Myodicy, Issue 23, June 2005

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Just Give Them
What They Want

by Theodore Plantinga

What does it take to get people into church nowadays? Whatever it takes, we'll have to do it. Just give them what they want. Such are the sentiments voiced in a great many churches and worship committees. As a member of the worship committee in my wife's Presbyterian church, I get to participate in these debates from time to time.

My thinking on these matters was stimulated -- perhaps I should say goaded -- when a friend at a church committee meeting (not the worship committee, as it happens) took a few minutes to show us part of a DVD reproduction of a workshop devoted to these questions. The workshop had taken place at a church which has an impressive record of success in these matters. The church in question had followed some often-voiced wisdom to the effect that if you hope to get people into church, you have to give them just what they want. Old-fashioned liturgy and musical styles of yesteryear cannot be forced on anyone anymore.

The Presbyterian church hosting the conference and workshop was showcasing its own success. It is officially part of a denomination with roots deep in the Reformation. I had the impression from what I saw on the DVD and from what I was told by friends who had attended the event that the conference included a fair number of people from churches that still retained a good deal in the way of traditional worship, churches that were now wondering whether this pattern could be sustained much longer. And so they came to the conference with their ears wide open.

The workshop I watched at the committee meeting (and then watched again at home with my wife) was led by the young minister of the successful church hosting the conference. The format he had chosen was a dialogue -- almost an interview -- with the music director of his church, who had come to the church more recently and was asking his colleague, the minister, to trace the path by which the church had arrived at its destination in terms of worship style. This the young man did in a rather engaging fashion.

I had expected to hear what is nowadays the conventional wisdom, namely, that "blended worship" is just the thing, but that was not his message. As he traced his own congregation's recent history (three small and not-so-viable congregations had merged to become one), he commented on a strategy that has been adopted by many churches in our time, namely, that the congregation tries to accommodate different tastes by offering both a traditional service and a contemporary service on Sunday morning. The young minister endorsed a conclusion that I have heard in other circles as well, namely, that running two Sunday-morning services that are different in style gradually breaks the congregation into two groups that come to think of themselves as "us" and "them."

The usual follow-up to the "two congregations" warning is that it is better to have a single service each Sunday morning. That one service must then be "blended" in nature, which is to say that it must include elements of both traditional and contemporary music. But this was precisely what the young minister warned against: he maintained that "blended" worship is at best a stopping point on the journey to the promised land. He appealed to a recent book which characterizes churches offering "blended" services as dwelling in "no-man's land" -- still too traditional to appeal to people who like contemporary music, and not traditional enough for those who do not respond to contemporary music. (The book was Rethinking the Church, by James Emory White, published by Baker Book House of Grand Rapids in 1996.)

The recommended destination, to which we should move as expeditiously as possible, is a service in which the people who stay away from church in droves will feel at home. In the young minister's rationale I almost heard echoes of Joshua's stirring "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve" speech (see Joshua 24).

His own church, it turned out, had done the "blended" worship number for a time, but only as a stepping stone toward its ultimate destination. As the church grew and prospered, it became necessary -- or perhaps possible -- to build a new facility. He explained that during the process of planning that facility, "the elders made a very visionary decision not to put an organ in the new church."

Since the DVD I watched was not shot from a single vantage point that focused on the speakers at the front, the viewers are allowed some impression of the sanctuary in which the worship services and the conference were held. As a friend who attended the conference had indicated, there was no cross in evidence. Except for the presence of pews, it was hard to tell that one was in a church at all. But of course the absence of the cross and all that goes with the traditional appearance of a Christian church was no accident: it was all part of the idea.

The young minister's church had followed a somewhat conventional route that led through two separate services and then went on to "blended worship." During the time of transition, a "quota system" was carefully imposed. At first the number of hymns sung during the service was limited to three. After a while it was reduced to two, then one. But it was clear that the intention was to eliminate traditional hymns altogether. The hymn book was also found to be dispensable: the services of CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) were found to be an effective substitute for hymns sung out of books. Also left behind was the notion of sheet music. The church's music director explained that you simply have to take away the sheet music, and he warned that piano players are the worst in this respect. The collection of musicians up at the front are supposed to "play by chords."

Of course one wonders how all of this went over with those members of the congregation who were used to traditional music and older liturgical patterns. The young minister reported that he received a lot of static during the time of transition. He talked about one woman in the congregation who pleaded with him to, as she put it, "throw us a bone once in a while." With his eyes fixed firmly on his destination, the young minister flatly refused -- so he reported.

And what were such people to do? His answer, in brief, is that there are other churches around where they can go and sing hymns, if this is their hearts' desire. Of course, as I listened to all of this, I had the "Just give them what they want" theme in my mind. Apparently it applies to those who are outside the church -- not to those are already within. But from another workshop I learned that the church in question began to offer Wednesday evening worship opportunities for those members who love the old hymns. "Prime time," as the young minister called it, was reserved for efforts to reach the "unchurched." It was assumed that such folks cannot relate to old-fashioned hymns. I suppose such folks don't watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and movies of that ilk during the Christmas season.

The subject of liturgy was also touched on briefly. The minister admitted that there are still some lovers of liturgy in the churches, and for them his advice was the same: There are still churches with a liturgical and sacramental emphasis around. He did not specifically mention the Anglican communion, but his advice seemed to me to boil down to: There's an Anglican church in town.

The workshop included a question-and-answer session, which was also recorded. One of the questions brought up was the subject of special seasons during the church year. More specifically, the questioner wanted to know what the young minister and his successful church did about Christmas and Easter.

What I have written above already indicates that the minister was more than forthright with his answers. Christmas, he declared, was not much of a problem since "we're trying to connect with the culture." There's a fair amount of Christmas music that has been nicely adapted to the times in which we live: when you go to the malls, there's Christmas music playing. But Easter, he admitted, is "really tough." And so an unchurched visitor who showed up at his church and got to hear about Christmas would not need to feel like a fish of water. Moreover, some traditional Christmas hymns can be played in new arrangements: the music director explained that when they do "Joy to the World," it is "rocked up to the hilt."

As I listened to this response, it occurred to me that a trip to the mall might be just the thing for the worship committee in such a church. Indeed, it crossed my mind that in some places, churches that try to cater to the unchurched by giving them just what they want could even meet in a shopping mall -- thereby preparing the goods to be delivered in a setting that is familiar to the unchurched. If churches in California pioneered the drive-in church, perhaps churches in the eastern part of our continent can show the way in terms of combining shopping and worship!

This may sound like a facetious observation on my part, but it should be remembered that the laudable aim of churches of this sort is to make a connection with the younger generation, beginning especially in the teenage years when so many children feel disconnected from their parents. Teenagers are known to love spending time in the mall ("hanging out," as it is often called). And so a mall-based Christianity with mall music and a shopping-mall approach to Christmas is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first.

Christmas, then, need not be an insuperable barrier to running a church committed to leaving traditional music and worship patterns behind. But the young minister had little to say about Easter. Good Friday, without which Easter makes no sense, did not even get mentioned in his response. Of course one should extend the Easter liturgical season to include all of Lent.

In effect, the young minister was admitting that Easter and the redemptive-historical events leading up to it fall outside the experience of the unchurched to such an extent that they can hardly be addressed in contemporary worship. So what to do about it? He seemed to have nothing to say. I got the impression that Easter is largely ignored. Christmas is about getting -- at least, this is the mall version of Christmas. On the other hand, Good Friday and Easter tell a story about sacrifice, which is foreign to our self-indulgent culture.

The absence of an Easter focus and emphasis in such a church would seem to me to indicate that the church does not include in its mission any recognition that we should try to give people what they need. Yet the gospel begins with an appeal for repentance and spiritual change. Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand! (See Matthew 3:2.) We read in the Sermon on the Mount that those who are hungry are the ones who will be fed (Matthew 5:6). It is when we realize that something very important is lacking in our lives that we began to hunger for the bread of eternal life which the Gospel offers us. But there seems to be no point of connection in our culture -- especially as epitomized by the shopping mall -- that will serve to bring this realization to the surface of consciousness. And so the church that is determined to give people what they want, the church that winds up accepting the culture as it is without challenging it, will find itself at a loss. How is Easter to be celebrated and commemorated?

In assessing all of this, I am tempted to write some harsh comments about the spirit of accommodation to the culture that comes through in all this advice about worship. Perhaps my feeling about these matters is already sufficiently evident. I could not help but be reminded of a famous episode in the history of psychology. It took place back in the days when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) were still closely associated, the days when Jung, about two decades younger, was looked upon as likely to succeed Freud one day as leader of the psychoanalytic movement. During that time, Jung was invited to make a lecture tour of the United States. He wrote to Freud about the reception he received as an ambassador for Freudian psychoanalysis (remember that Jung had not yet gone his own way in terms of psychological theory). In his letter he admitted that he had toned down some of the more controversial and hard-to-swallow aspects of psychoanalytic theory in an effort to win acceptance for it. Freud responded rather harshly and suggested that the more Jung gave up the content of psychoanalysis, the warmer his reception would be.

And so it is with the gospel as well. If our principle is "Give people what they want," as opposed to giving them what they need, we may find ourselves on a very friendly footing with a great many people who share our taste for pop rock, which, we are told by the workshop leaders, is the music acceptable to people today. (Perhaps I should add, for any reader who has not yet guessed it, that pop rock is not my idea of good music: I remain an unrepentant lover of classical music.)

In pondering these matters, I could not help but think of Paul's visit to the philosophers and cultural elite of Greece, which is recorded for us in Acts 17, the chapter about his time in Athens. On that occasion Paul ventured an awful long way onto the turf of the people he was addressing. (His usual audience in those days was Jews in the synagogues, who were believers who had not yet heard of the Christ event in the Jewish homeland.) Paul seemed to seek a point of connection with Greek culture and almost flattered his audience. But was his visit to these Greeks successful? This matter has been debated, and some see in Acts 17 an example of how not to go about these things. For my part, while I am no New Testament exegete, I would argue that Paul did not simply give the Greeks "what they wanted." This chapter of the Bible certainly offers us material for reflection as we contemplate the worship wars of today and ponder the question of musical styles as connecting with the deepest recesses of the human heart.

What struck me especially about the workshop and the minister who led it was his frankness. Perhaps he has something of the prophet Elijah about him. When confronting the worshipers of Baal at Mount Carmel, Elijah urged them not to waver between two opinions or two sets of convictions (see I Kings 18). The young minister seemed to think that no compromise is possible on these matters. Yet we should remember that underlying his defense of his own practice was his desire to reach the unchurched with the gospel. For this he is certainly to be commended.

It was the apostle Paul who wrote: "I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some" (I Corinthians 9:22). This verse also came to mind for me as I pondered the workshop and its contents. If all the unchurched in our time were indeed lovers of pop rock and were one in mind and heart and cultural style, there would be a good deal of merit to the young minister's approach: he would be worthy of greater credence than I have been giving him. But it is my impression that in Paul's time, as in ours, there are all kinds of different people around with different mental orientations and psychological dispositions and musical preferences, to say nothing of those interesting differences in sensibility that are rooted in gender. And so, if we were bound and determined to give people just what they want, we would need to offer quite a smorgasbord -- perhaps more of a multiplex theater than the monolithic approach to the aesthetics of worship presented by the young minister in his thriving new church.


Readers who have come to the end of this essay and think I may have a point are hereby encouraged to learn more about the issues I have raised. An excellent way to do so is to consult D.G. Hart's fine book Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). The book is a collection of essays. One could well begin with "Worship That Is Deformed" (pp. 81-89) and then seek the further expansion of Hart's thesis in some of the other essays. Highly recommended. [END]

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