The last two weeks I have written about saving evangelicalism. I do believe it is worth saving—or, perhaps I should say it is worth renewing. If evangelicalism is simply to be saved in its current state, a self-indulgent movement where each person is a church of one and is taught how to become the person of destiny they were designed to be—then I say let it die, and the sooner the better.
But there is a spark in evangelicalism that, if done right, can be fanned into a flame that will be a light that illuminates Jesus to a very dark world. Today I want to look at one aspect of evangelicalism that needs to be renewed—to have its wick trimmed, as it were, sticking with the flame metaphor. Last week I said there is something missing in many evangelical services these days: The Gospel. I want to suggest some ways that the Gospel can once again be the focus of our worship services. Michael Spencer wrote extensively on evangelical liturgy, essays you can find by using the drop box to the right and scrolling down to Evangelical Liturgy. I recommend you spend some time reading (or re-reading) his thoughts. I do not agree with all he wrote, at least not for today’s evangelicals. His suggestions were coming, at least in part, from his time as a supply preacher at a local Presbyterian church. Not many evangelical churches will want to mirror this mainline denomination’s style of worship. Having said that, we evangelicals can learn much from our mainline brethren, as well as from Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox styles and means of worship. I am writing as an evangelical to evangelicals. If you align yourself with another aspect of Christianity, I welcome your insights and suggestions. Obviously, we need all the help we can get if we are to renew this movement.
Let me first start with a few observations. I said evangelical services are missing the Gospel. So just what do I mean by “the Gospel”? Let Isaiah say it for us:
Hey there! All who are thirsty,
come to the water!
Are you penniless?
Come anyway—buy and eat!
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
Buy without money—everything’s free!
Why do you spend your money on junk food,
your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?
Isaiah 55:1,2, The Message
The Gospel is Good News. It is the Good News that those who are hungry and thirsty yet are broke can come and eat and drink for free. Our privilege as Christians is to steer those who are dying of thirst away from drinks that won’t satisfy their longing, and those who are starving away from junk food that won’t nourish. It is not a plan or a program or a way of life. Our meat and drink is a person, Jesus of Nazareth. In our worship services, the focus must be Jesus or we are wasting the time of everyone who comes. More than that, we are asking them to spend their money on junk food and cotton candy. And this Good News is not just for those yet to begin their faith journey. Christians need to hear the Gospel daily. I know I do.
Another observation. I realize that there is a lot more to a church than just the Sunday morning service. If that were all there was, what a waste. It would be like erecting a building, outfitting the interior with a large kitchen and dining areas, bringing in tables and chairs and glasses and silverware, hiring a staff, preparing food and beverages, and printing a menu—then only being open for breakfast one morning a week. What a waste. There are many other things a church does than just host a worship service on the weekend. But for the purpose of this essay we are just going to look at the weekly worship service.
One final observation before jumping in. I still believe regular attendance at a worship service is important to one who claims to follow Christ. Our eyesight is not as good as we think it is, and life often knocks us out-of-focus on the one whom we should be looking at constantly. Thus the worship service must have as its goal to get us to focus on Jesus. If this is not the purpose of the service, then it is worse than a waste of time. It is serious mismanagement of the souls of those in attendance, and those in charge should be greatly afraid of standing before the God who will hold them to account.
Now, let’s begin.
A good place to begin is at the beginning, don’t you think? Evangelicals have, for the most part, abandoned the call to worship. It needs to be reintroduced. Many churches offer coffee, donuts—even full breakfasts—before the service. This is a time to visit with friends, greet visitors, and get your caffeine fix before the service starts. But evangelicals, being rather informal, can stretch this over the beginning of the service. A chat with a friend continues beyond the start of the service, with people wandering into the sanctuary in the middle of songs, finding their seats, telling their spouses where they were and what they were talking about. It is distracting and discourteous activity, and it occurs with regularity. This is not a baseball game where it’s ok to miss the first couple at-bats as you get a dog and a Coke. And even baseball games have a call to worship—the national anthem. This is a way to say “the event you came for is now beginning. Please focus your eyes on the field of play.”
A good call to worship will quiet the voices and thoughts of those in the sanctuary. It is a time to put aside the thoughts of what happened before you reached church and what is going to happen after church. It is a way to say, “You have stepped into the court of the King. Act accordingly.” A good call to worship is a scriptural admonition to praise our God, followed by a brief prayer asking the Holy Spirit to accompany us in our praise.
This takes us to the song service. It is the part evangelicals like to call “worship,” as if we only worship God with music. We have discussed the full-fledged assault contemporary Christian music has made into the song services in great detail often on this site, so I am not going to revisit those refrains. For today, let us remember that the purpose of the worship service is to focus our eyes on Jesus. Any song that does not help the worshipper to do this should not be included in the service. We need to be singing about who Jesus is, not what he means to me. To be honest, what he “means” to you or to me is irrelevant. What President Obama means to you is of very little consequence. Who he is is the leader of our nation, and thus one of the leaders of this world as it is. How I feel about him and what he means to me does not affect who he is.
Hymns. Where have they gone? Why have we abandoned hymns, so rich in theology (which is how we think about and talk about God)? I can tell you why many evangelical churches have done so. It’s because they don’t “test well” to meet the “felt needs” of seekers. Really. So instead we get cute young people wearing trendy clothing singing songs about who Jesus means to them. And many of these songs are not meant for congregational singing; thus, the congregation is left just watching—especially men. If you attend an evangelical church, look around you this Sunday during the singing of a non-hymn and tell me how many men you see singing along. I’ll wager the majority of men in your service are staring at the lyrics on the screen without singing, or are looking at their phones. Now, if you attend a church that still sings hymns, do the same thing. If you are holding a physical hymnal it is hard to hold a phone. Even if the lyrics are on a screen, I’ll bet those same men are at least trying to sing along.
Yes, evangelical musicians will beat the pants off of most Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Lutheran musicians. The kids can rock, can’t they? And they love to. But the Sunday morning service is not a concert. It is not a time to show your chops. It is not for guitar or drum solos, unless you can show me how they focus my eyes on Jesus. Please lose the directions (“Let’s all lift our hands to Jesus!”). Just lead us in songs that lead us to Jesus. Stop with the show.
The final thing we will look at this morning is something that gives many evangelicals the vapors. It is the saying of the creeds. If ever there was a way for Rome to wiggle its way into evangelicalism, the thinking goes, it is through the creeds. Have you noticed how evangelicals get really suspicious over anything that is done the same way week after week, insisting that the Holy Spirit should not be restrained in this way, but given “liberty” to act spontaneously in our services? As if the Holy Spirit needs our permission to act as he will. Do we really wield that kind of power over God?
This is, in a great extent, a knee-jerk reaction to formal liturgy found in other services. It is a mark of an evangelical service to not do anything so formal as to recite a creed. Yet this keeps evangelicals from developing a sense of unity with other believers who are reciting those same creeds at the same time in other parts of the world. It keeps them from a sense of their place in the history of the church. And it keeps them from learning the foundations of the faith that are articulated so clearly in the creeds.
It takes less than a minute for the congregation to read the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed aloud together, so the specious argument that there’s no time in the service for the creeds holds no water. And as for the idea that reciting the creeds will turn one into a Catholic, well, if it were really only that easy.
We will continue this conversation this afternoon.