Contemporary worship has been criticized over and over again for its ability to form spectators, but I’ve actually witnessed passive worship all across the stylistic spectrum. (I see it at my church every Sunday in BOTH of our services, one of which is “traditional” and the other our version of “contemporary.”) Worshipers, sitting or standing with blank looks on their faces with little to no movement of their bodies, stare bored at the leadership, screen, bulletin, or song-sheet.
Passive worship like this needs a remedy, so as worship leaders we often turn to education. We’ll remind people that worship isn’t a spectator sport, that the leaders in worship are not performing for them, and that the service is our offering to God. We range from a gentle word to a more emphatic rebuke. On one recent recording, you can actually hear Joel Houston of Hillsong United saying over the mic, “C’mon, no spectators, let’s all sing.” I bet we all know what he saw in that arena.
Others advocate creating situational change. Many rightly point out that standing against more participatory worship is the medium, which becomes our message. If we’ve got a big stage with a nice light rack, it looks more like a rock concert than a worship service. The medium says, “Hey, you’re here to get your face rocked off, so just sit back and relax.” If we’ve got a traditional building with rows of pews oriented to the front of the room, that can send the same message: “What’s important is what’s happening up front; just watch.” And architecture certainly does both send a message and shape a culture.
But all of these things are half-measures, really. There is a deeper heart-issue with which to contend, and that issue is the gospel. If we truly believe that the good news about God’s grace through Jesus Christ is the only means by which we are both saved and sanctified, then true change on anything is fundamentally rooted in us going deeper and deeper into the gospel. In a recent blog post interacting “emerging worship” proponent Dan Kimball, Michael Horton elucidates the issue. Horton says,
Consider the argument of Dan Kimball in Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Kimball urges, “…we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely our offering of service and worship to God—offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body” (3).
What Kimball is reacting against especially is a consumer-driven model, where we come to church to “get something out of it.” However, where his answer seems to be to make the service more about what we give than what we receive, I’m convinced that more scriptural way to talk about it is to say that we come to have God tell us what we really need (regardless of our “felt needs”) and to give us what we need most. The problem that properly concerns him—namely, consumerism—is not solved by making it all about what we do! How does saying it’s all about what we do counter the problem he identifies correctly of making us rather than God the center?…
[Ultimately,] the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.
In other words, if we overly focus on remedying passive worship by putting all our eggs into the active worship basket, we bypass the power that enables the shift to take place—the gospel. It is only when we truly seize, apprehend, imbibe, and receive the depths of God’s grace through Christ that the flame within us is ignited, engulfing us in passionate, full-orbed, active participation. This means that our worship services should display the gospel in our preaching, in our songs, in our prayers, in the elements of the service, and even in the structure of the service. As I plan worship every week, I’m looking for the good news about who Jesus is and what He has done to be conveyed in anywhere from at least four to eight different ways (and that’s besides the sermon). Thankfully, we Christians have inherited some great traditions that help us do these things, if we embrace them (to see what I mean, check out Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship [check out my too lengthy summary of this book]). But even if I can’t convince you to be keen on traditions, be keen on the gospel. Make the person and work of Christ the gateway and centerpiece of your worship of the Father through the Spirit, and, over time, when you’re faithful to that mission, you will see the fruit of active participation borne among your people. Then and only then, when your worship is gospel-marinated, are you able to rightly address issues like architecture, education, and all the other secondary measures.