Thursday, November 21, 2019

Visiting a Baptist Contemporary "Worship" Service

I stumbled into a contemporary worship service at a Southern Baptist church in the Missouri northland recently. The service was punctuated by emotional outbursts (people standing with arms uplifted or clapping to the rhythm of the music while the congregation was largely seated; loud “amens!” during the preaching).

            There was no pulpit or choir loft but the front of the auditorium was a raised stage. Three music leaders were spread out in line on the stage: a central leader playing a guitar with two persons on either side leading out in the singing. The communion table was out in front of the stage by about five yards behind which the director of the service stood, prayed, made announcements and introductions, and closed the service.

The seating of the auditorium was in the half-round style. The arrangement of the auditorium reminded me of stage performances. In my youth, however, a central pulpit had signaled the primacy of preaching in Baptist worship, but in this case the speaker of the day stood behind the music stand used by the guitar player in the center of the stage over which the speaker wandered. Three numbered hymns from the Baptist Hymnal were listed in the single sheet program guide. Two were sung by the congregation; the third was sacrificed to “praise songs” where people learned tunes by repetition from words displayed on screens on both sides of the auditorium. The mood of the service appeared to encourage the emotional displays and states of ecstasy. As an outsider I found myself rather distracted, and was reminded of Paul’s gentle attempts to correct what he saw as the emotional excesses of the Corinthian worship (1 Cor14):

14:15: Pray with spirit and mind; sing with spirit and mind
14:19: In church he would rather speak 5 words with his mind to instruct others than 10, 000 in a tongue
14:26-32: Everything done should be orderly and for edification
14:33: God is not a God of confusion, but of peace
14:26-33, 40: Things should be done decently and in good order

Naturally congregations must choose their own worship style for public worship; for not all find the same worship styles to be meaningful and uplifting—but also not all worship styles educate (1 Cor14:26). Some are even harmful—animal and human sacrifices, for example. Congregations must develop what will work for their benefit. Nevertheless, what transpired in the service that Sunday made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.*

Paul’s own view of public worship is suggested in Romans 12:1-2. He seems to have regarded worship as intelligent, rational service to God involving the whole person. He specifically mentions that worship should transform the mind rather than being conformed to what was the present rage—or as he put it “conforming to this present age.”

Paul argued (1 Cor 11:27-30) that it mattered how the community worshipped (1 Cor 11:29-30; 14:23-25). When the Corinthian saints gathered for the Lord’s Supper, for example, he said that it was “not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17), because they were not conscious that worship was a corporate or joint affair (1 Cor 11:33). The Corinthians appear to have engaged in a kind of individualized worship (1 Cor 11:17-22), but Paul conceived of worship as a “gathering of the saints” (1 Cor 1:2; 11:17-26), whom he conceived as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). Hence, worship was a corporate act involving a gathering of the body of Christ collectively. One can only wonder how Paul might have responded to the individualism reflected in a “contemporary” worship service in the Baptist tradition. Would he have seen it as being “for the better” do you suppose?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Compare what Paul says about the reactions of outsiders to public gatherings of the Corinthian saints:1 Cor 14:16, 23.


Anonymous said...

Incense, candles, statues, people on knees before altars. No pre-service conversation, no greetings, music or invitations. Those in pews sat with heads bowed while other-worldly whispers echoed over tile. I sat, lowered my head and peeked around...when suddenly, without preamble or warning, it seemed, everyone around me stood and began speaking in unison. I spied another, like me, sitting below the masses. We made awkward eye contact. My first experiences at the Catholic Church were equally discomfiting. Now, years later I understand the whys and wherefores and can unison-speak with the best of them. But the music and garrulous joy that soaks my childhood memory of Baptist service still feels like "home."

Anonymous said...

He Charlie,

For more than twenty years the local Presbyterian church where my daughter and her family attend have had two Sunday morning services, one usually referred to as "traditional" and held in the main church structure and one going by any number of names, said to be geared toward younger folk, which is held in the church gymnasium with a stage set-up. The Youth Pastor has usually been responsible for leading the service which consists of a band and soloists made up of church members, lots of singing by all, mostly non-traditional tunes with modern evangelical lyrics, a lot of arm waving by some, a lot of "praise Jesus" by some. The brief message usually takes testimonial form, at least the main message of "The blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin. Thank you Lord Jesus." Not much in it about the human Jesus. One might hear the universal admonition, "Love neighbor as self."

But darn, I've never heard my Sunday School favorite: "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world." Neither have I heard it applied to red, yellow, or black teens or adults of the world. I don't recall seeing folks of color at these services.

The two service system is also not unknown elsewhere in this neck of the country.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

I thought I had sent this, but I reckon I overlooked it.
It seems to me okay to read that some people get emotional with “church music” and sermons. Music should, in my opinion, excite the passions, whether secular or the fusty songs from a hymnal. I tend to prefer the Grateful Dead or Waylon, but as I understand it, hymns are songs of praise, so I would expect some feeling like people have at a rock or country concert, not dirges. And, “amens” heard during sermons is probably better than snores.

The guitar is a wonderful instrument because of the variety of sound it can command, the versatility and the portability. I’ve been playing one for almost sixty years. Perhaps it is part of the “modern window dressing,” to attract a younger crowd. As long as the cultural lag exists in resistance to science & medical procedures and marginalization of certain populations, I see it as futile.

When I look at the writings attributed to Paul, I read someone who had some sensibilities common to many of the Mediterranean rim during that time, concerned about anything considered “excessive.” Many of his beliefs, also, are not consistent with a modern worldview. For instance, The Paul of 1 Corinthians 12 was a believer in “gifts” like working miracles (powers), discerning spirits, prophecy, “faith healing,” speaking in tongues & understanding tongues (though he has a disclaimer for “tongues” in 14.6-19), some which would “clutter up” a staid worship service. I’m not sure that what is being described in a contemporary church service (emotion) would have been considered excessive compared to those features. But, the varieties of Paul found in the letters remind me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The “porridge” of the Galatians (Barbarians), he thinks, is too “cold,” the “porridge” of the Corinthians, he hears, is too “hot,” but the “porridge” of the Philippians, he hears, is “just right.” The “porridge” of a contemporary service, I think, would be boiled with water instead of milk.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Charlie, I hope you and your family enjoyed a peaceful and intimate Thanksgiving celebration yesterday!

Before I ask my questions- let me begin by saying I cannot believe I am 48 years old and I still get mixed up with "who's" and "whose" usage!! Thank you for correcting me- I have no idea why that word gives me so much trouble... Maybe I'll learn how to use it correctly someday.

1) It sounded as if the contemporary worship service you attended was the first one you ever witnessed... Is that the case? Did the Baptist church you attended in Springfield have one?

2) Paul seemed to emphasize worship in terms of spirit and the mind- where did emotion come into play? Somehow or another, spirit translated into "emotional experience" and I'm not sure how that happened other than the old time revivals. Have you ever attended a revival? If so, what did you think?

3) If you were uncomfortable at that service- try going to a service where the people are dancing around in the aisles... And shaking and convulsing as well... Have you ever heard of IHOP? (International House of Prayer) Don't worry, you will. They are a huge presence in Grandview. Their worship service lasts 24 hours a day. (No I'm not joking- look them up on YouTube.)

4) That kind of emotional display in a church worship service reminds me of what I saw in the emotional outbursts of females at Elvis Presley and Beatles concerts... There must a a huge void of emptiness in people who seek to work themselves up into a frenzy during a church worship service. I can't think of another reason for it- at least not scripturally. Only emotionally unbalanced humans would contort themselves into an almost hallucinatory state of ecstasy.... Like Woodstock... Am I being too judgmental? If there's another reason for doing so, I'd love to know what it is. (they simply say that they are "under the influence" of the Holy Spirit, and that's why they have no control over what their bodies do)

I hope you find a church that fits your taste and your lifestyle and your nature as a churchgoer... I'm sure that is one of the many things you miss about Springfield. It may take a while to find a suitable replacement, but don't give up. Elizabeth
PS: My son's football team beat Ray-Pec 37-0!! They are playing in the state championship tomorrow at Mizzou! Hope they win against Joplin- it will be an exciting game! My sister and her family drove all the way up here from Dallas to watch.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good evening Elizabeth.
1.First Baptist at Springfield at one time had a Contemporary service, but I never attended. It was something of a negative issue with the adults of the church. I do not know if they still have it. I have never attended such a service so far as I remember. But I have attended Angelus Temple in Los Angeles and listened to it regularly on my nightly drive to work as a probation officer in Los Angelus county--and I have attended Charismatic services in Springfield.
2. I have attended revival services and even conducted revival services in Los Angeles and North Carolina as the evangelist!
3. I have only heard of IHOP but never watched their services, but I will look them up.
4. I cannot answer your question--are you being too judgmental. That is an opinion question. What do you think?. Such phenomena have been known in cultures other than Christian; for example, David danced before the lord and "tongues" have been documented in ancient Egyptian texts. Such evidence suggests that something other than the Christian Holy Spirit is the cause.
Thank you, and congratulations to your son and his team.

Elizabeth said...

Hello Charlie!

1) Were you in any way uncomfortable at the Charismatic services you attended in Springfield? Did you have an opinion about their format or their sermon?

2) I cannot picture you being an evangelist! You really should write a memoir!!

3) I actually think I may be too judgmental- after all, Craig and I met at IHOP. (it was called a different name back then) Just because I had a negative experience there doesn't mean that other people can't experience something positive in that environment... What I don't appreciate is the judgmentalism on their part towards people of different faiths and perspectives. (i.e.. saying that Jews are going to hell unless the accept Jesus) Not to mention the "barking" in the spirit that I witnessed there. (I don't think they do that anymore) You mentioned David dancing before the Lord... Yes, that is why they feel mandated to imitate that ritual. They also feel mandated to replicate the ritual of having a worship service for 24 hours a day as was done in the Temple built by David. And they are very proud of the fact that that worship service has been ongoing non-stop since 1999... Do you see any value in that kind of worship service? What about dancing- after all, David did it. Why shouldn't we do it?

Many thanks! And by the way- my son's football team (DeSmet Jesuit) won the state championship at Mizzou!!! Vey happy weekend indeed! Those boys will never forget that moment as long as they live- glad to have been a part of it. (and I'm especially glad they won since my sister's family drove all the way up from Dallas to watch- we were down at half time and it wasn't looking good) Craig is a proud papa.

Anonymous said...

A state of ecstasy (an overwhelming feeling of joy or exhilaration,” from “ekstasis,” or out of equilibrium or normal experience, more or less) is found in many venues and activities, from churches, concerts, accomplishing difficult goals, sporting events, and sex, to name a few. It seems there is nothing remarkable about it, unless it is possibly the "universality" of emotional expression. I saw ecstasy displayed at the end of the Auburn/Alabama game recently. I would be reticent to call that crowd odd. They were ecstatic over their win. Why should a church, purportedly people getting together to worship and praise a deity, be thought abnormal because they are showing emotion? I guess it isn’t seen as “serious” or “somber” enough, since to many, their god is a restrained reflection of themselves. In 1682, Increase Mather wrote that one example of “the depravity of humanity” was because, “else they would not be so apt to sleep when the precious truths of God are dispensed in his name...” (from “Practical Truths...”). In defense of the “sleepers,” those sermons lasted most of Sunday and were delivered in monotone. One can’t say that Pentecostals and charismatics are sleeping! Why would people screaming or fans going wild at any venue be viewed as abnormal? The word “fan” is an abbreviation of “fanatic,” (one who is excessively enthusiastic) after all!

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

If Charlie is uncomfortable in the presence of such emotional displays at a church worship service, lecturing him that it's perfectly "normal" doesn't make him feel anymore at ease in such a service... This may be a shock, but different people have different levels of comfort and decorum when it comes to worship services. Trying to force someone to be ok with emotional outbursts, barking and shaking in the spirit, speaking in tongues, clapping and dancing... does not accomplish anything worthwhile. At my son's football game, there was great deal of shouting and cheering and it was too loud for some folks... But I never dreamed of forcing them to express their joy in the same way my family was doing so. People have the right to choose for themselves what is an appropriate expression of worship or ecstasy they are collectively feeling at that moment. For some people, it is abnormal to witness such displays at a church service... Forcing them to accept it as normal is the opposite of many biblical principles.... And if someone isn't comfortable with those types of emotional expressions, he/she has a right to move onto a different environment. Elizabeth