At retreats, revivals, megachurches, and your average Sunday service, there is always someone in the back who has lost sense of it all. The music blaring, people hollering, lights piercing, front row hopping, lead singer strutting, fog machine fogging, and bass drum beating the guts out of your bowels. Right in the middle of it, you get detached and distracted and disillusioned and you see it for what it really is. Whether you’ve been in church for ten minutes or ten years, this whole stageshow can wear you down instantly. One Sunday you’re enveloped in bliss; the next Sunday you’re watching with arms crossed, a migraine setting in, every riff on the electric guitar an assault on your brain. Everyone else is singing triumphantly but you don’t get it anymore.
While we can chalk this up to an anti-institutional mind of a younger, skeptical generation, we do suspect that praise and worship in the local church has strayed from something pure, raw, real. We’ve flooded the congregation with so many artificial devices and cues that it’s hard to tell if the Spirit is actually working.
I’ve heard, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” When you show a funny video every Sunday with high-caliber production values, it creates a strange appetite for slick perfection. No need for the Spirit. No room for reliance. It’s scary to think that an entire church service full of thousands can be built without one move of the Holy Spirit himself.
The church should certainly be excellent at all it does; as D.C. Talk once said, “If it’s Christian, it oughta be better.” I am not a hipster advocating outdoor church with hemp-made chairs and a bearded surfer with a banjo. Yet when I read the Bible and look at today’s church, something is lost in translation. Most of all, that guy in the back with his arms crossed has lost intimacy with the King. He only sees the crude plastic scaffolding of desperate entertainers and pragmatic preachers, but none of it fully reveals God on His sovereign throne.
It’s that guy’s fault, not God’s fault, you could say. Or, Apostle Peter had a megachurch on his first day, you say. I get it. Big crowds are not wrong. Only when they come at the expense of knowing Jesus. Only when they replace biblical literacy with cliche slogans. Only when the Gospel must be funneled through subwoofers and correct lighting and a pastor that waits backstage for his roaring fans. That’s happening. More arms are crossed. More people are tired of the magic show and leave.
Recently at a retreat, I led praise and saw it. A few dazed people watching the projector screen, watching the guitars, waiting for the wall of sound to end, lips sealed shut. Of course there are always those few, but it was no less discouraging. Maybe I didn’t lead well enough. I should’ve given instructions. Picked different songs, or played softer, or read Scripture at them. Dead blank stares are bound to happen no matter how hard we throw down the magic praise juice. I was tempted to work in the flesh and deliver something more.
Then I noticed that the uninterested were also the most hurting people in the room. They were watching people raise their hands in victory while their own lives were crumbling around them. It must have felt uncomfortable, foreign, distant, staged. If anything it only increased the resentment in their hearts. I wish it could have been a safer place for both the blessed and broken to gather in intimacy with Christ. I didn’t do that: it’s impossible with big-speaker worship. It was just one giant headache of unknown songs yelling about a God they felt had abandoned them.
The only thing I could do was break between songs for everyone to pray for each other. Get with someone, pray with them, silently or out loud, just a hand on the shoulder or all the way around. I wasn’t sure what to expect, nothing much really, and I was aware this could be just as manipulative as turning up the volume and dimming the lights.
There for a brief few moments, for both the hurting and the healthy, they huddled together for real time with Jesus. For even a few minutes, the music had become secondary. The room momentarily reached back into the Bible, mutual edification and exhortation, like the early church with its bread-breaking and miraculous signs and devoted hearts, and there was the power of loving physical presence and good old-fashioned fellowship. Some rose to sing again; they couldn’t help themselves. Arms uncrossed. God was praised. Just for a moment: then it was gone. But the Spirit moved. I saw it happen. No one could deny.
I don’t mean to endorse the mystical. But I do intend to cut the visible. Big buildings are great but they don’t impress the skeptic nor the Lord. I hope we are mindful of both the delivered and the downtrodden, that bigger music does not bring bigger glory, and that our church, for all its advances and conveniences and add-ons, still exists to be in glorious union with Jesus. For Him, from Him, to Him. I’m not quite sure how to change all this, to uproot this manufactured machine, but I’m praying for something different. Praying for intimacy.