Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why, O why do we sing in church?

I think Richard has a valid point (comment on the last post) that the aim of modern forms of worship was to help people who weren't connecting with God in traditional services an opportunity to make some connection with him. And I would say that there have been times when I have connected with God using a mix of vehicles including modern worship songs.

But I also think that anonymous (comment to same post) has touched an issue at the heart of the contemporary church's struggle to connect with people. Put baldy, it is that we are generally frothy and irrelevant, inward looking and a wee bit smug about our relatedness to God.

Now, I wouldn't want to go overboard here. I've met loads of Christians who are getting their hands very dirty in some places where people need help and only Christians are there to do anything. I've been to estates in inner cities in the UK where the only 'welfare' provision of any kind is that offered by Christians who sacrificially give of themselves, their time and their resources to make a difference and bless their neighbours.

And I'm writing this the day after a British Christian aid worker was shot dead in Kabul for doing exactly that as a Christian. So I don't think we can tar the entire church as self-obsessed. It dishonours those who are worshipping God with their bodies laid on the line day, day out.

But sadly, the contemporary worship scene is part of a wider malaise in the western church that sees offering people what we think they want is the way to attract people. And while there might be some superficial appeal for some in the entertaining mix we serve up, the longer term danger of the whole approach is that we are only offering an hour's mildly spiritual diversion.

Now some will protest that worship songs are not entertainment; they are a means of lifting up the name of God in a way that draws people to him and therefore are the essential component of what we do as churches. Sadly, as anonymous' posts so eloquently attest, such an approach repels rather than attracts some, perhaps many people.

We do seem to be afraid of thinking, of asking the hard questions about our faith that would stretch our faith both intellectually and emotionally. As an author, I am frequently asked to remember my audience doesn't want to be too taxed. I need to write in a way that will be accessible to people who don't read books - tricky when I write books!

I had some interesting conversations as I was putting the finishing touches to my recent short commentary on Galatians that I was possibly entering into discussions and debates about the text that were not appropriate for the general Christian public. The idea seems to be that the average church person can only cope with a pre-digested, entertainingly served up gobbet of something to believe rather than a range of possibilities to think about.

This could indeed be why the church in the UK is losing people. But it also highlights a real problem that churches have and it's this: who is our audience and at what level do they wish to be engaged? I have said for a number of years now that I do not believe there is a one-size fits all way of being and doing church. I am neither original nor alone in this view, but it is depressing how few of us there still are who really believe it and are prepared to practice it.

There are a load of people who think seriously about the world and their place in it and who might well find that the Christian faith has something intelligent and helpful to say that would help them engage with and think through these deep questions. At the same time, that process might well help them to meet and engage with God with every fibre of their beings - body, soul and, equally importantly, mind.

Sadly, songs like I can only imagine will only repel those with an ounce of intellect and musicality. I am sorry for anonymous' poor experience of church so far. Keep in touch. I'll return to this theme.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Me again.

How refreshing to hear the views of a Christian who isn't immersed in the latest trends in Christian worship. And how refreshing to hear from a Minister who is willing to hear views from a contrary point of view.

I didn't think I'd agree so much with what you say - and I certainly wouldn't take away from some of the extraordinary acts of compassion that have been enacted in the name of God - the Salvation Army, abolition of slavery, Crisis at Christmas and so on. Those people have got down and dirty with people who were ignored by society.

I suppose being brought up in the evangelical Baptist way has left me jaundiced. I have never understood how people can spend so long looking up at the stained glass windows (or powerpoint screen) and forget to look down at the immense pain at ground level.

Without wishing to go off at a tangent, I wonder, when people start suffering with a recession and losing their material possessions, that the cult of "smug" worship will lessen? Maybe those people in their Boden jumpers, people carriers and "it's all about me feeling good style Christianity" will question their quick fix faith.

While "Shine Jesus Shine" might be welcome in the good times, how will it help those who are hurting? How will that superficial gloss of contemporary Christianity and its associated rock and roll meet people who are at rock bottom?

You know, I'm impressed that vicars and ministers are prepared to question the status quo. I'd love to think that one day a "Sunday night worship session" got cancelled and the congregation went and did something practical instead.

I have a hunch that God might be quite pleased at that.

Thanks for engaging in a good bit of bloggery. I'm off to sing "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam" (for old times sake) and have a cup of tea.