are brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through these services who might otherwise not be. Souls are rescued from the torments of hell. What sort of crabbed and wicked mind could oppose this?
Mine. Here is the point of the epigram above—that there is another side to all this. What of the people who likewise need Christ, but are horrified and embarrassed by the loud, crude, simplistic, and juvenile performances they meet at churches like this, and who, if Christ is to be met at them, will never meet him there, and are thus placed in danger of going to hell in the same handbasket that has just been used to transport heavenwards those graced with arrested development?
This is to say that the service-of-worship-as-attraction-evangelism knife cuts both ways—there is always a backstroke of repulsion dysangelism. To note that those who are sent scampering off by the liturgical ordeals they must face in such churches are only a minority, like people who favor classical music, is no argument in its favor. To endorse attraction evangelism is in fact an attempt to justify such programs theologically by asserting that they attract far more sinners than they repel, which is no justification at all. That is what I meant in last Sunday’s blog.
No liturgy can be justified to any degree whatever by the level of attraction or repulsion it exercises—especially on those who are in no position to evaluate the ways of a church for which they not only do not bear pastoral responsibility, but to which they do not even yet belong! Legitimate attractiveness of the worship service must always be a by-product of sanctification, and so of the ability to understand and appreciate beauty in the broadest and deepest senses, the beauty of God in Christ as reflected in the sounds and acts of worship. Education in the knowledge and love of God is also growth in the understanding of the transcendentals, of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and so in the objective validity of one’s attractions.
Attractiveness as a criterion of value in worship, which includes the demented notion that everyone present should be able to understand everything that is said and done in it, apart from elevation of the heart and mind (sursum corda!), is simply a way of justifying pearls before swine—and here I do not refer simply to the gentile, but the swinish nature within, with which every Christian must do battle. The beauty of the liturgy, no matter what culture it arises from or what collective taste colors it, must strike those who observe it from outside as coming from above the confines of their own worlds, as “something else,” as having a justification that involves the elevation of the mind and its senses because it comes from beyond and is by no means answerable to it. Which is to say that a large number of churches have things precisely backwards.