Very recently, I was privileged to attend a songwriters’ retreat on the campus of the International Learning Center, owned and operated by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. This unique event was born in the heart of IMB leaders who are growing in their concern about congregational worship practices in the United States. Many of these leaders have spent 30+ years on full-time mission assignments around the world, and upon their return to America, have been struck by what they would characterize as congregational worship marked by an extreme sense of “performancism.”
Over the course of the retreat, those of us attending shared time with dozens of missionaries with the opportunity to hear first-hand about the worship of our brothers and sisters in all four corners of the globe. We heard story after story about worship gatherings under Banyan trees on the African Plains, in underground house churches in creative access countries, in remote village churches along the banks of the Amazon River, in communist prisons, and countless other locations. In each of these instances, regardless of the indigenous language spoken or culture, there were notable and consistent marks shared about the worship of the people in each region:
- The name of Jesus is unabashedly proclaimed/sung with power and authority.
- Everyone is involved.
- Joy is abundant.
- Gratitude abounds.
- Songs of testimony to the power of God are numerous.
- Biblical story songs are numerous, as well, and are passed from generation to generation, especially in world areas where illiteracy prevails.
- Worship is vibrant, authentic, and transformational.
In some locations, crude, handcrafted instruments accompany the singing of the people. Other groups lift only their voices as an offering. In each unique instance, the people of God use what is in their hearts and hands in order to express their praise to God.
There was another significant common denominator about the stories we heard during the IMB retreat. Christians in the majority of the world are worshiping God in the middle of extreme persecution. Christian worship in many places is against the law and punishable by imprisonment, beating, and even death. In these places, there is nothing convenient or comfortable about worship — obedience, surrender, and faith are what compels Christians to offer a sacrifice of praise to God.
Several of the missionaries, with whom I spent time at the IMB retreat, remarked independently about their corporate worship experiences in hundreds of churches across the United States since their return from foreign work. Without exception, they stated how dumbfounded they were at the lack of participation of congregations. Their perspective is that domestic churches have given themselves over to worship practices that serve to attract people, rather than to engage people with the Gospel.
Several of us songwriters spent hours in dialogue and prayer about what we heard over the course of the retreat week together. The more we shared, searched the scriptures, and prayed together, the clearer it became to us that our missionary friends were onto something significant when they spoke about the overwhelming number of churches who have adopted “American Idol” as the template for congregational worship. It is true that ministry happens within cultural context, but God has told us all how we are to worship Him in His Word. No one nation, or tongue, is to worship outside the context of Scripture.
I found myself with a lump in my throat as I considered tough questions. Could it be true? Does my family live and worship in a community within this great “One Nation Under God” where venue, production value, program, and even people have become the focus of our worship? Could I be one of those who has become so comfortable with, and spoiled by, a culture of abundance and freedom to worship that I would desire on any given day to experience corporate worship that meets every item on a checklist of my personal preferences? Am I a part of an American Christian Church that has gotten itself upside down in its theology of worship?
I want to be forthright in saying that I do see evidence throughout our nation that “performancism” is a driver of worship culture in our Churches. Stem mixes, click tracks, LED walls, line array systems, HD camera rigs, etc… Is any of it truly important or are we simply gratifying our selfish artistic desires? There could even be reason for concern, I believe, in that we have developed a monetization framework for the songs of faith we sing. Meanwhile, domestic professions of faith and baptisms are declining more quickly than at any point in our history. Is our worship culture contributing to this reality on any level?
I am challenged and convicted by what I learned from my missionary friends. This is all so fresh in my heart and mind that I must be honest in saying I haven’t arrived at many firm answers yet. But I do want to start a conversation I think is important. What do you think?
Craig Adams, a recipient of multiple Dove Awards, has produced and/or participated in more than 3,500 recordings for artists, record labels, music publishers, tv/film, and radio over the past 35 years. In addition, his vast experience in music production, local church worship ministry, and musical direction for live events, along with his work at Lifeway Worship, gives him the talent, experience, and credibility to not only listen, but really hear, what each album delivers to the listeners.