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.