My family is under siege, and our adversary’s strategy for conquest is “divide and conquer.” Amazingly, the context in which this struggle takes place is worship.
You see, my family and I have just moved from Chicago, our home of the past eight years, to California. I have never before in my life needed to do what is often referred to as “church shopping.” I have usually known pastors and/or congregations in communities where we have lived, or had a pastoral appointment that determined our family’s home church. Now we find ourselves far away from anything that is familiar, and nothing is less familiar than the churches we are visiting.
Although I find the “California casual” climate a bit off-putting, seeing male clergy dress without ties (let alone vestments) is a small issue compared to the divisive liturgical formatting that many churches have adopted. Many mainline Protestant churches have split their worship into multiple services defined by styles and genres. One example is a very active mainline church in our home town which I will call First Church. This congregation has three services each Sunday morning — an early morning “traditional” service, with organ and hymnals; a mid-morning “blended service” with hymns and choruses printed in the bulletin and special music from one of the many choirs or orchestras; and a late-morning “contemporary” service led by a praise band with musical selections projected on a video screen inappropriately located in front of the central cross in the sanctuary. The contemporary service offers a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper; the other two services have communion services only on the first Sunday of the month.
Such a multiplicity of worship services is not unheard of. Certainly churches in the Midwest often offer contemporary and traditional liturgical options. Some even have services on Saturday or Sunday evenings to accommodate different styles of worship. But First Church takes this formula a giant step further. They offer worship services for middle school students simultaneously with their blended services, and high school worship services during their contemporary services. This has had quite a divisive effect on our family.
I should point out that hands down, people from First Church have been the most inviting and welcoming of any churches we have visited. It is also the congregation with the most comprehensive youth ministry program and the place where we know the most people — and where my children know the most peers. As complete strangers to this Golden State, we find First Church very attractive . But being a family with five children (three in middle school and two in high school, none of whom drive yet) has made this liturgical smorgasbord a sort of Gordian knot. If my wife were to take our daughters to the middle school liturgy and stay for the second service, and if I were to take our son and daughter to the high school liturgy and attend the last service, all seven of us would have worshipped God in the same church, but we would not have worshipped together. Even worse, our offering of thanks and praise to God in one liturgy would have had little to do with the prayers in another.
In its attempt to provide language relevant to the entire community, First Church’s worship has created a community divided by personal choice and age. The effects of this strategy have caused our family to feel that we have worshipped together, and I for one have the empty feeling that I haven’t worshipped at all. There are two reasons I have identified for my discomfort.
The first reason is the lack of living out my baptismal pledges. For each of my five children, I made a promise at their baptism that I would raise my children in the Christian faith. Yet each Sunday that our family’s worship is segregated is one less Sunday I have the opportunity to model for my children how one worships God. Further, it is one less Sunday that our children are exposed to generations of believers worshipping God together.
The senior pastor of this church repeatedly encourages parents to reflect on the theme of the children’s sermon with their children at home, because (as he frequently reminds us) the family is the primary vehicle for Christian education. Yet dividing the families up by age during worship seems to be in opposition to this principle. In a day and age when our family is often separated by age-specific events, whether it be sports, music, or other extracurricular events, I would hope that the church might fight this culture of division by keeping the family together more — at least encouraging families to pray and worship together. Worshipping together is a valuable opportunity for us to express our Christian identity as a family, when there are so few other opportunities in our busy, fractured lives.
The second reason for my discomfort is what segregated worship teaches my children about what worship is, and by association, who God is. Peter Berger, in his prophetic book of the early 1960s, The Sacred Canopy, suggested that the Protestant churches’ concession to much of modernity had weakened the authority of the church. In an age when the population at large saw their relationship to God as existing directly with God and only peripherally through the church, the church would be forced to make a case for its importance to the faithful, reducing ministry to sales.
This observation was made before Robert Schuler canvassed the Garden Grove area in California, and well before Bill Hybels went door to door in South Barrington, Illinois. Yet within a generation, Berger’s prediction had become a reality. Churches of every stripe in the past quarter century have made efforts to make their church more “user-friendly.” Many large congregations have grown through intentional market strategies in which target demographics were identified as the primary audience for the church’s ministry. Willow Creek Community Church famously targeted “Unchurched Harrys” — those men aged 30-40 who were not going to church. To attract them, they simply asked these people what it would take to get them to come to church and “gave the people what they want.”
I would be the last person to say that an evangelical emphasis is not welcome in Christ’s church. A passion to reach the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ is central to the church’s mission. However, I do have a difficult time correlating a mentality of “the customer is always right” with our Lord’s call to pick up our cross and follow him. The Gospel is not a commodity that can be bought, sold or marketed. The gospel does not look essentially different — or should not look essentially different — depending on your demographic profile.
We are not describing an attempt to mold the liturgy into forms that are culturally relevant; in First Church, the congregants are remarkably homogenous. Instead we are witnessing a presentation of the Gospel dependent upon the preferences of a particular group in an attempt to make the Gospel either relevant or attractive to a particular audience.
Liturgical historian Lester Ruth has compared this approach to worship planning with the multiple offerings at the local multiplex theater. Just as one has multiple movie offerings available to choose from, so too one has multiple worship offerings to choose from. Some churches have taken this model so far that they have created “video cafes” for worship.
One such church has a worship service whose music would be akin to adult, easy listening music targeted for a middle age crowd. Running simultaneous with this service, there are multiple services each with its own genre of music — from hard rock to traditional hymnody — and each performed live in its own worship space. All of the worship services end their musical offerings simultaneously so that the sermon from the main service can be simulcast to the other worship venues. These are called “video cafes” because the congregants sit around tables in patio furniture, drinking their name-brand lattés and eating their name-brand bagels, having an experience similar to what their peers are doing outside of church on Sunday morning.
But I am drifting away from the topic at hand. What I fear in the instance of First Church is that my children will grow up thinking that worship is somehow about them in some determinative way. After all, if their preferences determine the “whats” and “hows” of worship, it puts them and their particular demographic at the center of the planning of worship. I would rather hope that God — who God is, and what God has done, is doing and will do — would be at the center of worship planning. Doing otherwise implies something about both God and worship that I don’t want my children to believe.
On one hand, my experience of First Church is one of appreciation. I see a genuine passion both for the youth of the church and for the church’s outreach to the community. Further, though the planning of these five worship services is not what I would chose, it is thoughtful and seeks to strike a balance between Word and Sacrament that more traditional churches could learn from.
On the other hand, creating specialty shops (boutiques) to sell particular items to particular buyers is an effective market strategy, because it appeals to the uniqueness of a particular target market. Yet the boutiquing of worship, in its appeal to “some, but not all,” by definition divides the Body of Christ into segments and then segregates them. It implies something contrary to what the apostle Paul said when he wrote, “The head can’t say to the foot, ‘I don’t need you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
I have no doubt that the efforts of women and men to reach people with the gospel in these various ways are done with their best intentions, but are they done with God’s intentions? Let us prayerfully consider how we plan our worship, its impact on the congregation, and what it communicates about God to those outside our Christian communities. The future of the church may well depend up such prayerful discernment. Preserving the unity of the Body of Christ is a battle worth fighting, and the family is a fortress worth defending.