With a nod to Charles Dickens, this is a tale of two churches, one on the west coast, one on the east coast, the former in the last century, the latter in this century. Both are representative of evangelicalism’s historic commitment to the authority of scripture.
The west coast church was led by an expository preacher of marvelous ability who quickened the desire of listeners to go deeper into the rich resources of the Word of God. That is why, when I visited the city where his church was located, I was eager to hear him preach on a Sunday morning. I could not find a place to park except at the rear of a massive lot. I got the last place. The pastor’s church was one of a growing number of mega-churches with multiple worship services on Sundays.
After a long walk, I got the last available seat in the massive auditorium. Then the doors were locked so the church would not be in violation of the fire code of that city. Latecomers would have to wait for the next service.
Then I entered a time warp. I felt transported back to the 1950s when I attended church as a teenager. As in my home church so long ago, I participated in the singing of the grand old hymns of the faith with their lyrics of theological and devotional content, written by composers like Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. And the congregational singing was robust as the people sang hymns and spiritual songs with great enthusiasm, their faces bearing witness that they were engaged mentally and spiritually with the message in the songs.
Next, there was a solo by a gentleman who sang like a younger version of George Beverly Shea. This was followed by the taking of the offering which, in turn, featured a rousing rendition of a choral anthem, sung by a choir, great in size and in vocal quality. After that, there came the sermon, an exposition of a biblical passage by one of America’s premier preachers.
The scene changes now to the east coast. That church is also led by an expository preacher of extraordinary ability who likewise deepens one’s desire to listen closely to the Word of God. As was true of the west coast church, parking places were difficult to find though there were attendants everywhere. And, as with the other church, this one is likewise a mega-church with multiple services on Sundays.
As I settled into a theatre seat in the massive auditorium, large television screens got my attention with their notices of coming attractions at the church. Then the service began, led by a group of young people playing instruments, swaying and dancing to the tunes and, in some instances, rocking vigorously to the heavy metal beat. The amplification level of the sound was very high.
After a while, I became somewhat adjusted to the sound level but not to the music itself. There was little, if any, theological or doctrinal content in most of the lyrics. Moreover, though the words of the songs were on the screens, there was almost no involvement of the audience in singing along with the worship/praise team although I observed that a few were singing. Some were weakly mouthing the lyrics. None could be heard by other worshippers given the high level of the amplification. There was no attempt by most to sing at all.
Then there came the transformation. The worship team segued into a Getty hymn, heavy with theological content like that which is advocated for churches in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. This was accompanied by a reduced level in the volume of the amplification. Accordingly, the people sang with greater fervor. They morphed from a passive audience into a participating congregation. As I looked around, I observed on many faces the expressions of the joy of communion in an inspiring event. They were, as in the words of Ephesians 5:19, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody to the Lord with all [their] heart[s].” This was followed by the sermon, an outstanding message by one of America’s young and brilliant theologians who, like the preacher of the west coast, deepened the desire of listeners to hear the Word of God, to learn of Christ.
The west coast pastor had more time to deliver his message because that church made the preaching of the Word central to the experience of worship. But that distinction was blurred for the east coast pastor because the time given to the musical part of the service was exceedingly lengthy. Each church, in its own way, was tacitly making a statement about its understanding of what constitutes worship. This raises the question: what determines the standard of true worship?
Scripture should be that standard. When it is, we learn that the true worship experience is always reciprocal in interaction between worshippers and God, that is, while we are seeking the Lord in worship, the Lord is also seeking a certain kind of worshipper. He made this very clear: “They that worship the Father must worship Him in spirit and in truth for the Father seeks such to worship Him” (John 4:23).
The Samaritan woman had been confused about this before her encounter with the Lord. Let us not be. As the tale of two churches shows, Christians are currently focused on different “styles of worship.” But the Lord did not discuss this subject with the Samaritan woman. Rather, he described the nature of true worship. He said that we are to worship God “in spirit,” meaning the engagement of our hearts in passion and enthusiasm with the Holy Spirit, and “in truth,” that is, with our thoughts guided by the Word of God.
Some have said that Christianity is the only religion in the world that makes preaching the center of worship. But recently many have put music at the center of worship rather than the Word. While Israel’s book of worship, the Psalms, is a song book, its center is its lyrical content which is saturated with the truth of God’s Word. Let us therefore cease battling over what constitutes worship, over the use of “blended services,” over whether we are relevant to generational musical tastes, and such. Instead, let us return to the biblical pattern of using church music, both traditional and contemporary, to edify the body of Christ by teaching biblical theology to one another, and follow that with expository preaching that brings revival to the people of the Lord (Nehemiah 8:1-9). This will unify the church. If we do not do this, however, things will remain in the confused state that they are, and the tale of two churches will ever be, as we now return to Dickens, “the best of times [and] … the worst of times.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ned L. Mathews is emeritus professor of pastoral ministries at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor emeritus at Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia and Cresset Baptist Church in Durham.)