“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
The annual G3 Conference for 2020 wrapped up January 18 in Atlanta. The Conference theme of “Worship” produced soul-stirring sermons and Scripture-rich teaching from the likes of John MacArthur, Steven Lawson, Voddie Baucham, and Conference founder Josh Buice. Likewise, Tim Challies, James White, Joel Beeke, Derek Thomas, Paul Washer, Phil Johnson, Costi Hinn, and Tom Ascol took turns at the conference pulpit to powerfully bring forth the Word of God regarding the worship of God.
The conference theme was expectedly well-received by attendees since, as John MacArthur has noted, “We were saved to be worshipers.” The apostle Paul taught us this, of course, when he wrote to the “saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae” (Col. 1:2). In one exhortation from his epistle we learn that the command for, and the summary of, the faithful Christian life is perpetual, conscious, and thanks-filled worship: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). Couple this text with Paul’s words to the Roman saints – “I urge you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1) – and we understand that the entirety of our lives is to exhibit Christ-exalting, self-denying worship to God.
While the attendees at G3 were indeed compelled to apprehend the preeminence of true worship, such exhortation is simply absent for the overwhelming population of Sunday churchgoers. So many in evangelicalism seem ignorant of this fundamental purpose of the faith. They are unaware, it seems, that the Lord’s ministry was driven by the Father’s desire for worshipers in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Evangelical Christianity, over the past few decades particularly, has not been found “semper reformanda” (always reforming”) according to “sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone), especially in regards to its essential task of true worship to God.
Rather than reforming, evangelicalism has instead recreated a form of Christianity that is not theocentric, but is anthropocentric. The faith has become about us, not God. Thus worship has been overhauled. Instead of worship in spirit, we’ve been sold worship in passion and emotionalism. Rather than worship in truth, we have, as Leonard Ravenhill said, “too many preacherettes preaching too many sermonettes to too many Christianettes” which proclaims vapid Christian cliches but precious little from God’s Word. Given the post-modern worldliness that has invaded the church, truth has been jettisoned for subjective preferences, personal agendas, and a decidedly temporal self-focus.
Contemporary Worship: What It Is, What It Lacks
Like most conferences, the G3 Conference featured a well-supplied bookstore offering a wide array of sound resources for the faithful. Among the numerous offerings was one little booklet that speaks well to the present dangers of a refocused evangelicalism void of true worship that has largely become its defining characteristic. Authored by Presbyterian pastor Terry L. Johnson, Contemporary Worship: Thinking About Its Implications For The Church, was published by Banner of Truth in 2014. At merely 23 pages, it is a pithy tome that prompts deliberate evaluation of the popular trend of contemporary worship, a trend which has yielded much that may be deemed biblically illicit within evangelicalism.
The opening words give us a thesis:
“We are convinced that contemporary worship deprives the people of God of the richer forms and content of traditional worship, and so, in the long run, impoverishes the church spiritually, divides the church demographically, and weakens the church’s capacity to fulfill its mission.”
The booklet outlines ten categories related to contemporary worship that should demand deliberately thoughtful, biblically informed consideration. Johnson’s ten areas of concern are Reduced Biblical Content, Demographic Favoritism, Divided Communions, Altered Purpose, Obscured Message, Contempt of Tradition, Naive Utilization of Popular Culture, Aesthetic Relativism, Pragmatism, and Distraction.
In defining the contemporary worship movement, what Johnson has in mind “is the use, more or less, of a casual format, popular music, extended singing (e.g. the opening twenty minute song set), repetitious choruses, praise bands, worship teams, and, typically, topical sermons addressing felt needs.” But he also says, “Contemporary worship may also be described by what it often lacks: serious prayer, extended Bible reading, careful Bible exposition, and sacred music.” Johnson is clear in “not saying that contemporary worship is evil, or that it is sinful.” Rather, he states, “What we are saying is that it is unwise.”
Contemporary Worship: Reduced Biblical Content
“In corporate worship, the preaching of the Word should take first place.” John MacArthur
Johnson rightly establishes the most severe problem that frequently accompanies contemporary worship: reduced biblical content. The presence of this problem throughout evangelicalism is vivid, widespread and, given the recent reorientation of evangelicalism’s mission to that of social justice, is a problem that is only expanding. Its presence is a fundamental failure to understand the preeminence the Word of God rightly must have in the church’s worship. “If faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17),” writes Johnson, “and if the people of God are sanctified by the word of God (John 17:17), and if they are born again by the living and abiding word (1 Pet. 1:23), and if they grow by the pure milk of the word (1 Pet. 2:2), this net, drastic reduction in biblical content is an unmitigated disaster for evangelical Christianity.”
“Think of this:” writes John MacArthur in his book Worship: The Ultimate Priority, “The truth of Scripture can restore the sin-damaged soul, confer spiritual wisdom, cheer the downcast heart, and bring spiritual enlightenment. In other words, the Bible sums up everything we need to know about truth and righteousness. Or, as the apostle Paul wrote, Scripture is able to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).” It is an utter disaster, then, for churches to willfully disregard the power of God in the Word of God by downplaying its proclamation in preaching and teaching. If, as David penned, “You have magnified Your word according to all Your name” (Ps. 138:2), can that church, or that believer, indeed be found faithful by diminishing what the Lord Himself has magnified?
Contemporary Worship: Demographic Favoritism
The second point due serious consideration and to which contemporary worship contributes is what Johnson terms “demographic favoritism.” He writes that “adopting contemporary forms involves privileging the style and taste preferences of one segment of the church community over the rest, who in the process are alienated from the new ways and those who have imposed them.” In a scenario that “has been repeated a thousand times over,” what this produces is the evident, albeit unspoken, message that “The young are privileged. The old are ignored.”
The reality of age-based ecclesiological preferences is seen in a recent report regarding a church in Minnesota. A Washington Post article states that “Church leaders voted to temporarily shutter the facility, and then reopen it after what they call a ‘replanting’ … Members who did not join the new church’s planting team are being encouraged to step aside.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press, reporting on the same story, stated that the church will “usher out gray-haired members in an effort to attract more young parishioners.” A headline from the Duluth News Tribune echoes the same theme: “Best path to a younger flock? Church asks older members to worship elsewhere.” One member called it simply “age discrimination.”
It’s not merely age, though, that creates demographic favoritism when contemporary worship methodologies are employed. Almost any demographic category can and has become a target market for churches. “Churches have been established for everyone: bikers, cowboys (‘Happy trails to you!’ as the benediction), Hip-Hoppers (‘Yo! God is so ill’ they shout as the call to worship), African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Anglos, and, especially, the young people so coveted by ambitious pastors.” Johnson correctly notes, “The segmentation of the church by ages, races, cultures, and cultural preferences is inevitable” when the market driven agenda of the Contemporary Worship Movement is employed. And, as he writes, “It is also historically unprecedented and biblically indefensible.”
Contemporary Worship: An Altered Purpose
In addressing the concern of an altered purpose resulting from contemporary worship methodologies, Johnson says, “The prevailing rationale” for it “is outreach. Contemporary format and music are used, so it is typically argued, because they are familiar to young, or preferred by modern people, or of a style that appeals to a specific demographic.” But a notable shift has occurred in the process. “Ordinarily worship has been understood to be primarily doxological, not evangelistic; the praises of God, not outreach.” Though Johnson notes that such categories are not mutually exclusive, “the philosophy which drives contemporary worship is a philosophy which sees the purpose of the Lord’s Day assembly …as evangelistic in purpose and focus.”
While genuine worship, in which the Word of God is prominently featured by reading and expository preaching, will and should have “an evangelistic impact,” what the embrace of contemporary worship almost invariably tends to produce is an emphasis away from God-centeredness and towards an audience-pleasing focus through entertainment and ear-pleasing messages. “Form follows function,” writes Johnson, “Contemplate what has become of the typical setting of contemporary services: stages, theater-lighting, bands, singers, dancers, actors, theater-seating. All the trappings of performance are present.” The reason for this? “Because pleasing the audience, albeit for evangelistic reasons has become pre-eminently the goal … evangelistic entertainment is thought to be necessary if crowds are to be gathered.”
As MacArthur notes, “There is no warrant in Scripture for adapting the church’s weekly gathering to the preferences of unbelievers. Indeed, the practice seems contrary to the spirit of everything Scripture says about the assembly of believers.” Johnson would agree, pointing out that reorienting the church’s focus from God to the audience is “perilously close to idolatry.” The most distinctive element absent from such reorientation is reverence, and, as Johnson notes, “Amusement and reverence are not compatible.”
“In many churches, practically every aspect of the corporate gathering has been likewise redesigned to suit the preferences of unchurched people. The aim is to draw them in, entertain them, impress them, and make them feel good about themselves. It is the polar opposite of authentic worship.” John MacArthur
The Lord Builds His Church By His Word
The observations and questions raised by Johnson’s booklet deserve wide consideration among churches and believers who may be, or already find themselves, enticed by the contemporary worship movement. While it’s unlikely that any evangelical church would fail to profess the authority of Scripture, contemporary worship methodologies, by default, disregard the very Word they laud as authoritative. The movement finds no warrant in Scripture. And, if we remember that “I will build my church” is a declaration made by the Lord of the church, the employment of methodologies and techniques that necessitate the diminishment of His Word, even if nobly motivated under the guise of outreach, will find neither His favor or His blessing.
The purpose of the gathered assembly of the redeemed body of Christ is genuine worship. And genuine worship, as MacArthur writes, “is a response to divine truth. It is passionate because it arises out of our love for God. But to be true worship it must also arise out of a correct understanding of His law, His righteousness, His mercy, and His being. Real worship acknowledges God as He has revealed Himself in His Word.” When that Word is disregarded in the pulpits of contemporary worship, it is thus impotent to the audience being entertained in the pews.
The Aim of Worship: To Please God
“Authentic worship,” writes MacArthur, “is not a narrowly-defined activity relegated to the Sunday morning church service – or restricted to any single time and place for that matter. Worship is the essential expression of service rendered unto God by a soul who loves and extols Him for who He is. Real worship therefore should be the full-time, nonstop activity of every believer, and the aim of the exercise ought to be to please God, not merely entertain the worshiper.”
When we gather to worship, and when we disperse from that gathering, may our lives exhibit the daily worship due the gracious God who has redeemed us at the great and infinitely worthy price of the precious blood of His Son. May we eschew the natural selfishness and man-pleasing appeals of worship that dishonor God by exalting self. We have a sovereign God who is also our gracious Saviour. With Paul, may our worship proclaim Him, exalt Him, and worship Him for there is “no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). May we also be thus found as “saints and faithful brethren” (Col. 1:2) offering acceptable (Rom. 12:1), thanks-filled worship (Col. 3:17) to God for His sake, and not our own, for He is the Lord our Maker (Ps. 95:6).
The booklet Contemporary Worship is available directly from Banner Of Truth HERE.
The book Worship: The Ultimate Priority is available from Grace To You HERE.