Worship, California Style.

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.




  1. Pete Wedderburn · · Reply

    Don’t you think a church has to reflect the community around it, to some extent? To be successful, a church has to be busy, as well as (obviously) Scripture-based. Perhaps what you witnessed is the result of market forces on worship in California – the adaptation of a traditional church service in a way that continues to attract the surrounding population. There are interesting questions here – if we want a church in Ireland to blossom, how much should we try to adapt our style of weekly worship to attract newcomers, and how much should we stick to what we, ourselves, feel comfortable with?

  2. I think a Pauline letter should be written to them ! The changes you have noted are probably done with good intent but they have strayed a little too far from the original. Low cal Christianity lite comes to mind.

  3. Pete, I agree to an extent. I think I mention above the issue of ‘contextualisation’ the tightrope every community walks in wondering how much of the culture to absorb. So, yes, some of it might just be me feeling “I would struggle with this culture”, but I think there was enough missing in the service for me to flag up some concerns (even if I was a bit harsh at times). Good to hear form you guys

    1. Pete Wedderburn · · Reply

      I don’t think you were harsh: you were very funny 🙂

  4. Adaptation is fine to a point. It must be done with the historical perspective and background of what Church is, of what worship is and especially of what communion is. God is God. Humanity is humanity. (do notice the capitals !) With this form of worship the danger is God becoming god and humanity becoming Humanity ! If the main piece is read again couldn’t it be said that the style of worship equates to a trip to McDonalds.

  5. As pastor of a church in California, I know what Monty writes about is true. There are several church in our region that have Sunday services very similar to that which Monty and Gwen experienced this last Sunday.

    I hope its not us, I don’t think it is. This last week, we announced community events centered around a weeknight meal together, sent our youth off on a mission trip, worship via communion, heard from Gen 15 where God reckoned Abram righteous and affirmed the goodness of God/Jesus in song together.

    But I’d be lying if I didn’t feel pressure to “perform” and “produce” like my flashy neighbors. People come to these production mode of churches in groves, they come and consume and leave. It’s not what I want in church, but in an increasingly secular culture, I am thankful that it does works for some people provides a place for 1st contact with Christianity that is not completely foreign to seekers.

    Maybe a more important conversation than how bad this is, which isn’t that productive in and of itself. Is how and why did we get here? Part of the answer I suspect has to do with the decline of mainstream denominations and theological education systems that supported these denominations. With theological education becoming independent as mainline denominations decrease, traditional educations systems become prohibitively expensive for those not supported by denominations. Much more of our theological education happens now while pastors are serving as youth pastors or associate pastors in their local church. The impact of this model has focused on more applied theologies and less church history, theology and languages. It’s not a big jump to see how this model has produced church leadership that is historically and theologically less concerned than previous generations.

    And another factor in the changes we see here in California has to do the success and popularity of church planting. I’m guessing the church the Montgomerys attended on Sunday, was non-denominational recent church plant. Leaders for this model of church tend to be chosen for their charisma and leadership abilities. The theological education that they have had tends to focus on applied theology rather than more classical subjects. It doesn’t seems like a such a big jump from that model of education and training to a church that is very “culturally relevant” and not concerned with more traditional disciplines.

    My last aspect (I’m sure other can aid to this list) and maybe more important aspect has to do with how a consumer oriented society, thinks, behaves and consumes church. (Since this is an international blog, having lived in 3 countries in the last 15 years, I know American’s are the worldwide leaders in consumerism, but the rest of the western world isn’t far behind, trust me.) My congregants don’t read much, they watch TV, movies, iPads, youtube etc. If I’m leading a study, I cannot assumed that anyone will have prepared for the study. Consumerism, technology and affluence have and are changing our world at breath-taking speed. Our people are changing too. Like Luther before us we need to adapt. Bibles and songs in the language of our people. I love my Greek New Testament, but I do almost all of my translation on a laptop and carry a Kindle in my bag. “This generation” is changing and it makes me a little uncomfortable and its a little scary but they are still created in God’s image and the cross still saves them. So how do I minister to them in faithful ways?

    For me the answer has to do with relational ministry. Community seems to be at the heart of what Jesus did and Paul spent a whole bunch of time trying to preserve some pretty broken communities. Regardless of how this world is changing people still need friends (not facebook friends). We need to constantly work to find relational connections for people of all ages that creates real relationship for people centered around the risen Christ. I’m just not sure how to do that when people are so attracted to production based performances which the entertainment industry has saturated them with. Performances that you observe but don’t participate in.

    Ok I got that off my chest, now I’m going to have lunch with some friends.!

  6. Thought provoking reply Todd.

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