Church—in the sense of a weekly gathering of believers for worship—sure has changed in thirty years. 

I’m not saying I know the one true way to worship—but the shared traditions and sense of reverence that once set worship time apart from a concert, a church social, or a stand-up routine have been dismantled and hauled out to the dump, at least where I live. I’m not even sure if “worship” is still the right term.

I remember the sound of the electric organ in the rural church I grew up in back in the 60s and 70s, during that critical moment when the more casual atmosphere of Sabbath School switched over to Worship. Again, I’m not saying there’s anything inherently Biblical or sacrosanct about organs or any other instrument, but the tremulous old Wurlitzer did a good job of setting the mood once the general prelude music (for settling into a pew and quietly greeting your fellow members) was suddenly interrupted by the familiar, almost eerie musical invocation of #692 in the hymnal, a composition based on Habbakuk 2:20: “The Lord is in His holy temple! Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

This marked the now-forgotten moment when children were shushed, the whispers of greeting ceased, and everyone sobered up for the ceremonial walking-in (and kneeling) of the elders, to be followed by the singing of the Doxology. In that stilted formality—the very thought of which makes many of today’s worship leaders want to gag, or stare in bewildered confusion—the observance of tradition created a few moments of reverence, another word that has been largely memory-holed in exchange for “relevance” and “relationships.”

And boy are we relevant and relational.

Seek ye first . . . Kudos!

The ideals of respect and reverence that prevailed in SDA worship until the last decades of the previous century (depending on where you lived)—the very concept of a “House of God”—have in “progressive” places like ours been swapped for a wise-cracking, feel-good, socially interactive free-for-all, taking place in what has morphed into a sort of casual village square.

I will not, for now, go deeply into the style and acoustics of the contemporary song-leading that has replaced the stuffy old hymn-singing that hip worship leaders deplore, except to say that the focus has shifted from congregational participation to the stylings and self-expression of those who have become full-fledged performers, rather than leaders of group singing. (In churches that try to please everyone with a rotating cast of musical styles, there are occasional exceptions, of course.)

What worship has evolved into in our neck of the woods is more of a spiritually themed variety show, a sort of weekly talent competition with congenial hosts, clever quips, funny anecdotes, quasi-professional musical performances, infomericals for upcoming events, cheeky little skits, and children’s stories—sometimes with goofy clown props, sometimes with science demonstrations—that turn it into something of a kids’ TV show. It’s all a very nice assortment of clubby tidbits, representing real effort by talented presenters, but what in this flurry of entertaining activities equates to the overarching idea of “worship” that we are ostensibly meeting for?

And our commitment to unending, mutual public affirmation never lets up: It is mother’s day—APPLAUD MOTHERS! It is old Joe’s birthday: SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO GOOD OLD JOE! A child just said something cute on the microphone, while standing next to the pastor who set her up for it. LAUGH AND APPLAUD THE CUTE CHILD! The so-called “church at worship” has become the new soccer field where everyone gets a participation trophy, its central goal seemingly a feverish attempt to build personal self-worth through easy, repetitive, symbolic, human-to-human affirmation. TAKE A FLOWER FOR MOTHER’S DAY (including you NON-mothers, who we all know are a little on edge today) AND FEEL INSTANT LOVE! That’s right, Seventh-day Affirmation for all!

Thou shalt make my house . . . a house of humor?

I’m not saying interpersonal affirmation shouldn’t be part of a congregation’s social life in certain times and places, but in the hour of worship these “attaboys” have come to overshadow contemplation of our relationship with the Most High. To me, it’s all part of a big generational backlash against what many Boomers recall as the cold, uptight, preachy, ritualistic services of their childhood. In their quest to repudiate how their parents’ generation did church, some have over-corrected to the point where almost nothing can be considered unchurchy as long as it makes someone (usually up in front) feel good.

Recently, a “praise team” leader at one service we attended told a rather elaborate and random joke between songs, and when the punchline was delivered the drummer in the backup band obliged the spirit of the moment with a genuine rimshot. And given the general party-like revelry of the 11 o’clock hour, why not? The cosmic comic is in his funny temple! Let all the world bust a gut! I’m not sure what’s preventing us from dimming the lights and putting a spotlight on a chanteuse in a glittery dress draping herself over the piano for a breathy version of “He Touched Me.” (Who knows what jazz-club-loving demographic we are currently failing to reach?)

I mean, seriously: At this point, is there ANY act or script or style of performance that ANYONE in worship leadership would be willing to say no to under the modern orthodoxies of inclusion, diversity of expression, primacy of youth, keeping it light, trend-following, and (above all) fear of hurting anyone’s feelings? I doubt it (and we’ll explore why that might be at a later time).

While in college, my future wife and I both heard about this wacky Southern-California thing called “Celebration church,” which (me being in the backwards Midwest, she in a part of the Golden State it hadn’t yet reached) we couldn’t quite imagine. Little did we know how quickly the format’s gratuitous, showbizzy impulses would travel east and swamp a century of traditional worship style and social mores in the suburban corner of the Midwest where we had chosen to raise our little family. (Our children grew up aware of “old school” church while visiting grandparents in a rural area, and learned hymns at home. And it just so happens that as adults they prefer hymns in church, while enjoying a blend of new and old music when gathering with their peers.)

He has shown thee, oh man, what is cool

Change in human society is constant, and I’m not saying that keeping everything as it always has been is the answer to everything. I was surprised when my mother told me that our little country church had segregated seating when she was a child in the 1930s, with women on one side of the aisle and men on the other. Undoubtedly some saw the discontinuation of that practice as the End of True Worship. Ditto for the arrival of guitars in church in the 1970s. There is nothing inherently wrong with change. 

However, as a congregant who’s observed 25 years of ever-intensifying entertainment-fication of worship, it strikes me that turning church into an Affirmation of Each Other and Club for Cool Relevant Performance (in imitation of the megachurches that do this stuff) has not delivered on its promise of “keeping our young people engaged”—a frequently stated rationale for “anything goes!” In fact, it’s obvious that among the youth who’ve been fully irradiated with the worship-time casualization and contemporization intended to keep them in our church’s orbit, many have walked away just as eagerly once they could as those who attended more traditional and less-cool churches in the sticks. And some who like megachurch-style worship have left for actual megachurches where they do all these “Church at Self-worship” things better. 

It’s almost as if the supposed special secret sauce of hipness and humor and rimshots, the endless edgy circus of Sabbath-morning entertainment, has no power to magically retain the young—while simultaneously alienating those of all generations who long for worship to be something more than a big, big show.

The Sad Desperation of Relevance

Perhaps the end-game for American SDA churches desperately trying to be relevant will be, well, a game. In the UK, where “people who identify as members of the Church of England has dropped by more than half in recent years, to 14 percent,” some cathedral interiors are getting four-story slides, and mini golf courses where you would imagine pews to be.

To Matthew Bridges, nineteenth-century author of “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” a hymn that has outlasted most of the airy, studio-driven praise choruses that have come and gone in my lifetime, the God we worship is “the Lord of years, the Potentate of time . . . Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime!”

But if we’re no longer inviting that God of Majesty to what we can embody as his holy temple, and our busy, clappy, chummy, three-ring sanctuary has snuffed out all impulses to encounter the Almighty in reverent silence for even a moment, maybe a par-three shot through the chomping mouth of a Jonah’s whale hazard will do just as well as what we’ve been feverishly trying for two decades to get our young people to come back to church, or stay in the first place.

What could worship be if we restored an ideal of reverence and majesty and holiness? What if there were ways to encounter God through scripture and inspired art, to foster participation and spiritual connectedness, to draw in all ages without flippancy or big boxes of glitter? Stay tuned, and we’ll talk about that sometime.