What's in it for me?


Good Christians are never dissatisfied with their church's worship service. The rest of us, however, grumble from time to time. Those songs were too contemporary. I didn't get the point the preacher was driving at. He throws out verses so fast I can't keep up.

We have, many of us, a consumerist mentality when it comes to church. We spend much of our waking hours as consumers-of food, entertainment, goods and services. This is especially true in an age when the average daily wage earns an American far more than he needs to survive. All that money has to go somewhere, and judging from our national savings rates, for the most part it isn't going into the bank. So perhaps it's only natural that many spending-drunk Americans have come to view church as one more consumer experience, to be evaluated like a movie or a steak dinner.

Churches haven't helped, splintering themselves into ever-smaller sects and factions with minimal governance. When a newcomer comes straggling through that front door on Sunday morning we are so glad to see him that it rarely crosses our minds to ask: So, why did you leave your last church? Since it wasn't our church, his former place of worship was likely wrong about some aspect of doctrine, so why scrutinize the reasons for the newcomer's departure? What matters is he now sees the light and is in the right church.

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So we offer up a pew, and he settles in (likely as not with a cup of coffee in hand) to join the chorus of critical voices. I liked the preacher's message, but our old church played more contemporary music. Many churches greet people as if they are consumers, and so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if they behave as such.

The proper response to this church-consuming business is to remind the complainant that worship isn't about him. A good many of us know that already, but we are apt to forget, caught up as so many of us are in that often-elusive search for a personal relationship with Jesus. Individual-minded at the outset, we easily slip into judging a worship service based on how it made us feel.

That doesn't mean one can't criticize a worship service, of course. God struck down Aaron's sons for offering "strange fire." And Paul instructed the Thessalonians to "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught." It seems clear that in order to qualify as acceptable worship, an activity has to have more to recommend it than the fact that it is committed between the hours of 10 and noon on a Sunday morning.

So what qualifies as worship? Liturgical readings? Hymn singing? I'm inclined to say yes to both. Announcements about upcoming nursery duty? Probably not.

And now here's the tough question: Does the sermon count as worship? I've heard a precious few that certainly seemed to be worship, directed as they were to the praise of God. But many are simply lectures aimed at correcting some defect in thinking among their audience, or worse, rambling feel-good stories with a few verses thrown in for effect. Perhaps each has its place. But are all sermons worship?

If not, maybe some of that grumbling is justified. And further, maybe we can approach a new equilibrium: less grumbling, more worship. The more our worship periods are filled with genuine worship, as opposed to church administrivia and individual development, perhaps the easier it will become to tell the complainers to zip it. And even better, the more we will be, well, worshiping. Which is the point, right?


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