The world is very good at being the world. And this is a fact that every one of us in the Church needs to understand. In fact, I would wager to say even that the world is better at being the world than anything else, including the Church, could ever be. And it’s so important to note this, because if the Church confronts worldly people using worldly means, then the world is going to win.
It’s important for us to recognize one very important fact, the Church will never be as good at worldly things as the world is. When I consider “contemporary Christian rock/pop” artists, I think about the fact that if you removed the lyrics, they would be completely indistinguishable from secular rock/pop artists. When our worship becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the noise in the world, it will be very hard to reach the world. It reminds me of the Prophet Amos, through whom God said, “I hate, I reject your feast days….take away from Me the sound of your songs, for I will not hear your musical instruments.” (Amos 5:21,23 LXX).
See, this is what happens when the Church allows the world in, the Church becomes like the world, and you can’t out-world the world. Our worship is to be a clarion call, singing beautiful hymns and praises up to the heavens, not merely noise which is indistinguishable from the noise of the world. When the Church joins into the noise of the world, it’s very easy for the world to ignore the Church, much as it does so much of the world. We are to join in the heavenly choirs, singing and praising the all honorable and majestic Lord on high, not trying to hit the top of the charts. Again, when we use worldly means to reach worldly people, a strange thing happens, the world wins. And there’s a very good reason for this.
It’s because instead of using the means prescribed by the Lord to reacch people, we are using our own logic, our own wisdom. We are deviating from the words of Solomon, who admonishes us to “trust in God with all your heart, and do not exalt your own wisdom” (Proverbs 3:5 LXX). We are undermining the very God that we claim to believe is all-powerful and all-knowing. It becomes about us and our ideas, not about Him. It becomes about whose marketing strategy is working better and whose voice sounds better. It becomes about us trying to be better than the world. I remember hearing a popular pastor talk about going to a Christian rock show, and while he was there, a kid came up to him and said, “man this is horrible, I thought you people had something different.” And that kind of sums it up.
Our Sunday morning services are usually, in Western culture, 15-30 minutes of contemporary rock under the name of a “worship band,” sandwiched around a 45 minute lecture. That service format is basically the same as any motivational speaker, using human psychology to channel their focus on the stage, listen to an inspirational message, and then bring them back down through an emotional moment of one person praying. The goal of the Church isn’t to have a more motivational or charismatic speaker during that period than the TED talk down the street, but rather, our service should be fully dedicated to worship and prayer. In the Western Church, the center of any service is usually the sermon, exalting one man’s wisdom, his own personal interpretations of something. Consider this, if you went to a service on a Sunday, and there was no theological exegesis, no lecture, no sermon, what would the service consist of? And, how would you feel about it? Would it be an hour and a half of worship? Would the entire congregation spend the entire time in prayer? Would you even want to attend if you knew that there would be no lecture?
And, all of this extends to the place where it is most apparent, which is our very lives. When we attend a Western service, we usually see pride on display. We see a worship leader, who is frequently front and center, then sit through a lecture, where the speaker is front and center, and off in the distance behind them we see a bare cross as a reminder that we are in a church building. And then, the moment the final worship hymn is done, we pack up, grab the kids out of the dungeon where they were entertained by toys and such, and head out with no time of fellowship, with no time of reflection; and return to our “real lives.” There is no sincerity in our faith, and our children see that. And then we wonder why they choose to leave the Church as soon as they are old enough. For years, they are entertained by worldly distractions and building no theological foundation, while their parents sit through sermon after sermon; and then, as teenagers, they are finally “allowed” to be in the sanctuary. Think about this. Imagine if once a week, you were forced to go to a concert for a band that you didn’t like, and forced to sit, halfway through it, through a lecture about something that you didn’t understand and had no interest in. And even worse, let’s face it, half of the time, the parents don’t want to be there either. We see all of these people who, while their intentions aren’t inherently malevolent, the outcome is. You get people leaving churches because the music doesn’t appeal to them. You get people only going if a particular person is speaking. Ultimately, you get celebrities. Most people don’t leave a Western Church praising God and speaking about how great He is, you get people walking out of those gatherings talking about the power of the speaker’s sermon. You get people talking about the worship band’s ability, “the keyboardist is really good, but the bass was turned up too high, and did you hear that one note the singer missed?” You get people being praised or insulted based on their own abililties, and that translates to a life centered around ambition and vainglory. You get an entire Church where everyone is seeking to do better than everyone else, one where they are all trying to “out-world the world.”
The Church is not meant to be better than the world, it’s meant to be different than the world.
The reason that so many kids leave the church is that they see in the church a watered down version of the world. They see the same movies, the same plots, the same business strategies, as the world, and usually not as effectively. Christian movies aren’t slandered because they’re Christian, they’re slandered because they’re usually awful and have political agendas permeating them, hammering conservative political ideologies usually in terms of what’s currently in the news (which often is no longer a headline by the time the movie is completed). Contemporary Christian music isn’t insulted because it’s Christian, it’s insulted because it’s usually a subpar version of the same secular music that is available for download, merely with different lyrics. It’s great for Christian youth group outings, but as long as it’s the same as the radio is playing, then it’s never going to reach outside of that circle. And then, when kids get into high school and are able to hear the non-watered down versions of those same songs, it’s more exciting to them. And those same children see their parents living lives with the same goals as the rest of the world and recognizing that, to be a true follower of Christ means that you deny yourself those very goals. When a parent’s goal is to own a bigger house, a newer car, to get that promotion and raise; nothing which we would consider as “evil,” and yet they see those goals and then read the words of Scripture which teach that followers of Christ should have different goals, then it exposes our disbelief. When Jesus says, “forgive your enemies and pray for those who wrong you,” and the children see us bearing grudges for years against someone, or coming home from work complaining about our boss or about a customer, or screaming profanities at someone in traffic, they quickly begin to recognize that we are acting the part, and our real convictions come out when angered.
See, the Church isn’t meant to offer the same things as the world, that’s never how it has been. The Church isn’t a “better version” of the world, it’s meant to be something completely different. It isn’t meant to argue about political topics, or to be “more innovative,” or to be more ethical in worldly terms. The Scriptures say that the Church turned the world upside down because it stood in such stark contrast to the world. It turned the world upside down because it was so counter-cultural. It turned the world upside down because it invited the people to join in the heavenly choir, to sing with the angels, to leave this world wherein we are merely strangers and visitors, and to return to our home with our heavenly Father. To be welcomed regardless of who we are, what color, what ethnicity, what our past looked like. Aristides, a Roman pagan, in a letter to the Emperor Hadrian who was seeking to outlaw Christianity, once said of the early Christians, “The Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs. If it is possible, they bail him out. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs. This is really a new kind of person. There is something divine in them.” Compare that to the Western outlook on Christianity, and notice the striking differences between the early (Hadrian was Emperor from 117 to 138 AD) Church and our Republican Church of the West. “If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother.” There is a strong sense of what it means to truly be a Christian, not to be better than the world, to be different completely. To do that which the world would never consider doing. A candle can never outshine a spotlight, but when it is lit in pitch dark, it’s light is like the sun. Our worship, our music, our very lives must be that candle, not submerging itself into the spotlight of the world, but rather shining in those areas that the world would never consider. To stand out and be truly different. To be the beautiful clarion call cutting through all of the rhetoric and noise of the world. To not get caught up in disputes or arguments, to not seek after our own wealth, our own glory, our own pride, but to truly seek after the well being of others. To share life with one another and have a true family, in Christ, to whom is due all glory honor and worship. Together with His Father who has no beginning, and His all Holy and good, and life-giving Spirit.
Christ is risen!