My own personal worship experience

This past weekend I visited one of the larger, more well-known Vineyard churches. My first impression was that this was a Vineyard mall, complete with the requisite bookstore, coffee shop and various age-appropriate ministries (the Age of Specialization). This one, however, included statues, a very cool art gallery, and a grand piano in the lobby, which someone insisted on playing after church. It might have been okay, except that the acoustics were terrible, and it only served to make it extremely difficult to carry on a conversation.

Church was pretty standard, high-end Vineyard, obviously operating like a well-oiled machine (strains of “Welcome to the Machine” playing in my mind). That is, comfortable seats, large video screens on either side of the auditorium, and great sound system. The service was well-produced, and it was executed without a glitch. Announcements were minimal, and included a professional-quality video clip emphasizing one particular ministry in need of help.

In spite of the professionalism, or more probably, because of it, I did not like the musical-worship segment. So, because I’m a typical American and it’s all about me, the fact that I didn’t like it is important.

During the worship time, I was aware of several things:

  • The worship leader was not an exceptional vocalist, but competent and seemed sincere.
  • The backup vocalists were less than stellar and for the most part unnecessary.
  • The bass player, using a 5-string bass, was really good and had some very interesting techniques that I would like to learn.
  • The lead guitar player was standard-fare Vineyard, kicking out great solos in each song to “enhance” our worship experience.
  • The congregation applauded after every song.
  • The song selection was also standard Vineyard, but for the most part very up-tempo, and attempted to include both personal expression (as long as you agreed with the lyricist) and theological affirmation (“God you are great”).

And I didn’t like it. One thing I have become aware of, in spite of the fact that I am a rocker whose personal worship-playing style tends toward alt-folk-grunge, a great worship band does not enhance my worship experience, and tends to just get in the way.

The fact that I was aware of everything on my list shows that I was aware of these, I was not worshipping. When I am admiring the soaring guitar solo, I am not worshipping. Whenever the audience broke into applause, I couldn’t help wondering if they were clapping for God, or merely responding to the music (even though the worship leader threw in a “thank you, God!”). Would they have still clapped after a corporate reading of the song lyrics? (Chances are they all would have been aware of how repititious and trite many of the lyrics really were.)

If the expectation is that I have an individualized worship experience in the midst of the American Idol style worship performance, it failed. If the expectation is that I would blend with the community of saints in corporate adoration and worship, it failed. If the expectation is that the lyrics would inspire or catalyze some type of response to God, it failed. If the expectation was that I would groove to the music, it may have come close.

It seems that many rate worship in the style of the old American Bandstand show: “It had a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.” What’s that about?

What started out as a worship revolution – bringing in a needed personal dimension to corporate worship (I am not against that) – has, I believe, turned into a worship distraction. Most of us really like Matt Redman’s “When the Music Fades” because it’s a great song.

Does anyone else see a problem here?

My own personal church experience

In the mid-70’s I became part of what was, at that time, the currently emerging church. There were myriad groups either breaking away from established institutions, re-imaging established churches, or just coagulating on their own to form new churches. It was free, it was youthful, it was at times rebellious. The cry of the established church was “bloom where you’re planted” in an attempt to keep their own numbers from dwindling.

This was, I think, a product of the times. Even while still a part of my Lutheran church (which was heavily influenced by the Jesus movement), I became a student of these new movements, and eventually a student of the more established traditions, including the oldest, the Greek Orthodox (from my reading of history, it was the Roman church that broke away).

My thought was to find the One True Church – common sense told me that it should exist. But, I didn’t find it, and 20 years ago found myself in the Vineyard movement, where I am today. I like it because they found what has been called the “radical middle” – that place that tries to balance experience with sound theology. For the most part, the Vineyard has done that well, with a few odd turns here and there.

However, in considering the issue of an individualized Christianity, there are a couple of aspects of the current non-traditional church tradition (yes, it has now become its own tradition…) that I see as problems.

The first issue I saw as a problem very early on: without any kind of regular group affirmation of a basic creed, you could be a part of the church for years before being recognized as a heretic. A couple of people tried to insert a semi-creed in worship choruses (I-yi believe in Jesus…), but you just can’t bring yourself to sing that every week. This is not new with Vineyard-style churches – the Baptists, for example, have had this problem for years, which is why their youth are easy targets for JW’s and Mormons. Very few pastors tend to teach basic Christian doctrine (that’s so boring), choosing instead for a topic-of-the-month. You can be an expert on personal finance and tithing, but still not know that Jesus actually is God.

The other issue is the worship style. I’m not talking about musical style, but the “do your own thing” right of expression thing that we do: Feel free to sit, stand, raise your hands, kneel or dance, as you feel led… Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself. But, I’m wondering if this “freedom” has just added to the individualized, isolationist Christianity that we now see. The whole purpose in coming to church was to engage in corporate worship – you’ve always had the opportunity to worship as you saw fit at home. Sunday morning was a corporate expression of the church, doing the same thing, reciting creeds together, and singing unsingable songs as we rose and sat and whatever, together. It was not only an expression of worship, it was an expression of community- you simply couldn’t do this on your own.

Today, I can go to church, and not “be there” at the same time. I don’t have to stand if I don’t want to. Certainly there’s something to adding your voice to a hundred or more other voices- that’s at least a taste of corporate worship. However, the attitude of corporateness just isn’t there. There’s not even a real expectation of a corporate experience – it’s all really focused on the individual. Plus, a lot of the songs are theological hash, so I find that often I can’t even bring myself to sing along.

Perhaps these are reasons why these churches are always talking about the lack of community, trying to get people into small groups, and so on. How can you encourage community when you spend Sunday mornings encouraging individualism?

These are just thoughts in progress from an admitted rugged individualist. There will be more …

My own personal testimony

I was raised a Lutheran, which, I found out later in life, was a good thing. Essentially, Lutheran theology is pretty sound. Now, I’m not saying anything about the current state of that institution, as I haven’t been to a Lutheran church in probably 20 years or more (the last time was probably to a funeral). I’m just saying that core Lutheran theology – the theology you’ll find dating back a few hundred years – is good stuff.

But, then the Jesus movement hit, and I was bombarded with teachings all centered around the need for me to have a “personal” relationship with Jesus, and a “personal” testimony. It was no longer good enough just to believe the truth. It’s tough for a Lutheran kid to all of a sudden be surrounded by people who could tell you the exact moment they were “saved.” My testimony, on the other hand, was pretty bland. “Well, I was raised in church, and believe in Jesus, and, well, that’s about it.” No big sins, no major doubts, I never dabbled in Satan worship or did drugs (although as weird as I am, some people refuse to believe this). I was just a good Lutheran kid. My Baptist friends doubted I was saved.

The Jesus Movement led to the Great Evangelical Swell that has now engulfed us, and even a whole lot of Lutherans now have personal testimonies. In America (I can only speak of what I know), Christianity has become a personal, if not personalized religion; that is, American Evangelical theology is built around an individual experience or understanding of the Gospel, and around a personal experience of forgiveness. It’s not enough to be able to state (with meaning) the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed; a higher form of belief is to be able to say, “I once was lost but now I’m found, and my life is so much better now.”

You know what? Personal testimonies are not necessarily bad things; but there’d better be something better than your personal testimony, because to be honest, your experience, and your understanding, and your own personal faith are not really all that impressive. Do you know how many people avoid church just because of the testimony of Christians? Do you get what I’m saying here?

Furthermore, personal testimonies tend to change with the circumstances. I’m not talking about the rehearsed speech you may have about the day you went forward at a rock concert- I’m talking about your current, ongoing Christian experience. It may be okay today, but what about next week? What happens with life turns upside-down, and your “fruit” sours, or your faith waivers, or depression hits? It happens, people!

A “personal” testimony – the natural result of a “personal” religion – is faulty because your testimony and your religion are not founded on Jesus; it’s all based on you and your perceptions, and often what you want to believe. Our experiences and our perceptions are just not very reliable. To say, “I believe this because I experienced that” may work in this culture, where personal experience is paramount. However, personal experience is not an adequate foundation.

In this culture, we tend to think we can have the kind of religion that we want. However, it doesn’t matter what kind of God you want to worship. It doesn’t matter if you happen to choose to believe in a pre-trib rapture or in a 10,000% return on your tithe (yeah, I heard that guaranteed on TBN last week). It doesn’t matter what kind of experience you want with your religion. It doesn’t matter if you want to believe in a pacifist God, or in a judgmental, finger-pointing God. God never asked you what kind of a God you wanted…

That same preacher who guaranteed the amazing return on your giving (only if you sent it to him, though) also said something quite profound: “If something is true, it’s true for everybody.” Bingo!

What I’m not saying

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with having a personal connection with God, a personal experience of God, a warm feeling in your heart, or whatever. There is definitely to be a personal aspect to our relationship with God, including some kind of personal experience. In his various letters, Paul seems to assume that people do have some kind of personal experience when they receive the Holy Spirit, and in Galatians 3, he asks that they think back: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law, or because you believed?” It’s good, it’s fine, it’s a normal Christian experience.

What I am saying

However, my point remains: you can’t base your Christianity just on your experience, or just on your own testimony. There’s something better. When your life is in crisis or your faith comes under attack, you need something a bit more solid than, “well, I believed (or felt, or experienced) that once.”

You need God’s testimony. That’s why the Bible is so important. Way back in Genesis, God kept reminding people of His testimony: “I am the God who …” Read through the Gospel of John; the whole focus of the book is to present God’s testimony of who Jesus is, and why he came. (The other books in the Bible do the same thing.)

What you want, what you believe, and what you’ve experienced, is largely immaterial. The demons believe, Hindus have experience. What God believes is critical.

Would you like to know my personal testimony? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …”