Is Evangelical Worship Superficial?

A must read article hits at why I find many worship services hollow and why I have struggled with a lot of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology over the years.  Two excerpts from Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary:

Excerpt #1:
Entertainment has apparently become many people’s primary purpose of existence. I doubt that it would surprise Pascal that the world has increased the size, scope, and comprehensiveness of distraction. It would not puzzle him that death has been reduced to little more than a comic-book cartoon in countless action movies or into a mere momentary setback in soap operas and sitcoms. Indeed, he would not find it perplexing that the bleak spiritual violence of mortality leaves no lasting mark on the bereaved in the surreal yet seductive world of popular entertainment.

But he might well be taken aback that the churches have so enthusiastically endorsed this project of distraction and diversion. This is what much of modern worship amounts to: distraction and diversion. Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshipers from life’s more difficult realities.

Excerpt #2:

Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.

It is therefore an irony of the most perverse kind that churches have become places where Pascalian distraction and a notion of entertainment that eschews the tragic seem to dominate just as comprehensively as they do in the wider world. I am sure that the separation of church buildings from graveyards was not the intentional start of this process, but it certainly helped to lessen the presence of death. The present generation does not have the inconvenience of passing by the graves of loved ones as it gathers for worship. Nowadays, death has all but vanished from the inside of churches as well.

Read the whole thing here:


Criticism of contemporary worship is nothing new.  It often revolves around whether we are influencing the culture, or whether the culture is influencing us.  ”Did we abandon classic hymns so that we can sound relevant in our churches?” “Is the sound of drums and guitars less reverent than the sound of choirs, an organ, or a piano?”  And a deeper critique has been, “Are the lyrics presenting good, sound theology as many of the old hymns did?”  ”Or are they shallow, slogans?”

But this article suggests something much more troubling.  That our modern worship intentionally tries to shield us from the tragedy of our fallen world.  That we want the happy, re-assuring gospel, and not the gospel that spends a lot of it’s time not only talking about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, but that we refuse to believe there are consequences to the fall that we will not defeat in this world.

In my Wesleyan-Holiness upbringing, I never heard the Fall talked about seriously.  It was clear that there were many things that were sin, but we were to stay away from those, and with Jesus’ help, all should be okay.  It wasn’t quite Joel Osteen, but it was uncomfortably (or comfortably) close.  Our Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and Joel Osteen do have something in common.  Their theology has a uniquely American, triumphalistic element to it that seems to assure you that the good guys always win.  ”Your best life now.”  ”We can totally defeat sin.”  ”We will have the victory.”  Yes, of course we knew that there were problems in the world and that the best would come in the next world, but there was a subtle and not-so-subtle-suggestion that a good Christian is always optimistic, happy, and victorious.

The truth is though, that many of the Christians I know (myself most of all) are not always optimistic, happy, and victorious.  In fact, we can often be the exact opposite:  discouraged, depressed, and at a loss for how to manage the challenges in our life–despite our love for the Lord and our faith in Jesus.  It often leads to a disconnect in the Christian’s life:  ”All the language, music, and people I hang out with say I should feel joyful and victorious every second of the day, but I don’t really feel that way. What to do?”  The answer is either:  1) Hide the truth about your feelings or 2) Deny that you feel that way.

A theology that takes the consequences of the fall has answers for this.  This world is not currently in the state God intended.  In fact, it is far from it.  Yet through history and through the life and sacrifice of Jesus, a massive redemption process is under way that will lead to a world that will be the fulfillment of our deepest desires.  Where we will finally feel at home.  Where we will be who we truly want to be at our deepest core.  I describe it as the feeling you have when you get back to your house from a long trip away.  You enter the door, take off your shoes, and are suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of familiarity.  This is your shelter, this is your refuge, this is where everything feels comfortable and you can truly let down and be yourself.  It’s good to be home and sleeping in your own bed.”  Heaven will be that kind of feeling, but on a much more profound level.  ”Ah, this is what I always wanted and who I really am deep down.  I am home.”

But that is the next world, not this one.  ”My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said.   Yet he also proclaimed that the Kingdom had arrived.  What he meant was that the great climax of the process of redemption had started:  his work on the cross and the resurrection.  But he did not mean that this current world would suddenly be a perfect and just place.  Quite the opposite, he warned that it would get worse before it would be better.

But do we ever want to think of how it is worse now? Do we mourn for what could have been and what is?  Do we acknowledge that there are deep needs and desires in this world that will go unfulfilled in this lifetime?  I wish my Mother were alive.  I wish she could see me now.  I wish she could know my son.  But she can’t and she won’t in this life.  And that is a tragedy.  Do we sing about that in church?  Do we talk about that in church?  The Bible has lamentations, and the church fathers talk about the tragedy of the fall, and Augustine talks of the corruption of beautiful things that sin brings to the world.  But is it in our music, our sermons, and our Evangelical culture?

This article suggests its not, or it is not enough.  I tend to agree.  The more I walk the Christian life, the more I see how hard it is and how much we have to understand why we fail and why others fail.  Nothing in my spiritual upbringing really prepared me for how I would need to deal with my own failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and the failures of others.   “Perfection,” “Holiness,” and “Victory” are what I grew up hearing all the time, but I did not see it and I could not be it.  How to explain the disconnect?

It was only after discovering Eastern Orthodox theology in 1991 and later Roman Catholic theology that I began to even have a sense that there was a Christianity that didn’t have quick, pat answers.  Within my tradition, (the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana) it was the work of Val Clear and Gene Newberry that prevented me from thinking I was a heretic.

The irony of theologies that don’t take the fall seriously (too negative and dark, not triumphalistic enough), is that they end up being dualistic (we’re good, everything else is bad).  Only the God stuff is great.  Everything else in the world is evil.  So darkness doesn’t penetrate our lives or our worship, but it is a threat all around us.  Ultimately, to me, that’s bleaker than a world tainted by a fall.  That kind of manichean worldview is hard for Third Culture Kids to swallow and it just doesn’t seem authentic.

So the idea that our worship and faith really avoids death and loss sounds right on the money to me.  Surely, some Church of God people will say, “our theology does reflect the reality of the fall, read page XX of so and so.”  But, as this article suggests, it’s what we really proclaim daily and weekly that matters.  We’re good at proclaiming “victory.” Not so good at proclaiming, “things are not always right, even within us.”  You can even see it organizationally within the Church of God.  It’s deep in our DNA. Denial.

I’ve been in meetings with other Christians where everyone was supposed to share their true hurts, pains, and fears.  But as soon as people started doing that, the pat answers came flying out at the speed of light.  There was no freedom to really express pain and frustration.  No room to mourn.  It was almost comical how no one was allowed to really express their darkest feelings because that wasn’t perceived to be true faith.

Once, Jamie and I attended a camp for wounded missionaries.  It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.  Only there (NOT in church) were people free to vent their deepest pains, frustrations, and sorrows.  I left wondering, “Why can’t church be this way?” It was intimate and it was real, and the effects of the fall were evident for all to see.  And they were in the Scriptures we studied.

I don’t think I was very well prepared for reality theologically-speaking.  But there were friends along the way, chief among them, my good friend Dean Abbott, who began showing me a more wholistic theological view that has brought more freedom.  And that freedom (in that paradoxical Jesus way) has brought a deeper understanding of life through death.