Contemporary Music: The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message
On a recent Sunday, I found myself visiting a Protestant megachurch. Entering the "worship center" was eerily similar to being ushered down the aisle of a movie theater: floor lighting, padded chairs, visual effects shown on two large screens, and music over the speaker system.
A band appeared on stage to begin the service with live music. It was dark, and I thought I heard the audience singing along, but it was impossible to tell. And although I was seated in the front row, I sensed that the congregation was almost superfluous to the activity on stage. As in most forms of entertainment, the audience functioned as passive onlookers, participating only in an unseen, intensely personal way.
While the band played, song lyrics flashed across the two big screens, with words like great, God, and high figuring prominently. The musical performance was outstanding, even if the vocabulary was extremely limited. If the songs aimed at an emotional response, they were probably successful, but like so much contemporary worship music, they lacked any element of substantive teaching.
Immediately after the singing, without any announcement, much less Paul's words of institution (1 Cor. 11:23-26), the elements of the Lord's Supper were hurriedly handed around. Again, I was amazed at the blandly efficient nature of this activity. We could have been passing pretzels and soda pop. No one offered any guidance whatsoever on the sharing of this critical ordinance or sacrament. It seemed a strictly vertical encounter between each individual and God.
Next came the sermon, offered by a capable person who worked very hard to relate while teaching some biblical content. A simple outline appeared on the screen so that we could follow the train of thought. So did the relevant Bible passages, lest anyone could not find them in an actual Bible. I noticed that the illustrations came almost solely from popular movies and television. Then the service ended as abruptly as it began, with a few announcements over the speakers and a cordial "thank you" to the congregation. No benediction or closing prayer—not even a person to give it. The house lights came on, and it was time to leave.
Protecting the Pearls
To say that the service was religiously "dumbed down" is not quite right. In fact, I wish that were the case, since the goal of comprehension sometimes demands that complex ideas be simplified. No, it seemed rather that the presentation aimed at finding a theological and cultural lowest common denominator in order to attract and engage the greatest number of people. As a result, there was no need to be a Christian to understand most everything that was said or sung.
While church leaders rightly want Sunday services to be accessible, they should also be asking about the limits of this strategy. Ironically, a common complaint 20 years ago was that churches alienated visiting nonbelievers with too much Christian jargon. This was a legitimate criticism. But now it seems the impulse toward accommodating the surrounding culture has pushed churches into making the opposite mistake. Has a passion for inclusiveness deluded churches into supposing that doctrinal or liturgical particularity threatens their mission to a religiously pluralized world?
The apostolic and post-apostolic churches—those nearest to the New Testament era—took a different approach. Modeled after the Old Testament tabernacle, the church was where believers encountered the "Holy of Holies." Thus worship could not be open to everyone. The churches of the third and fourth centuries observed what was called the disciplina arcana (the rule or practice of secrecy) with regard to worship gatherings. This was to ensure that only baptized Christians partook of the Lord's Supper and confessed the church's creed. Hippolytus, a third-century theologian, kept a list of vices and professions that would disqualify one from baptismal eligibility. In a great many churches, the un-baptized, even catechumens preparing for baptism, were dismissed before the church celebrated the Eucharist and confessed its creed.