Well, we had our first experience of California church this past weekend. Well, not really our first, since I have extremely fond memories of ministering at Peninsula Bible Church in 2001, but that was SIlicon Valley with really bright, thoughtful and theologically astute guys on staff. This was South California; in fact So-Cal at it’s most stereotypical.
I will not be unkind and say which church it was, but it consisted of 50 minutes of music followed by 45 minutes of talking. During one song there was an offering, and during a couple of others we were encouraged to help ourselves to the wafers and wine that were available in the middle of the auditorium – I guess that passed as ‘communion’.
Only by song five, and forty minutes into the show, was it clear that it was Jesus we were singing to/about; before this it could have been my wife, the President or the Man City forward line (although I’m not so cut off here that I don’t realise the unlikelihood of the third). Not until ten minutes into the talk (an hour into the show) was the Bible referred to, and then a very disjointed reading of two verses from Romans peppered with anecdotes.
The speaker did say a couple of extremely helpful things which, to be fair, I will remember and seek to apply and even use myself, however, it certainly could have been 35 minutes shorter with no loss of effect, and the constant interplay of California slang and theological jargon jarred a little too much, as did the introduction of every new train of thought with the phrase “Well, like, what’s really going down here is…”
Surprisingly one of the aspects that disturbed me the most was the ending. The speaker finished abruptly, uttered a one line prayer as he left the stage at which point the auditorium doors opened, light flooded in and the people streamed out. The transition from trying to mentally process his final sentence to the car-park babble was around 45 seconds – no exaggeration. No time for reflection, no time for response, the one time I probably felt like singing (as opposed to the second 25 minutes at the start) I wasn’t given the option. What there was, was applause. Plenty of applause. Applause after every song and sometimes during. I know it is often justified as a “clap offering” to God (biblical reference would be appreciated- because Ps.47:1 is not in the context of public worship), but the lines between worship as participation and performance are now so blurred, this doesn’t help. Plus: why is it done all the time – but not after the sermon? (Note: Greystones Presbyterian friends – please don’t start applauding my sermons, I would only be embarrassed)!
The Worship Wars have raged for decades, but what agitates me much much more than issues of style is the lack of structure or any sense of how the mind and heart are progressively engaged in worship; in short, the utter ignorance of good liturgy. There was no understanding of the natural rhythms of approach to God, encounter with God, response to God; no confession, no intercession, no scripture reading, no responsive prayer or praise, no blessing. And just to clarify, I don’t believe these things have to be done mindlessly or by rote. There can be contemporary and creative ways of moulding the elements of the worship service around a helpful and time-tested framework. However, what I experienced on Sunday was in a strange way more tedious, irritating and individualistic than the most lifeless prayer-book service or presbyterian hymn sandwich I have experienced. Although “Community” was in the church’s title, there seemed little of it in evidence, at least on the Sunday morning.
I am fully aware of the need for contextualization and if one is ministering in California one needs to speak the language. Maybe this has just confirmed for me that I am not called to California: there is a limit to the number of times I can cope with the Romans being referred to as “dudes”; sin, as “when things get weird”; God speaking to me and calling me “baby”; being told to ask God to “stir it up, man” or sending someone an email being referred to as “gettin’ that bad boy away”. And that’s without mentioning some gross historical inaccuracies such as “John Wesley’s Movement would have had millions of bucks behind it” (in an illustration about Wesley’s personal frugality). But I think it is more than that. How far has the contemporary church wandered from biblical and historical practices when so many important aspects of corporate worship have been jettisoned? At the end of 90 plus minutes how much more did we know about his God, his ways, his word or his will?
In defence of these good people I have to say that, this being our first time in this city, I decided to go there having googled a few churches the night before. The local Presbyterian church (PCA) website had their pastor’s blog which contained recent thoughts on playing on Sundays and clerical vestments. Now. that seems to me to be at the other end of the (non)-contextualisation spectrum! In reality it was hard to find a church, which is sad, and probably explains why our friends who arrived here over a year ago are still struggling to find somewhere to settle.