The Bark-Eaters Community Church (United Methodist)
Another Sunday of discovery: but the bright surprise of worship at Roman Catholic St. Peter Claver a week earlier was not duplicated this past Sunday in a church that shall remain relatively anonymous. Some of you, of course, will decipher the loosely disguised location of the object of my Sunday critique.
It was a "contemporary service," at 10:30, the "traditional service" having been assigned the 8:00 AM slot, leaving no doubt as to where lies the senior pastor's hope for the future of this church. We have attended once previously a contemporary service, in a Baptist church near our hometown, so I was not unprepared for the morning's experience. But (and I've been struggling to restrain the negative thoughts which flooded my mind and heart in the moment of worship) I was surprised by the shallowness of the proceedings.
Beginning with the music, which is where the service began. All told, we sang three songs, praise songs, I think, is the preferred designation. The words were projected onto a large screen at the front of the nave. Each song had three verses. Each verse was sung three times. Perhaps, the cynic in me suggested, this repetition in threes was a subliminal reinforcement of the Trinity? The tunes were not memorable, but they were easy to sing the third time around. The accompaniment was a soft rock sextet, percussion, two guitars, and three singers. They were assembled in what used to be the chancel. The stationary pulpit and lectern had been removed to accommodate the band. Speakers and a quarter mile of wire covered the floor where the choirs once sang. The song leaders interspersed verses with brief prayers recapitulating the message of the hymn.
It may be misleading to say "message of the hymn," because the words were simple to the verge of being simplistic. One of the songs repeated the phrase, "God is so good to me," four times in a single verse, not counting the chorus. My mind jumped to Ecclesiastes 1 and a rewriting of it: "Vapidity of vapidities, all is vapidity... and a searching after the right feeling." The song leaders closed their eyes and raised their hands, smiling beatifically, swaying with the beat. I wasn't sure if I was at a prayer meeting or a Barry Manilow concert.
Meanwhile the United Methodist Hymnal, with its treasure of songs Christians have sung for the past two thousand years, including many written in this generation, remained in the book rack in front of us.
The praise songs were followed by announcements and the sermon. The preacher was articulate, engaging, and exceedingly longwinded. For forty-five minutes (forty-five!) he held forth in front of a small podium speaking into a state-of-the-art microphone system. At one point he named every single soul whose picture adorned his refrigerator door, easily twenty different names. Two or three would have served as well to make his point, that they (those pictured) are all intent on building a life. The title of the sermon was, I think (there was no printed order of service, just two words in quotes on the bulletin board outside the church), "Build It." If I read correctly between the lines, he was not advocating building a building. He is intent on congregational growth. To that end a youth minister from Australia and a minister of music from Waco, have been added to the professional staff. A new program with the acronym GROW gets underway this fall. In the sermon the preacher took to task those who would look backward, to the way things have always been done. The future, he made clear, belongs to the young. 800 unchurched teenagers in the town need to be reached, and this forty-to-fifty something pastor was going to see that they were reached. The "hook" is the Christian rock music. Once in church the pastor will (only he would say, "Jesus will") mold their souls... if he can manage to keep them interested for forty-five minutes of preaching.
The theme is one with which I am familiar and which I have sounded in the pulpit every now and then in the past fifty years: we need (to refer to Jesus' analogy) new wineskins for new wine. It's a message we preachers fasten on when faced with a recalcitrant congregation not quite ready to follow where we want to lead them. But the wine offered this morning was less Beaujolais than Pepsi Lite. The preacher is a fundamentalist with a very good vocabulary. His aim in church growth, he told us in his sermon, was to get the uncommitted to follow Christ. Which is an appropriate goal for a Christian church: but what I listened for and did not hear were details as to what following Christ means. No hint of the cost of discipleship. No mention of the cross, except in terms of the transactional theory of the atonement and what God has done for us. But little consideration of what what we should do for God... except, perhaps, get others to follow Christ.
I would label this message preaching the Half Gospel: leading us into the circle of Jesus but not spelling out the expectation of service we are to live in the shadow of the cross. Man's extremity is God's opportunity, sure; but once "saved," then what? All right, all right, give the guy a break. One sermon does not a ministry make. Maybe next Sunday he will address what Jesus expects of his disciples. But, remember, I spent nearly eighteen years in Brooklyn surrounded by fundamentalists and not very many, despite their protestations to the contrary, every got around to preaching the Whole Gospel.
Is the contemporary service the future of Christian worship? The form, such as it is, follows the pattern of an entertainment model: a little music to soften up the audience; then ply them with the message; and taper off with more music. In the process, however, an awful lot of the two thousand years of Christian experience is abandoned, the hymnody especially, but also other forms of congregational participation (responsive readings, sung responses, unison prayers... anything which might be printed in an order of worship). The popularity of this innovation in worship arose in response to the over-intellectualization of faith, from a desire to open Christian worship to those who were turned off by traditional services. But the question remains: by turning away from the past are churches losing their future?
I'll follow Gamaliel's advice (Acts 5:39), that if this be of God, it will prevail; and if not, it won't. As for me and mine, given the choice between Bark-Eaters and St. Peter Claver, we'll take the latter.