Thursday, April 26, 2007

Dear Contemporary Church,

I want to start a conversation. It may not work, but I want to try.

Let me begin by defining who I mean by 'contemporary church.' I do not mean Christians who sing praise choruses or who don't wear suits to church. That's how the contemporary church movement started, but it has moved beyond that. Perhaps a clearer term would be 'Hyper-Contemporary,' but I doubt you will appreciate that, so I'll stick with the other. By 'contemporary,' I mean Christians who design their church services around the unchurched in the community, Christians who embrace the postmodern culture, Christians who want their services to be known for their creativity and entertainment appeal, Christians who prefer catchy "How-To" sermons. The list could go on, but you probably get the picture.

I honestly desire to talk with you about things. I've tried to comment on some of your blogs, but my comments never make it through the screening process. So I invite you to my blog, hoping that you will hear my desire to respectfully discuss some issues.

Let me begin by pointing out two good things I see in your efforts. First, you are concerned about the lost, and I praise God for that. One of the many problems with the 'traditional church' is that we (I'll place myself in that category for now) have become so focused on the church organization that we've lost sight of the world around us. I admit it. We've dropped the ball on reaching out, and I would love to see our congregations have the enthusiasm about evangelism that your congregations have. Second, you desire to engage the culture. Scroll through my blog and you'll see that I, too, attempt to engage the culture. Though we go about it differently, we're on the same page here. This current culture is unchurched, skeptical, and entertainment-driven. The traditional church seems blind to this. As Christians, we must address it in some way, and I'm grateful to our Lord that you have that desire.

But I'm concerned. Some days I get angry at what you guys do. Other days I'm shocked and discouraged by what you guys do. Please hear me out. Allow me to list three concerns:
1) Man-Centered Worship vs. God-Centered Worship = I'm using the term 'man-centered' to mean that the focus is on the desires and needs of people. You unapologetically center your worship around the unchurched visitors who may attend. People want rock concert style music, so you offer it. People want fun and exciting things for their kids, so you offer it. People want coffee and doughnuts, so you offer it. People want entertainment, so you offer it. The results? People come to church... by the thousands! But is this growth good growth? And is what you offer on Sunday mornings or afternoons actually worship?
I freely admit that I'm old-school when it comes to this stuff. I'm 25 and I like hymns... I know; I'm weird. But this goes beyond the question of preference to the question of rightness. This isn't a question of practicality (does it work?); it's a question of 'biblicality' (does God's Word accept this?). No, the Bible doesn't commend or condemn rock music and doughnuts, but the purpose of these things is to please people. Scripture never commands us to do that. Rather, we're told to please God, even if it offends people at times. I firmly believe that man-centered worship is self-idolatry, placing what appeals to us or the unchurched above what honors God.
2) Man-Centered Preaching vs. God-Centered Preaching = This same problem carries itself into the preaching at your churches it seems. You preach to entertain and to meet felt needs. "People don't care about doctrine and theology, they just want to make their marriage work," you may say. But the Bible is oh so clear on this. First Corinthians 2:1-5 tells us that preaching isn't to be entertaining and impressive. First Thessalonians 2:1-12 addresses the same issue by Paul saying, "We speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts." Our sermons should not be man-centered. They should be God-centered. They should speak of a Holy God, a sinful humanity, a sinless Christ, and a necessary response. That is the Gospel. That is a person's deepest need, and to give them anything other than this is cheating them and disobeying God.
3) Cultural Engaging vs. Cultural Embracing = Lastly, I'm concerned with the way your churches handle the culture. I'm all for engaging culture and creating culture, but that isn't what I see in your churches. I see you embracing the culture. You may not see the problem with this, so let me explain what I mean.
Romans 1:18-32 clearly describes our modern culture. Here are just a few excerpts: "For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another." "They are full of envy, murder, strife..." "They are... disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless..." That is us! That is our culture. And God says twice in this passage that He "gave them up." John MacArthur, a pastor from Los Angeles, rightly considers this culture to be abandoned by God. Yet, this very same culture is the culture that contemporary Christians whole-heartedly embrace. Guys, I just don't get it. How can you title your sermons after Girls Gone Wild and Desperate Housewives? How can you host a Super Sexy Sunday? You are embracing a culture that is abandoned by God. Can you please explain why? Can you please share how you think using wickedness is honoring to the Lord?

I realize that you guys get a lot of criticism. That's not my desire here. I have sincere problems that need sincere answers. I'm open to critiques. I'm curious for answers. I'm honestly concerned. Let the conversation begin!

For the Gospel,


Anonymous said...

I think that there is a difference between being seeker focused and seeker sensitive. It is sometimes easy to forget that there are alot of people out there who did not grow up in church that do not konw anything about the Bible. Alot of times we use Bible references and forget about these people. The church is a body of believers, that is clear from Acts. One thing to remember is that people are not seeking God, rather God is seeking people.

Josh Culbertson said...

Anonymous, there are certainly people in our churches who know nothing about the Bible. I have long-time members of my church who know very little about the Bible. This is the sad reality in our day. But the only way to correct it is to teach the Bible, not replace it with entertainment. I agree that we need to be sensitive to this (I ususally try to tell people where the book I'm preaching from is located in the Bible). Traditional churches really need to be more sensitive to non-believers. I'm sure there is a balance given in Scripture.
And you're totally right about God seeking people. He draws His people to Himself - and He doesn't need gimmicks to do it.

Jarod said...

Until a person comes to see God as more to be desired than anything they can not be saved. In a lot of churches today we don't commend God to them as the ultimate desire of our hearts. Instead we lure them with flashing lights and promises of a good life while God gets pushed farther from their view. I don't think flashing lights or rock music is wrong, but I do think that if we offer them these things at a neglect of God then as Jesus said, "it would be better for us to have a millstone tied around our necks and drowned in the depth of the sea."

Josh Culbertson said...

So true, Jarod. I'm inclined to view the flashing lights and rock music in worship as wrong simply because I can't see how they focus our attention on God. It seems that, by their nature, they distract us from God and cause us to focus on the 'show.' Is it possible to use those things and still have God-centered worship?

Kelly Jones said...

Worship is a matter of the heart and whenever the heart is turned to God either through praise, conviction or through cries of help, God is worshiped. For me personally, I have had moments and songs where worship has occurred through Christian rock music. I listen to Christian rock while I study (sometimes for the sole purpose of not falling asleep). There have been songs where the lyrics have reminded me to turn to God or remind me how much He cares and in that moment, that song has inspired worship. Other times, even in church when I am singing praise choruses where my heart has not been engaged -- I am either falling asleep or thinking about what I am doing that afternoon. So my personal belief is that worship can happen regardless of the tempo but rather it is a reflection of the heart

Anonymous said...

Ironically many contemporary churches are starting to look the same and do the same message topics. If you go to alot of church plants now, you cannot tell the difference between them. Creativity was supposed to be the driving force, but it is almost like some are becoming carbon copies of others. The creative therefore is no longer creative.

Jarod said...

My point was that flashing lights and rock music are not bad in themselves but that often our churches use them as replacements for God in our services. We would rather give the congregation entertainment rather than what they really need which is Jesus. Whether we have flashing lights and an electric guitar or candles and an organ is not the point. As long as the word of God is proclaimed the other things (instruments, hymnals, powerpoint, etc) become trivial. What is not OK is watering down the word to make it more palatable. All the other things will pass away but the word of God will remain forever.

Josh Culbertson said...

Anonymous makes an interesting point about creativity. I've often asked, "How is preaching Andy Stanley's old sermons creative?"
Kelly, I agree with you that tempo doesn't matter. But a band on a stage with flashing lights, playing loud music... isn't that - at its core - entertainment?
Jarod, I see your point and totally agree. I'm just adding that I think certain things done in worship (in both contemporary and traditional churches) naturally draw our desires away from God instead of to Him.

Jarod said...

Definitely bands on stage and flashing lights is entertaining and I think it is good to enjoy worship in different ways. The key is to not let these things become what we worship. In everything we do we are to worship Christ. So if we are playing an instrument or singing or pushing sound and light buttons we should do it all in such a way that brings glory to God. Just because a church uses flashing lights and loud music does not mean they are worshiping any less than one that uses no music at all. I think the problem with a lot of the churches today, traditional and contemporary, is that they distort the word of God to make it more appealing to their congregation. It has nothing to do with what type of music or what kind of lighting it has to do with their handling of the word of God. It is not a contemporary vs. traditional problem it is a heart problem. I think we need to stop worrying about contemporary vs. traditional. Both can be either God glorifying or Self glorifying and it has little to do with music or lights and a lot to do with what is being preached.

Joy Culbertson said...

I dont usually do this, but I'm temporarily abandoning my position as token "vet friend" and leaving my area of expertise. I would like to point out the following:
1. characteristic of the present; "contemporary trends in design"
2. belonging to the present time; "contemporary leaders"
3. occurring in the same period of time; "a rise in interest rates is often contemporaneous with an increase in inflation"

Every style of worship was "contemporary" at one time. I'm sure that we do not worship in the same format as those before us or even those of other cultures. And traditionalists have likely always been at odds with those doggone "contemporaries". As long as the message is strong and Christ-centered, I don't see any problem with upbeat music and coffee and doughnuts. I would rather those things bring the people in to hear a good message than NOTHING bringing them in. The flashing lights, however, could get annoying.

Also, people have different spiritual gifts- if you feel that playing the saxophone or interpretive dance is your way of worshiping the Lord I think you should do it! Maybe not the dancing, but you get the point.

That said- I don't even go to church that much and Josh will likely blow holes right through my position anyway. But I dont think there is a right or wrong answer -- to a certain point its a matter of personal taste.

Josh Culbertson said...

When I posted this, I sent it to 4 or 5 different 'contemporary' churches, asking for their input. So far, I've heard from 2... they wouldn't leave comments, but they did email. One is being processed. The other said this: "I read through your blog and your concerns. I would suggest you come
check us out and then let us know what you think. It is different from the traditional church, but I guarantee it we worship and God's word is taught every week."
I appreciate the feedback. But talk about dodging the questions! Asking me to visit the church (which is located 1,500 miles away from my house!) is such a cop-out. This brings me to another concern in these churches: People who have concerns are marked as "critics" and simply ignored. I don't mind you doing it to me, but when some churches make the change, too many older brothers & sisters in Christ are marked and rejected. NOT the biblical way, despite what Rick Warren says.
Joy... thanks for taking off the vet hat and joining this conversation. I appreciate your take on it all.
I'm afraid this has turned into a 'style' debate. My concerns with the hyper-contemporary church go much deeper, as I said in the post. The real problem is the drive to get people coming at the expense of doctrine. Joy said the messages should be Christ-centered. Amen. But what Christ? Mormons have one Christ, Jehovah's Witnesses have another. The TV health/wealth preachers have yet another Christ. Could the real Jesus please stand up? Ah.. it's the BIBLICAL Christ. Yet the Bible is barely mentioned in so many of these churches. The end result will be a generation of people who have had fun at church, but who never met the real Christ at church. I believe that has been Jarod's main concern in all this as well.
If you know any churches that fit my contemporary description, send them a link & invite them into the conversation!

Anonymous said...

i attended one of the hyper-contemporary churches for awhile. I was actually starved for the Word of God. To me it is the spiritual equivalent of having a 5 year old watch a 2 year old. If you are not anchored down with some strong spiritual leaders, then growth doesn't come. If growth doesn't come, then what are we doing.

So many pastors wonder how this type of church draws so many people. Just keep in mind this one thing, concerts draw crowds no matter if it is at a bar, concert hall or other venue. When the focus is the show and presentation then don't be surprised if people are showing up. People want to be entertained. It is really a different mind set.

i wish there were an easy answer to this. Granted I have seen alot of churches not grow because of the church itself. I have seen churches unwilling to welcome different races and different age groups. Those churches die out due to this. I think this is healthy dialogue and hopefully we can all learn from each other.