The following excerpt is from an article a minister in my denomination wrote not too long ago. After reading it, I finally realized why I felt so enormously patronized after visiting his church that one time twelve years ago and never returned.
“The current focus on this kind of worship started with the incredible success of Willow Creek Community Church, a church God has used in a mighty way to reach lost people. Yet even Willow Creek leaders say, ‘Don’t just imitate us. Find out what your target group needs and aim at them.’
“Willow Creek focuses on reaching 20- to 40-year-old unchurched people who live in the suburbs of Chicago. So leaders of Willow Creek shape their worship to attract members of that demographic group.
“But not everyone fits Willow Creek’s target audience. For example, the most popular kind of music in the United States today is not Christian contemporary music; it’s country music. So why don’t we see a proliferation of country-oriented worship?
“Close to the church I serve in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., lives a large enclave of what you might call ‘countercultural’ folks. Suspecting that their neighbors would not resonate with contemporary-style worship, my friends at First United Methodist Church started a service of ‘jazz vespers’ to reach them.
“The example I know best is the worship I experience every Sunday. It begins with God’s people coming into the presence of God, symbolized by a processional led by a cross and Bible, followed by the robed choir and ministers, as the mighty organ accompanies the full-voiced singing of one of the great hymns of faith. The liturgy that follows is an extended dialogue between God and the worshipers, carefully thought out, united around the theme of the sermon, and printed in the bulletin so everyone can participate.
Stan Mast’s “In Praise of Traditional Worship” represents what I find so frustrating about today’s broad regard for Reformed worship. Both sides of the so-called “worship wars” just never seem to capture the point. A defense of a form of worship that merely meets the felt needs of raised-pinky high culture is as misguided as the contemporary expressions to which it seeks to offer alternative. What views like Mast’s miss is that Reformed worship can happen in posh downtown Grand Rapids just as easily as it can happen in the sticks of northern Michigan. But that is only true is one understands that worship is about God, not ourselves. One test is to ask if Mast could move his outfit of processionals, robed choir, stained glass and all that wood into any environment. Probably not. But the thing about Reformed worship according to Scripture is that it can be done anywhere.
As a former evangelical (long e) who has sought true worship in the confessionally Reformed tradition over against the assumptions and dogma’s of contemporary worship with which evangelicalism seems so smitten, a perspective like Mast’s offers no hope; it rests on the same human-centered assumptions. His references to Willow Creek and how contemporary worship is equally sound reveal that this is merely the flip side of a skewed coin. What is needed today is reform and recovery of confessionally Protestant worship in the liturgical tradition. Do we want true diversity in our midst? Then level the playing field by making worship Reformed according to Scripture where diverse social, cultural and political views can exist in submission to true worship instead of divvying us all up by forms of worship designed to divide by these same cultural value systems.
Of course, worship is simply the outward expression (and perpetuation) of a theology. What the wanting categories of “contemporary/traditional” worship tell us is that at the heart of all the rankle of worship wars is a theology that is quite at odds with a historically and confessionally Reformed theology. In some quarters the spirit of war has waned and hands are joined over the phrase “blended worship” where Genevan psalms are set to Metallica riffs. Traditionalists look down their noses less at the contemporary, and vice versa, because all have agreed on one crucial thing: worship is about us, so do what pleases your inward tastes most. Some might think they have transcended the rankle by validating these categories and asking innocuous questions of worship like “is it godly worship; are the words biblical; is God glorified; is it done is spirit and in truth?” Words and phrases like these sound pious, of course, but what do any of those questions really mean other than to show that they merely lean hard on sentimentality and not theology?