In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant reformers turned the tide of Christianity.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others boldly stood up and spoke out to influence change in the way the Christian church operated. One of the complaints of the reformers was that people who attended worship didn’t understand anything happening in the service. At that time the Catholic mass was in Latin, so unless you spoke Latin (and hardly anyone did outside of the clergy), you were there to basically observe the worship events and receive a vaguely understood “blessing” of some kind.
If you know any church history, you know that many of these errors were corrected through the translation of the mass, the Scripture and the songs into the vernacular language of the people. These reformation efforts have resulted in several centuries of people coming to church and at least having the ability to understand (access) what was going on.
Historians please forgive me: I am painting with very broad strokes for the sake of time. But here is my point: I believe that we are once again, like the reformers, living in a time of what I will call a “new illiteracy.” We have some work to do to overcome this obstacle.
Many evangelical churches operate on this assumption: people are repulsed by religious language and religious tradition that they do not understand; thus we must formulate our ministry and programs around what they can understand. This of course comes from a wonderful desire to make church accessible, and it is a work that must be done. Christian worship must be contextual to be effective. But, like any good thing, we can go too far. When taken the extreme, this desire to “meet your audience” results in what has been called the “attractional” or “seeker” model of ministry. While there are many denominations that have been formed around this approach, much of the church in America has been affected.
For example, I have attended many churches with services like this: you walk in to a worship space and there are some announcements on screens or music in the room; there is a song set sung about/to a certain “you” and “your love” and how it “never lets go;” more announcements; a forty minute “talk” about how to live a better life as a parent/citizen/worker; prayer and offering; dismissal (“have a great week!”).
I am at risk of sounding overly critical here, but this is not my intent. I do not mean to disrespect or discredit my fellow laborers in the ministry of the gospel. There are many positive traits to this style of ministry and many who have come to faith as a result. My criticism is meant to identify an assumption that is being made in this model.
Perhaps a limited analogy will help: Let’s say ministers are math teachers. If we assume students don’t like math but are still forced to come to math class, our job as math teachers would be to make math more interesting, more applicable to the lives of our students (so far so good). But if we stop talking about addition, subtraction, equations and fractions, hoping our students will pick up math skills by osmosis, we start running into trouble.
Back to ministry now. Should we assume that people know who this “you” is that we are talking about and singing about or that they will eventually figure it out? Can we assume that people understand why this group has gathered in this place, or what it means to follow Christ as a disciple? I’m not sure they do.
I fear that, just as in the time of the reformers, church-goers do two simple things: they come to observe what is happening (the production) and to receive a blessing of some kind (this blessing may be a piece of advice on how to be better at “x,” or a positive feeling as a result of the experience. This is evident by the common post-church conversation, “what did you get out of it?”).
People need to have the gospel intelligently told to them, the story of God who creates, redeems and recreates the world (and the entire cosmos), in a language they understand (their context). If that’s not happening, we in ministry shouldn’t feel like we are succeeding, no matter how many people show up.
As America becomes an increasingly secular society, it seems clear to me that what is needed is not less of the language and ritual that makes Christian worship distinct, but more of it–a LOT more.
When we gather for worship, people need to understand why we are here – that God has made us a people in Christ and we gather as a response to his call and command. People need to know who this “You” is in the songs that shows us love and accepts us as we are, that it is none other that the Triune God of the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and that this love that He has shown came through a brutal and tortuous cross that killed God’s only Son. People need to know that they have a part to play in this gathering, in the telling and unfolding of this great story, and that when they leave they aren’t simply scattering to random places to “do their thing,” but are actually sent out by God to do his work in the world. How will they know unless we tell them? We need to say the why, the what and the who, and we need to say it over, and over, and over again.
I am not an advocate for returning to religious abuses or empty tradition. But we are living in a time of rampant and increasing illiteracy to the things of God. Not to mention that as Christians we are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and need to be reminded of these things just as much as the next person. My prayer is that as ministers we are diligent to KNOW the Story and TELL the Story as we gather to DO the Story in worship.