Weekly Worship Thought – Inner Power

On Easter Sunday at Faith we only offered one style of worship in our sanctuary services (we offer a Chinese language service in our gym). This was a change from how we normally do Sunday mornings. Normally in the sanctuary we have one Heritage service (organ and choir) and one Gathering service (band-led).

After noticing the low attendance at our Gathering-style Christmas Eve service last year, we decided to experiment. For Easter, we only offered the Heritage style worship service. Why? Because our hunch was that people think Easter (and Christmas) should feel like “church.” Despite what hundreds of thousands of people who go to big-box churches might lead us to believe, in our context, for church to feel like “church” it needs the historical flavors of our tradition. That would be organ, choir, vestments, formality, liturgy, and hymns.

Oddly enough the building was packed and no one asked, “Who took away my worship service?”

This is not new, but the continuation of a documented trend. And here.

What is the point?

I’ve been reading a new book about the emergence of contemporary worship in the church (for an upcoming book review in the ALCM CrossAccent journal). The book chronicles the Anaheim Vineyard church as it swelled in growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the components that are considered today to be the backbone of contemporary worship were synthesized at this church (a continuous set of worship songs; intimate, God-directed language; openness to God through music, etc.).

As I read the book, the one thing I am struck by is what many mainline churches have left by the wayside in their adoption of contemporary worship practices: the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anaheim Vineyard was a pentecostal-ish church with the gifts of the Holy Spirit on display in their worship. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words, healings, and other charismatic signs were regular parts of their worship. Participants would show up to church an hour before the service in expectation for God to move. I’m left wondering if we are missing something?

My impression is that, for the most part, mainline churches that employ contemporary worship practices have “taken the meat and spit out the bone” of the Anaheim Vineyard experience of worship (or maybe we just kept the bone). We have hijacked the parts of their worship that we think (hope) will cause people to encounter God (and attract them), but tossed out the questionable parts that don’t jive with our theology or make us squirm. It reminded me of 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it.” (Forgive me for pulling a sentence out of context.)

What is the inner power of contemporary worship? What is the inner power of any worship?

If the church is not filled with the breath of God’s Spirit as it worships, regardless of the style, there can be no inner power.

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Unplugging from the Matrix, part 7

This is part 7 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Well as soon as I say I’m finished with this series of posts on leaving established church, Brian McLaren goes and writes this amazing commentary on the landscape of mainline and evangelical religion in the U.S. (in the context of a counter-criticism of Al Mohler’s criticism of Rob Bell):

From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart – the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable – especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):

  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the Twentieth Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
  • Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the US Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies – first radio, then TV, then the internet – as savvily as Evangelicals have.
  • Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates – rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic – agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Viet Nam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
  • Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.

Now I think the reasons for mainline decline are many and complex, and I wouldn’t bet my life on any one of these possible rebuttals alone or even all of them together. But taken together, they show that the “conservatives grow and liberals shrink” formula might give a false sense of superiority to one group, and a false sense of inferiority to the other. (My personal belief is that neither Evangelicals nor mainliners nor Roman Catholics nor Pentecostals nor anybody else is or has the full answer. I think Fr. Vincent Donovan had it right when he said we shouldn’t leave others where they are, nor should we try to bring them to where we are, as beautiful as that place might be. Instead, we should go with others to a place neither we nor they have been before. Where we need to be is not where any of us currently are; we are all being called higher up and further in.

Downward Denominational Trends

An interesting article from The Christian Century regarding worship attendance trends in mainline denominations.

Entry into this emerging, postmodern world is going to be tough on mainline denoms. If there was one negative thing that resulted from the reformation, it was the disagreement between groups that led to an increasingly splintered Christian landscape. The postmodern reformation has a chance to reverse that as churches pull toward a center of creed-based faith.

But the denoms won’t go down without a fight. They are painfully aware of the situation, however I’m not sure they have a solution. Presiding ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson recently told leaders, “it is time for the church to move forward and get over being “timid” about mission and ministry.” C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, recently tweeted “fact: every major denomination is aging and losing members including #Episcopal Church and Diocese of Texas” and “fact: institutional efforts to reverse downward trends & to capture religious imagination of young adults is limited.”

I don’t think any of the mainline denoms are doomed to the point of extinction. Someone will always be there to keep the ship afloat. But a look at the landscape of Europe, particularly England, can give a glimpse of the future in the US. The Church of England still exists, but it’s just a relic. More foot traffic is generated for being a museum than being a place of worship and spirituality.

It’s similar to the Blockbuster – Redbox/Netflix situation. Blockbuster is bankrupt. Redbox and Netflix are the competition. The are a new breed in the movie rental game: innovative, creative, simple, flexible, user-friendly, and adaptable. New expressions of church are the Redbox/Netflix to the denominations Blockbuster.