Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Barney Fife . . . A Boat Ride . . . and Balanced Worship

During my senior year of high school, several of my friends and I decided to take the "opt-out" approach one Friday, and instead of going to school, we headed out for a day of ‘floatin’ the river! As you can imagine, with ten or so senior boys together for a self-designated skip day, there was more testosterone than good sense. At any rate, my canoe partner that day was one of my basketball buddies named Michael Chaney. Chaney was an outstanding player who showed his athletic prowess game after game, and had firmly established himself as the leading scorer in our high school’s storied history. As a fellow teammate, I had been amazed at his ability to stay calm in the tensest situations, and to always "sink the shot" when needed. With Chaney in my canoe, I had full confidence we would mesmerize our fellow truant pals with our nautical abilities!

Well, everything went great for the first half of the trip, but all that changed when our canoe began to float out of control (did I mention neither of us had ever even been in a canoe?). As we neared the bank, the canoe brushed against an old tree, and into the boat dropped what would prove to be one of my worst nightmares: a snake. You see, Chaney and I had never really discussed snakes. Up to this point, there had never been a reason to! But now, my brave friend… the basketball hero whom I had observed winning game after game…who had stared the enemy in the eye and hit game-winning shots…did the most unimaginable thing possible. He stood up in the canoe, pulled out a single-action revolver (which I didn’t know he had), and rapidly unloaded the pistol in a flurry of gunshots and smoke that would have made John Wayne look like Barney Fife! There was one problem…he and the mortally injured snake were still in the boat.

By this time I was on the bank (I was scared of snakes too but could swim a lot better and faster than Chaney), and stood in amazement as our canoe rapidly filled with water and sank to the bottom of the river. It’s amazing how quickly water fills a boat with six holes in it! Chaney’s ill-fated decision resulted in us having to carry the bullet-ridden canoe back to the pick-up point (our other "friends" had left us following the shoot-out), explain to the owner why the bottom of his afore perfectly good rental property was blown out, and then come up with enough money to pay for the incapacitated vessel. On that day I made a commitment: I would ALWAYS stop my friends from shooting holes in the boat, especially if I was in it!

Well, that time has come! A recent Lifeway Research survey revealed the majority of unchurched Americans are turned off by the institutional church. The results of the poll, which included 1,402 adults who had not attended a religious service in the previous six months, indicated that 72 percent of the people interviewed believe the church is "full of hypocrites, people who criticize others for doing the same things they do themselves," and 79 percent think Christianity "is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people." As a result, 86 percent believe they "can have a good relationship with God without being involved in church." Obviously, the church is not viewed very positively…but the question is why?

Shooting Holes in the Boat
Healthy churches are willing
to make adjustments
in worship style preferences . . .
Unhealthy churches are not.

Why are we viewed this way? I believe it is due to a loss of correct focus. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and asked a simple question: "Lord, what is the greatest commandment?" Jesus responds, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment." But he doesn’t stop there! He goes on to say, "The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (HCSB)" In these few verses, Jesus directs our focus to God and others. This admonition, however, stands in stark contrast to reality: most of our churches are inwardly focused.One of the most symptomatic areas of an inward focus is self-centered worship. In a culture of "me first," everyone feels what they like best is most suitable for worship. When we adopt this approach, individual preferences are elevated to "most important status," while the vast majority of the population simply chooses to ignore our holy huddles. If we allow worship to become "me" driven, the long-term impact can be devastating in that it:

• Validates an inward focused, "preference-based" congregation;
• Promotes worship style elitism (i.e., our style is of God; your style is not);
• Makes a loss of theology and heritage acceptable through the elimination of hymnody (most often impacts children and students);
• Provides no point of reference for the move of God over the past two decades through modern songs and hymns (most often impacts seniors);
• Produces divisions among the congregation, most often impacting immature Christians who focus on personal preferences ("contemporary" and "traditional") rather than unity;
• Creates a loss of an intentional focus on evangelism and life transformation due to the shifting of focus to congregational preferences; and,
• Creates divisions over style to the point that many congregations cannot focus on impacting a world that is dying and going to hell.
All of these place the focus inward instead of on God and a lost world. If that’s not shooting holes in the boat, then I don’t know what you call it!

A Call for Balanced Worship
If we allow worship to become
"me" driven, the long-term impact
can be devastating (and) place
the focus inward instead
of on God and a lost world.

Several months ago a pastor shared with me that when he was called to his current place of service, he was told the church wanted to reach children and unchurched young families. After leading that congregation for fifteen years, however, he has come to believe the more important question would have been, "What are you willing to sacrifice?" Healthy churches are willing to make adjustments in worship style preferences, including advocates of both traditional and modern approaches, in order to keep the correct focus on God and others. Unhealthy churches are not.

As a minister of music and worship consultant, I continually encounter churches making "rapid fire" decisions when it comes to worship style. Often these are attempts to accommodate the vocal extremes, both contemporary and traditional, with little long-term impact other than shooting the boat full of holes! When we facilitate the "it’s my way or I’m out of here" mentality (which manifests itself in calls to "unplug the organ," "kill the drummer," and everything in between) we undermine the overall health of our church by promoting an unbiblical inward focus. What we need is balance!

In John 17, as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his arrest, he prayed for unity among his followers. In verse 23 he said, "I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me" (HCSB). Unity and intentional focus are critical if we are to reach this world for the cause of Christ.

I am reminded of David Jeremiah’s response when asked how his church successfully implemented a balanced worship approach. He stated, "I tell the young folks to grow up and the old folks to get over it!" Instead of trying to accommodate everyone’s preferences, maybe its time we reminded ourselves, and our church families, that it’s not about us! A little "growing up" and "getting over it" never hurt anyone!

And just so we don’t forget, while so many of us are focused on our own preferences:
• Over one-half of Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining (Lifeway Research).
• Church attendance is declining with every generation. Only 49% of Boomers, 43% of Busters and 33% of Mosaics attend church on a given Sunday (Barna).
• Denominations and youth workers estimate that between 65 percent and 94 percent of high school students stop attending church after they graduate (The Christian Post).
• According to Lifeway, 61% percent believe ‘the God of the Bible is no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

So can we agree to put up the pistols before we completely sink the boat? For the cause of Christ, I pray we can!

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