Seeking a sign: Is our modern worship an idolatry of experience?

We all need signs. Where am I? I love the arrows on maps that tell me exactly where I am and the context. Real life scares us because rarely are signs this clear. When it comes to faith, signs were sought by many of our Bible heroes. Whether I am praying and leaving out the fleece at night or putting my fingers into the holes in the hands of Christ, it is all the same. I need to see. Those that truly saw God like Isaiah wreathed in the fetal position. Honestly, I may ask for a sign, but may not want the real deal. If God truly shows up, it seems I might have to change as anyone is “undone” in his presence. This is the reason why Christ came as a baby. God knows we just can’t handle it. 

In the Evangelical church, marketing and branding have been paramount since the posters of Billy Graham in the 1950s, Jesus People of the 1970s, church growth movement of the 1980s to the “seeker” movement and Vineyard music of the 1990s. Then we have a youth-infused “modern worship” take hold in the new millennia. Passion college events in the USA and stadiums filled in the UK gave voice to something new. The charismatic movement was now mainstream and rock-driven.  Today, that same stadium-rock experience is in houses of worship. It is fun—for most of us!

Our pragmatism has led us to build an attractive experience to share the gospel. With this idea, a star athlete or celebrity artist will share the stage to sell our message. We are cool. We are relevant. Far be it for us to be irrelevant and out of style, eh? Theology is not entirely questioned in our methods to attract. We simply learn how to say that we have freedom to worship and express our worship in a culturally relevant way. Yet, today’s average house of worship is just as racially exclusive as it was in the 1950s. And, we actually like it that way. Is this a felt need worth reaching?

Indeed, every sign needs an identifiable brand. Marketing is about branding and finding that predictable, reproducing niche. It works well in business when you are attempting to penetrate a difficult market flooded with competitors. However, does this idea really serve our church the same way? Honestly, is our worship really something that should be evaluated by its ability to keep pace with trends? If those trends mean we use a proverbial iPod to choose our songs and vibe, is that a good thing? What our “felt needs” are might actually be a copout for church leaders to rarely address our genuine needs—connection to Christ and each other. Trends are not an evil, but what do we balance these with?

“But,” you may say, “we are reaching so many people!” Yes, you are reaching people like you. Yes, you are encouraging people to attend an event. I am not sure we are reaching out, however. So, the argument of attraction is really more about keeping “us” together and attending rather than expanding to reach people who are definitely not like us at all. I suggest it might come from our human need for a sign.  And, it seems that this felt need is paramount in modern worship.

We all want a sign. Do we drink in the idea that a worship experience can be a sign that God is real—to me? Even if I am honestly doubting my faith, the hype of thumping sub woofers moving a crowd in unison makes me feel something. But, is it enough? If God’s presence is felt by so many through the amazing worship set, is our city transformed? What does this mountain-top, last-night-of-youth-camp Sunday really do in the long run? 

I go back to Moses and the Old Testament who actually talked with God like no one ever has before or since. Imagine, with all that time in God’s presence Moses still loses his form and makes enough mistakes to keep him out of the promised land. Even more so, imagine being in God’s presence with a cloud of smoke and pillar of fire. Imagine witnessing the earth swallow up people and the hand of God take out the greatest army in the world. Those signs were not sufficient. A whole generation had to take another lap around Mt. Sinai for 40 years. Our seeking of a sign often misses the point. Faith is not built by simply seeing and experience something. Our curiosity demands our seeing and feeling and touching God. But, when we are given these things are they enough?

The baby need not be thrown out with the bathwater. No form of worship is perfect, since we are not. What is essential here is the motive. Why are we doing what we are doing each weekend? Are we aware of the “branding” we are sending to our people and the community? Are we selling something we know we might not actually believe in—even though it seems to work? Maybe, however, we have some things wrong.

The idolatry of an experience may be short-changing us as worshippers. We are invited to a meal. Jesus is the one being consumed—in the elements of bread and wine. We are not. We are being made full. Worship that brings us to Christ as our meal is what we need. Why? Our vehicle of amazingly-crafted songs, sounds, and service is not a substitute. We are not served by eating a substitute meal. We think we need to experience something easily. We reject the simplicity of eating a meal—our real need. Next time you fire up your guitar pedals, tracked loops, and fog machines also remember it can either be sold as the experience of Jesus or as an introduction to Jesus. I’ll take the real thing over a sign any day.

 

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

23 comments

  1. I think you’re addressing this towards the end in this post, but I feel like though many are saying "this is to attract the community or people not like us" it is not – it is merely allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and say "look what we do, we are cool, we are relevant" at the end of the day what most of it is, is a cheap knock off and poor attempts at those being those things. I don’t think of "experience" as a dirty word or concept but I wrestle with the motive behind many of the experiences. i love your comment about being "undone" in Christs presence. No matter what the "worship experience" looks or sounds like, have I come so undone that I live worthy of His love for me the rest of my week, in how I love my neighbor? Or do I just coast it out until the next "experience"

    1. Thanks Craig,

      It’s hard to write this because I have lived this. But, I think we do pat ourselves on the back.

      The article here (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/january/sunday-morning-segregation-most-worshipers-church-diversity.html?) from CT talks about how we PREFER to worship with our own kind. To be evangelical means we go from here and beyond. Race is just one issue. How about socio-economic?

      Regardless, let me have Jesus AND an experience rather than instead of one is my point here.

  2. I think you’re addressing this towards the end in this post, but I feel like though many are saying "this is to attract the community or people not like us" it is not – it is merely allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and say "look what we do, we are cool, we are relevant" at the end of the day what most of it is, is a cheap knock off and poor attempts at those being those things. I don’t think of "experience" as a dirty word or concept but I wrestle with the motive behind many of the experiences. i love your comment about being "undone" in Christs presence. No matter what the "worship experience" looks or sounds like, have I come so undone that I live worthy of His love for me the rest of my week, in how I love my neighbor? Or do I just coast it out until the next "experience"

    1. Thanks Craig,

      It’s hard to write this because I have lived this. But, I think we do pat ourselves on the back.

      The article here (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/january/sunday-morning-segregation-most-worshipers-church-diversity.html?) from CT talks about how we PREFER to worship with our own kind. To be evangelical means we go from here and beyond. Race is just one issue. How about socio-economic?

      Regardless, let me have Jesus AND an experience rather than instead of one is my point here.

  3. I think you’re addressing this towards the end in this post, but I feel like though many are saying "this is to attract the community or people not like us" it is not – it is merely allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and say "look what we do, we are cool, we are relevant" at the end of the day what most of it is, is a cheap knock off and poor attempts at those being those things. I don’t think of "experience" as a dirty word or concept but I wrestle with the motive behind many of the experiences. i love your comment about being "undone" in Christs presence. No matter what the "worship experience" looks or sounds like, have I come so undone that I live worthy of His love for me the rest of my week, in how I love my neighbor? Or do I just coast it out until the next "experience"

    1. Thanks Craig,

      It’s hard to write this because I have lived this. But, I think we do pat ourselves on the back.

      The article here (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/january/sunday-morning-segregation-most-worshipers-church-diversity.html?) from CT talks about how we PREFER to worship with our own kind. To be evangelical means we go from here and beyond. Race is just one issue. How about socio-economic?

      Regardless, let me have Jesus AND an experience rather than instead of one is my point here.

  4. I think you’re addressing this towards the end in this post, but I feel like though many are saying "this is to attract the community or people not like us" it is not – it is merely allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and say "look what we do, we are cool, we are relevant" at the end of the day what most of it is, is a cheap knock off and poor attempts at those being those things. I don’t think of "experience" as a dirty word or concept but I wrestle with the motive behind many of the experiences. i love your comment about being "undone" in Christs presence. No matter what the "worship experience" looks or sounds like, have I come so undone that I live worthy of His love for me the rest of my week, in how I love my neighbor? Or do I just coast it out until the next "experience"

    1. Thanks Craig,

      It’s hard to write this because I have lived this. But, I think we do pat ourselves on the back.

      The article here (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/january/sunday-morning-segregation-most-worshipers-church-diversity.html?) from CT talks about how we PREFER to worship with our own kind. To be evangelical means we go from here and beyond. Race is just one issue. How about socio-economic?

      Regardless, let me have Jesus AND an experience rather than instead of one is my point here.

  5. I think you’re addressing this towards the end in this post, but I feel like though many are saying "this is to attract the community or people not like us" it is not – it is merely allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and say "look what we do, we are cool, we are relevant" at the end of the day what most of it is, is a cheap knock off and poor attempts at those being those things. I don’t think of "experience" as a dirty word or concept but I wrestle with the motive behind many of the experiences. i love your comment about being "undone" in Christs presence. No matter what the "worship experience" looks or sounds like, have I come so undone that I live worthy of His love for me the rest of my week, in how I love my neighbor? Or do I just coast it out until the next "experience"

    1. Thanks Craig,

      It’s hard to write this because I have lived this. But, I think we do pat ourselves on the back.

      The article here (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/january/sunday-morning-segregation-most-worshipers-church-diversity.html?) from CT talks about how we PREFER to worship with our own kind. To be evangelical means we go from here and beyond. Race is just one issue. How about socio-economic?

      Regardless, let me have Jesus AND an experience rather than instead of one is my point here.

  6. Rich,
    Dare I say I am one of those not having fun in the modern day worship "experience"? Most of my life I have loved "worship" time before the message, and now, I don’t like it that much. Some of it is probably just preference, I’m not sure. Things have changed a lot over the years, and I wonder how many others are out there like me who have stopped going to church because they feel something genuine is missing. They haven’t left God, they have just left this place that feels more like a program that majors in high-tech, rather than an intimate community of believers focusing on their Jesus. I’ll take simple over bells and whistles any day.

    1. I guess I should clarify…
      I haven’t stopped going to church, but I’m wondering if others who feel the same way I do have stopped going.

      1. Thanks Marilyn,

        Personally, I love high tech and the modern sound and fun nature of the new styles and as a musician "at times" its great, too. Here is a question. If intimacy is the goal, then who else are we bringing to the "table" each weekend to mess that up? This is why most churches are small. We like to be with people we know and its awkward to teach a new initiate our inside language and music.

        My point is not that a crowd is a bad thing. Just don’t call the crafted experience more than it should be called. And, whether we err on the intimate size or the rock concert size, are we actually engaging people to be together meeting the Jesus that does more than deliver the right vibes for us that morning?

        Bells and whistles are actually painful when they accentuate our out-of-focus worship. But, they can be great, too.

        RK

        1. That’s another whole subject. Keeping things intimate and yet having an open door for new comers. I don’t have the answer. I did feel a degree of intimacy at VBC when we were all there, even though it was a biggish church. And I loved the worship time. 🙂

        2. As far as modern churches go, even if I am too distracted by the high-tech stuff and some of the "branding", I have a pretty good fellowship. We are diverse. We attract people from all races and social classes and denominations. (The only ones not very comfortable in our church are non-Pentecostals — <chuckle>). I’m convinced our worship leader and team have right motives. They are good, talented people who love Jesus and strive to center worship on Him and leave room for the Holy Spirit to speak during the service. So, I think the problem is with me being in a certain season (maybe it’s the old fuddy duddy season!) — not liking change, as well as a preference for a different style of music (I prefer traditional and/or East Bay groove) and deeper lyrics. But, overall, I have it good where I’m at and I want to stay committed to this group of people.

  7. Rich, Dare I say I am one of those not having fun in the modern day worship "experience"? Most of my life I have loved "worship" time before the message, and now, I don’t like it that much. Some of it is probably just preference, I’m not sure. Things have changed a lot over the years, and I wonder how many others are out there like me who have stopped going to church because they feel something genuine is missing. They haven’t left God, they have just left this place that feels more like a program that majors in high-tech, rather than an intimate community of believers focusing on their Jesus. I’ll take simple over bells and whistles any day.

  8. Rich,
    Dare I say I am one of those not having fun in the modern day worship "experience"? Most of my life I have loved "worship" time before the message, and now, I don’t like it that much. Some of it is probably just preference, I’m not sure. Things have changed a lot over the years, and I wonder how many others are out there like me who have stopped going to church because they feel something genuine is missing. They haven’t left God, they have just left this place that feels more like a program that majors in high-tech, rather than an intimate community of believers focusing on their Jesus. I’ll take simple over bells and whistles any day.

  9. Rich,
    Dare I say I am one of those not having fun in the modern day worship "experience"? Most of my life I have loved "worship" time before the message, and now, I don’t like it that much. Some of it is probably just preference, I’m not sure. Things have changed a lot over the years, and I wonder how many others are out there like me who have stopped going to church because they feel something genuine is missing. They haven’t left God, they have just left this place that feels more like a program that majors in high-tech, rather than an intimate community of believers focusing on their Jesus. I’ll take simple over bells and whistles any day.

  10. Rich,
    Dare I say I am one of those not having fun in the modern day worship "experience"? Most of my life I have loved "worship" time before the message, and now, I don’t like it that much. Some of it is probably just preference, I’m not sure. Things have changed a lot over the years, and I wonder how many others are out there like me who have stopped going to church because they feel something genuine is missing. They haven’t left God, they have just left this place that feels more like a program that majors in high-tech, rather than an intimate community of believers focusing on their Jesus. I’ll take simple over bells and whistles any day.

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