April 13, 2017

The God of Image

Three times within the last week I have heard of churches that are letting people go hired professionals as well as seasoned volunteers, because they do not fit the image the church is trying to portray. The three churches are in three different states, three different types of communities, and two of them are of the “reformed” persuasion. In each case, the church was honest. And unbiblical. Idolatrous, if I can be frank.

What was the goal of these churches? They wanted to portray a certain image: young, hip, polished, attractive to unbelievers. They did not want worship to be blemished by some extra weight, extra years, extra sorrows. They wanted worship to be uplifting, joyful, and attractive. In two cases, it was the pastor driving the changes, relatively new pastors to both congregations. But in neither case did elders stand up or speak up with these truths of biblical worship.  In the third case, it was the elders driving out the pastor; he was overweight.

  1. Worship is the engagement of God and his people. David Peterson says, “Worship is engagement with God on the terms he gives and in the way he alone makes possible.” The terms are in the scriptures, and frankly—apart from Christ—none of us can meet those terms, not even the young, hip, polished, attractive people leading worship in many of our churches today. And certainly, those who do not confess Christ cannot come into God’s presence in worship. Why, then, are we designing our worship services (and choosing our worship leaders) in order to attract unbelievers? (Note: I believe that Spirit-filled worship IS attractive to a seeker, but that’s a different topic for another day.)
  2. Worship is the responsibility of the priesthood of believers, the chosen nation, those redeemed so that we might sing God’s praise. The priesthood is filled with people of all shapes and sizes and races and ages and gifts and passions. What if we chose our pastors and worship leaders based on their devotion to Christ demonstrated by their life…and the way that the Holy Spirit has gifted them? What if we were counter-cultural in our expectations of each other? What if we showed honor to one another, instead of holding each other to standards that the secular world suggests? And for God’s sake, pastors, think about what you are doing. If the requirement for planning and leading worship is to be young and attractive and a good musician, then perhaps the requirement for pastors should be to be young and attractive and a good speaker. (Note: I don’t believe either of these to be appropriate qualifications.)
  3. Can we be honest in worship? Can we come as the joyful, enthusiastic, tired, hopeful, broken, despairing people that we are? Or do we need to put on a face and sing what I call “yippy, skippy” songs until we are convinced that we don’t really have problems? Friends, this is not biblical. The worship manual that Jesus used, the book of Psalms, is filled with songs of lament.  David did not hold back his despair or his brokenness. The scriptures tell us that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Will we get to celebration? We will always have something to celebrate if our worship is Christ-centered, but we won’t really appreciate the gospel unless we understand our need for it.
  4. What are seekers looking for, and what do they need? Do they need the cultural standards to be confirmed by the Church? Or do they need to know that there is a place where people who are not perfect are still accepted? Still allowed to use their gifts? The message we are sending when we focus on image is that image is what matters. It doesn’t matter if your heart is breaking or your addiction is killing you; if you look good, you are fine. (This is not gospel, not even truth.) But if people are looking for hope, for good news, for a true community, we need to quit with the focus on image and be honest about our deep need for a Savior… and the One who has met those needs.

The idol is image, and image is a demanding god. You may think you have measured up, done enough, met the standards… and then the standards move.  You can exercise, eat right, color your hair and wear stylish clothes, but you will still age. If we continue to seek to “please” the non-believers around us, what happens when cultural norms shift and biblical standards no longer fit?  

Should we be able to speak to our non-Christian neighbors around us? Yes. Should our worship services make them comfortable? Should our worship services make us comfortable? I don’t think that is the goal. But if by grace we are able to come into the presence of Holy God, remember who he is and what he has done on our behalf, if we confess sin and accept forgiveness, if we are re-made by owning our confessions and absorbing the Word, and if we are fed at the Table of heaven and earth, then—thanks be to God—comfortable doesn’t begin to describe our existence.

Carol Hochhalter has been working in worship higher education for years, and is currently serving as Worship Director for the Celebration congregation at Harderwyk Ministries in Holland, Michigan.