Every time I read advocates of contemporary worship, I can see why many have said things like, “Every time a new book is published, read an old one.”1 The old truth that you are what you read becomes true in those who spend their time reading about the contemporary church scene. You can only digest so much love of the world, disdain of the brethren, thrill of the crowd and loathing of anonymity until you start to become what you read. An older writer well described the phenomenon,
A spirit of zeal is therefore incompatible with a frequent intercourse with the world; you will find less to reprove in proportion as you familiarize yourselves with what is reprehensible; attention to religious books will become a disagreeable and wearisome occupation to you; you will soon lose a taste for them; and in place of serious study and such as is adapted to your calling you will substitute vain and frivolous reading, if not such as is indecent and dangerous, because this will make you appear better in the view of men of the world.2
Now such an introduction to this article may receive the accusation of begging the question, since I have assumed from the beginning that the contemporary church scene is worldly. I can’t speak for everyone who is attempting to read in this area, nor for everyone who is already adopting those practices, but I can speak for what I have read and observed. It seems obvious that those who are leading thinkers and writers in the contemporary church scene are intent on shutting up the conservative churches and relegating them to the silent backwaters of church history. Only some will actually say so, but it is difficult to reach a different conclusion in most of their books.
I have read The Church on the Other Side, by Brian McLaren, a leader in the “Emergent” movement. This is a reprint of his book, Reinventing Your Church. McLaren’s position is that we have crossed over into a postmodern world and we had better like it because there’s no turning back, not even for the church and in fact, most churches will not survive. “Either they are creating time warps where the past will be preserved so reactionary folk can flock there for a safe—temporary—old familiar haven; or they are among the learners at the top who are surfing change into the new world and transitioning old churches of yesterday into the new churches of the other side.”3
This “transitioning” is sometimes overt and sometimes covert. I have seen and read email chat rooms for youth pastors of fundamental Baptist churches who were discussing how to bring about this change in their church without the pastor or people realizing it. It would start in the youth department and then gradually work its way through the whole church. As often as not, the pastor was not of a mind to resist the change. (At some time our churches will have to face the biblical teaching of respecting our elders and listening to their wisdom, if it is not already too late.)
Other contemporaries are less caustic and propose a blending of traditional and contemporary. Robert Webber, professor of theology at Wheaton College and President of The Institute for Worship Studies, has written Planning Blended Worship in which he attempts to show that traditional, contemporary and blended churches all practice the same essential thing. But by “traditional” he means liturgical and this may be any mainline denominational service. He is content to retain words such as “sacrament,” “Eucharist,” “confirmation,” “genuflecting,” and even the use of the “Book of Common Prayer.” One wonders if Bunyan’s imprisonment for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer is now seen as unnecessary fundamental fanaticism!4 Interestingly, Webber approvingly sees the contemporary church as a newer form of the older liturgy, the screens and bands being a newer form of icons and priests. I recommend to the reader my article from January and February, 2003 titled, “The Generic Church: The New Formalism” (2 parts). In it I described the contemporary church as a new kind of tradition (it certainly has no room for diversity!) that will eventually lead back to the old denominational Traditionalism with its liturgies, icons as well as music. Of music Webber says, “Music provides the emotional substance of worship. Since worship is now understood as a rehearsal of our relationship with God, music is seen as the wheels that move the gathering of the people into the presence of God” [or the “mysterium tremendum” what he calls the “journey into the dazzling light of the transcendent otherness.”5] Notwithstanding the strange existential language, this type of liturgy (old or new) will eventually dismiss personal faith and replace it with conformity of physical posture and mental assent.
My purpose for this article is to give the conservative, traditional (in the “normal” sense) church some hope that remaining a simple, reverent, body of believers that meets together to do the “normal” things believers have always done is not only good but biblically sane! As Bunyan said in his defense, “The prayers in the Common Prayer-Book were such as was made by other men, and not by the motions of the Holy Ghost, with our hearts; and as I said, the apostle saith, he will pray with the Spirit, and with the understanding; not with the Spirit and the Common Prayer-Book.”6 Or as secular postmodern analysts have said, “Texts produced in the postmodern temper display a tendency to efface the boundaries between the past and the present in a way that situates the subject (and the viewer and the reader as well) in a perpetual present that is flooded with signifiers from the past. This is postmodern nostalgia, which shows no respect for the integrity of the past.”7 Neither will the new traditionalism nor the old satisfy those who worship in Spirit and truth.
Here are a few of the biblical methodologies with which believers have always been satisfied.
The Word of God is a living Word that does supernatural things within the believer, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12). The first believers in Jerusalem were sitting and listening before the day of Pentecost. In Troas, the believers sat all night listening to Paul explain the Scriptures. Bruce Shelley describes our forerunners as, “Little groups of Anabaptist believers gathered about their Bibles. They discovered a different world in the pages of the New Testament.”8 The Bible must remain the center of our worship, preferably in our hands, being led through its chapters verse by verse.
The Holy Spirit
Though there is much talk about the Holy Spirit in worship today, we manipulate and limit Him to the kind of work we want Him to do. When we slight the Scriptures, we slight the work of the Author of Scripture. R.A. Torrey said, “The Holy Spirit works His prayers in us through the Word, and neglect of the Word makes praying in the Holy Spirit an impossibility.”9 It is hard enough to be quiet and wait on our divine Guest to do His work within us without offending Him by our commotion, but doves like stillness and we are commanded to let Him abide… and remain in us (1 John 2:24).
We cannot forget that preaching is the divine methodology for communicating God’s Word. J.I. Packer said, “I have nothing against books, films, tapes, and study groups in their place, but the place where God sets the preacher is not their place.”10 J.S. Whale wrote, “Instead of putting off our shoes from our feet because the place we stand is holy ground, we are taking nice photographs of the burning bush from suitable angles: we are chatting about theories of Atonement with our feet on the mantelpiece, instead of kneeling down before the wounds of Christ.”11 Shame on us Baptists for letting Anglicans remind us of these things!
We believe that baptism and the Lord’s supper are memorials and not sacraments. They remain the best testimonies of a simple form of worship. In the days of the Reformation, Baptists and other independents were called Sacramentschwärmer, a derogatory term which meant they were “sacramentarian” and not “sacramentalist.”12 They kept the ordinances as a simple object lesson of their doctrine, and not a participatory means to the grace of God, and refused to participate in the idolatry of bowing to a morsel of bread. It was sad to see Catholics and Evangelicals, and perhaps some Fundamentalists, take communion together at the Atlanta Promise Keepers rally in 1996, a sober reminder that familiarity breeds consent to things we would otherwise hold in contempt.
All of our churches are guilty of slighting the prayer services. Leonard Ravenhill wrote, “Let twenty percent of the choir members fail to turn up for rehearsal and the choir master is offended. Let twenty percent of the church members turn up for a prayer meeting, and the pastor is elated.”13 But there’s something those few know, however, that the Sunday-only crowd doesn’t, and that’s the sweet fellowship of believers listening to one another familiarly talking to God. I spent ten weeks last summer at The Baptist Church in North Berwick, Scotland (Dan McCaskill, missionary). Hearing George and Frank (two great Scottish saints) pray during those services in the old way, unhurried, with much Scripture and reverent tones, I often wished I could transport them back to our American-Lite services just to lead in prayer!
If there are two things from which I’ve always recoiled, they are tinseled prayers and manipulated emotional singing. The stereotyped contemporary music follows the old traditionalism of music manipulating people into the presence of God. This is a marked difference in thinking from the simple, biblically-based, thankful singing that recognizes we’re always in God’s presence. As I have written before, we do not come together to worship, we are worshipers who come together. What we do, we do because it is an expression of what we always are, not what we will become for sixty minutes. That is why emotional manipulation in contemporary singing has become so tiring, boring and unfulfilling. As Spurgeon said, “The kind of religion that makes itself to order by the almanac and turns out its emotions like bricks from a machine, weeping on Good Friday and rejoicing two days afterwards, measuring its motions by the moon, is too artificial to be worthy of my imitation.”14 By this same means contemporary music has become what it set out to remedy—lively singing without life like the church at Sardis. Our singing should be spirit and it should be life.
And so . . . .
Conservative, traditional churches do not need to hang their heads because fame and fortune have passed them by. Perhaps we should rejoice! We should keep doing the things we read about in the Scripture, letting that move us to true ministry motivated by the Spirit and the Word. Do we persuade men, or God? Or do I please men? (Gal. 1:10). Let’s keep pleasing God and persuading men, and not let those get turned around.
Notes: 1. Quoted by Benjamin Schwartz, “New & Noteworthy,” The Atlantic Monthly, March, 2003, p. 95. 2. Jean Baptiste Massillon, “On the Spirit of the Ministry,” Orations From Homer to Mckinley, vol. 4 , Mayo Hazeltine, ed. (New York: Collier, 1902) 1720. 3. Brian McLaren, The Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 15. 4. Read Bunyan’s autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Belfast: Ambassador, nd) and especially the latter portions where he is discussing with his prosecutors whether he will use the Prayer Book or not. 5. Robert Webber, Planning Blended Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998) 51. 6. Grace Abounding, 200. 7. Norman Denzin in Postmodernism & Social Inquiry, Dickens, David R. & Fontana, Andrea eds. (New York: Guilford Press, 1994) 182. 8. Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word, 1995) 248. 9. R.A. Torrey, How To Pray (Chicago: Moody Press, nd) 69. 10. Quoted by Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996) 64. 11. J.S. Whale, Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: University Press, 1963) 152. 12. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) chapter 4. 13. Leonard Ravenhill, Revival God’s Way: A Message for the Church (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1983) 24. 14. Charles H. Spurgeon, My Conversion (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1996) 77.