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Slice Explains: God-Centeredness is a Style of Worship

John on July 31, 2006 at 4:19 pm

I’ve written several times about my fellow believers at Slice of Laodicea blog. We have strong and sustained disagreements in a number of areas. The core of this divide is the argument over what it means to be Man-Centered as opposed to God-Centered.

I’ve written about that divide before using some definitions of those terms I found on another site. As I said then, the terms themselves are loaded. In fact, it seems to me that they are little more than code words for a type of church or a particular way of doing church that the Slice authors don’t like. This includes churches that use rock music or praise hymns, pastors who tell jokes, etc. In another post critical of slice, I wrote:

I wish the author of the letter (and Ingrid) could mature to the point where differences over music style are not the end of fellowship. Just because they can’t worship God to praise choruses, doesn’t mean no one else can.

It’s this insistence on a particular idea of what church is supposed to look like (and sound like) that I have long believed to be driving everything else. I said so again in a comment at Jollyblogger several weeks ago:

[T]he whole point about heaven and hell was in service of something else, a certain view of how to do ministry and outreach.

Ingrid at Slice has now confirmed my intutions by posting a two part series titled A Tale of Two Church Services. In part one, she lays out the connection between how services are organized and God-Centeredness:

The way worship services are conducted speaks volumes about the church’s view of God, their understanding of what we should be doing as the visible church in worshiping God and what we actually believe about the Lord and His glory.

She then describes a church service at “Calvary Church” a fundamentalist church that supposedly focuses on scripture. I don’t think we’d be reading too much into this to say Ingrid has Calvary Chapel in mind. Here is her description:

Those who have just been let out of Sunday School stream into the hallways and into the church narthex or “foyer” as this church would call it. Gradually the milling crowd makes its way into the “auditorium”. But something significant happens, or rather, doesn’t happen as they cross the threshold. There is no change of demanor or conduct. The loud laughing and talking about everything from recipes for Spinach Marie to the Packers chances with some new talent this year is shouted back and forth, all the way to the front of the church. Hand shaking, back slapping, and occasional loud shrieks of laughter can be heard. Meanwhile, the church musicians, a pianist and organist sit down for the “prelude”. They have chosen a particularly thumping version of the Gospel song, “Dwelling in Beulah Land” and “Blessed Assurance”. As the roar of the crowd gets louder, so does the music…

The large congregation continues its conversational roar until Pastor Steve steps up to the pulpit at the center of the “stage” and waits for the last crashing chords of “Sound the Battle Cry” to end. A minor hush ensues followed by a chorus of loud “Amens” for the piano/organ duo.

“I’d like to welcome everybody to Calvary Church today. We’re so glad you’re worshiping with us. We’re a friendly church, one of the friendliest in the state!” A few laughs follow Pastor Steve’s lead in. “How many of you would rather be here than in the best hospital in Wisconsin?” he asks. A roar of laughter follows. Pastor Steve than follows this joke by turning to Pastor Bob who is wearing a cast due to an accident with a ladder and proceeds to make at least four other jokes about clumsiness and home repairs and even a comment about the TV Show This Old House…

Then comes the 30 minute sermon. The theme is “5 Steps to Fighting Lust”. He introduces his sermon with a two verse text from the Bible. The sermon is looped together with personal anecdotes from the pastor’s teenage years, exhortations to throw out televisions and the internet, and laced heavily with jokes. The five steps are not derived from Scripture but from a set of rules at the pastor’s Bible college.

In part two, Ingrid describes a service at “Trinity Church” this way:

As 10:45 nears, people begin to enter what they call the “sanctuary”. There is a large and beautiful sign above the main doors that reads this way: “The Lord is in His Holy Temple, Let All the Earth Keep Silence Before Him!” There is a remarkable change that occurs as families begin to enter the sanctuary. They fall silent. Their first move after finding a place in the pews is to bow their heads and pray. Even the children do this, with their hands folded on their laps like their parents’. After several minutes of prayer, some look up and begin to read from their Bibles in preparation for worship. The worship folder has the Psalm of the Day printed in it for meditation. Quietly, the organ plays hymns like, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, and “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above” and “Holy, Holy, Holy”. There is no mundane conversation inside the sanctuary…

At 10:45, the congregation is seated and the pastor and associate pastor take their seats in the chancel. The music from the organ swells and people rise for the singing of the opening hymn of praise. “Wondrous King, All-Glorious.”…

After this the congregation sings out the ancient hymn of the Christian church, dating back to the earliest recorded history. “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

This is followed by requesting God’s mercy and the congregation sings. “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.”…

Three Scripture lessons are read out by men of the church, beginning with an Old Testament reading. Then comes the reading of a chapter from the New Testament from one of the Epistles. Then finally, the Gospel lesson taken from one of the four accounts of Christ’s ministry here on earth.

At the conclusion of the Scripture readings, there is a corporate confession of faith with the Apostles Creed, clearly stating what the church believes both as a testimony to others and a personal confession before God…

The sermon text is read as the congregation stands. The text is taken from Colossians 1:18-20 and the title is “The Preeminence of Christ in Redemption”. The sermon contains no personal anecdotes or jokes, but is a clear and serious exposition of the text, putting forth Christ as the theme and center of the preaching.

Observations

First, Ingrid is quite a good writer, something which hadn’t come across before. She does a good job conveying the sense of the two places and, though Trinity Church is not the sort of church I attend, I can see it through her eyes in this post and I understand why she finds it so appealing. There is a beauty to this highly structured setting. My problem is not with “Trinity Church” which I think I would feel comfortable visiting. My problem is that Ingrid can not see the beauty in “Calvary Church.”

She mentions “hand shaking, back slapping, and occasional loud shrieks of laughter” as if these are out of place at church. Later, she mentions a series of jokes by the pastor. She obviously feels these are out of place as well. Again, I’m fine with her holding that opinion. My problem is when she crosses the line and suggests that God holds it too.

Does God prefer a sedate quiet worship atmosphere or a loud raucous one? I think we could cite scripture both ways. She is quite right about Paul’s injunction to orderly gatherings, but what about David dancing naked before the Lord? What about Psalm 149 and 150? What about the Feast of Tabernacles? I think there is plenty of evidence that quiet, sober praise is not the only kind God wants or will accept from his people.

As for the jokes, there is a vast difference between laughing in fellowship with others and irreverent or mocking laughter. The former is perfectly appropriate in a church, the latter is not.

Finally, Ingrid’s description of the message is brief in both cases. Again she points out humorous anecdotes and jokes as evidence of man-centeredness at “Calvary Church.” I’m sorry, but humor is not the anti-Christ. Genesis 21:6 “Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” I think this verse shows at least two things:

  1. God himself can be a source of joy and laughter.
  2. God knows that we will tell our stories of our interaction with him.

To invalidate personal anecdotes as teaching tools is to invalidate most of the Bible itself.Sarah was a real person. Her life included some very important interactions with God, some of which were recorded for our benefit. In the same way, the entire Old Testament can be viewed as a story of God’s interaction with Abraham and later the nation of Israel. The Gospels are a record of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples, with ancient Israel and ultimately with Rome. Acts is a similar account of Paul’s story. Scripture is a written record of human stories and events. To invalidate personal anecdotes as teaching tools is to invalidate most of the Bible itself.

Therefore, a pastor sharing personal anecdotes during a sermon does not strike me as suspect. On the contrary, to the extent he is using his own life to elucidate the Bible, I see this as entirely consistent with the scripture. In short, the Bible is finished but God’s story of interacting with his creation is not. It is still being written. His interaction with you and I is real and still worth talking about. It was true when Augustine wrote his Confessions and it is true when a pastor does it today.

Conclusion

Ingrid has confirmed that this whole man-centered vs. God-centered debate has a lot to do with the trappings of faith. The songs we sing, the instruments we use, the order of worship and the use or non-use of jokes in a sermon. The problem is that these are simply not issues clearly prescribed by scripture. I understand she believes they are, but as I’ve tried to suggest, it’s really not that simple. God likes laughter and loud praise. So it’s really okay to have these in church when we come to meet him.

I find scriptural support for the idea that God is both friend and master, that he seeks both our joy and our obedience.On a deeper level this really is a theological issue and a quite revealing one. It ultimately comes down to the question of who God is. Is he a loving father who encourages us to call him “Abba” (daddy) or is he a stern judge? Is God our friend or our master? Does he seek our joy or our obedience? I find scriptural support for the idea that God is both friend and master, that he seeks both our joy and our obedience. Knowing this means there are extremes to be avoided on both sides of the issue. We can indeed present God as too relaxed or too focused on our immediate well-being. Some schools of inclusivism and the “name it and claim it” branch of theology may have gone into the rails in this regard.

On the other hand, it is also possible to represent God as too stern or not interested in us as individuals. This is where I would put Slice of Laodicea on the spectrum. In trying to honor God, they diminish the centerpiece of his creation. In trying to warn people of the guardrail on one side, they careen into the one on the opposite side.

That said, they are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe some of the concerns they raise are valuable. But then so are the concerns of critics like myself. For those who have an opinion either way, I note that Slice has turned their comments on again. That, at least, is a step in the right direction.

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