In the last article we noticed the mega-church characteristic of a lack of clearly defined doctrine. In this article we intend to examine another characteristic which mega-churches in general possess a contemporary style of worship.
The following excerpts have been taken from an article in The Christian Science Monitor. The lifted quotes detail the style of worship found at Lakewood Church, America’s largest mega-church in Houston, Texas.
After a rousing live performance of “Jesus is better than life,” broadcast over three Jumbotrons in the Compaq Center, Victoria Osteen steps to the podium in front of 16,000 cheering Sunday worshipers and proclaims: “We’re going to rock today. This place has been rocked a lot of times, but it’s never been rocked for Jesus.”
At Lakewood’s recent groundbreaking services, Pastor Joel Osteen’s sermon—given like a motivation speech—included phrases like: “Keep a good attitude. Don’t get negative or bitter. Be determined. Shake it off and step up.”
Worked into a frenzy by the 10-piece band and 300-member choir, dozens of slick music videos and, yes, the wave, congregants were enraptured. “We love it. We don’t miss a Sunday,” says Annette Ramirez, sitting in the arena’s front row with her husband Joe. “The message is always very positive and the music is great.”1
Another article, found in Forbes.com, examines the marketing aspect of services at Lakewood Church. One paragraph reads,
As for the services themselves, Lakewood makes sure to put on a grand show. It has a 12-piece stage band, a lighting designer to set the mood and three large projection screens. The technology will be even more spectacular when it moves into its new home in the former Houston Rocket’s stadium. “We really want it to feel like a concert,” says Duncan Dodds, Lakewood’s executive director. Something is working: Church attendance has grown from 6,000 in 1999 when Osteen became pastor to 25,060 today.2
The same article also refers to the founding of Willow Creek Community Church in 1975 in South Barrington, Illinois. As mentioned in the first article, founder and current pastor Bill Hybels went door to door asking people what kept them away from church. Using the answers, “Hybels then crafted his services to address their concerns, becoming one of the first pastors to use video, drama and contemporary music in church and encouraging a more casual dress code.”3 Today, Willow Creek has 500 part and full-time employees. Through the sponsoring of conferences and seminars and the publishing of literature, the Willow Creek Association teaches other churches how to market themselves in their communities. Thousands of churches belong to this association and put into practice, to one degree or another, the techniques used at Willow Creek.
There are two things which we must notice about the contemporary style of worship which characterizes the services of many mega-churches. First, these services are said to be “seeker sensitive.” A “seeker” is supposedly one with little or no church up-bringing, yet is seeking fulfillment in his life and has come to feel needs that must be satisfied and certain questions about life that must be answered. Not finding fulfillment or the answers to his questions anywhere else in the world, he looks to the church to address his needs. That a service is “sensitive” to the needs of the “seeker” means that the worship service must be as attractive as possible to the non-churched “seeker” who walks into the church for the first time. In other words, the atmosphere of the service must be “as un-churchlike as possible.”4 That which is church-like is done away with and is replaced with as much of popular culture as possible, including contemporary music, drama, and theater-like surroundings. Because the atmosphere of the service so closely resembles the experiences which the “seeker” has in the world, he does not find his visit to church intimidating or offensive and is willing to listen to the message offered by the pastor. Perhaps, because of the emotional fulfillment he experiences during the service, he will return and over time be attracted more to the messages he hears and become involved in the church.
The second thing we must notice about this contemporary style of worship is its purpose. One may think that the purpose of a worship service is to worship God. Yet, it becomes very evident as one examines contemporary worship that its proponents see church growth as the primary purpose of gathering on the Lord’s Day. Man, not God, is the object of the service. The worship service is not a gathering of God’s people assembled to have covenant fellowship with Him, but a grand theatrical production designed to entertain the audience and get as many newcomers as possible to come through the doors.
Prof. Barry Gritters explains this error of contemporary worship as its failure to distinguish between mission work and worship. He writes,
A third error is that these contemporary services do not distinguish between mission work and worship. Mission work and trying to preach to unbelievers is one thing. Public worship is quite another. Those who advocate contemporary worship, appealing to the example of Jesus on the seaside and Philip in a chariot, are making a simple but fundamental mistake; they confuse evangelism with public worship of the gathered people of God.5
The gravest error of contemporary worship is that preaching is pushed into the background. The fact that many mega-churches lack clearly defined doctrine is no surprise. They do not intend to preach doctrine. Their attendees do not want to hear it, and so the worship consists of what the people want to see and hear. How God is worshipped and what the elements of that worship are to be are determined by the desires of the people.
As Reformed believers, we are familiar with the regulative principle of worship. This principle states that God is the one who sets forth in His Word how He will be worshipped by His church in public worship. Prof. David Engelsma defines the regulative principle as follows:
God regulates worship by clearly prescribing in his Word what his worship must consist of. God himself tells us how to worship him. This how refers to the inner, spiritual disposition of the worshipers: “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). It also refers to the elements of the service of worship: the preaching of the gospel; the two sacraments, rightly administered; prayers and congregational singing; and the offerings, especially for the poor.6
Any worship which sets aside elements commanded in God’s Word and substitutes in their place elements which men find pleasing is despised by God. The Heidelberg Catechism, in its explanation of the second commandment, states that we may not “worship him [God] in any other way than he has commanded in his word” (Q & A 96). Those who disobey this command must answer to, “a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate” Him.” Those who rightly worship God and keep His commandments experience His mercy (2nd commandment).
We must not be ignorant about what is going on in the church world regarding contemporary and “seeker sensitive” worship. In many ways, this kind of worship is calculated to draw young people out of the true church and into apostatizing churches. For those who are not firmly grounded in the truth, the lure can be very strong. It can seem that the excitement found in these churches is an indication that God is at work in them. Can 10,000 people be that mistaken about how to worship God? Is the truth purely preached that important? These people are excited; they are living for the Lord; they’re out making a difference in the world.
Yet, the truth of God’s Word opposes contemporary worship and its shunning of preaching. God is pleased to save His people by the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 10: 14, 15; I Cor. 1: 17-31). He does not use drama, worldly-wise messages, or praise songs as means of grace. There ought to be no doubt that drama, contemporary music, and relevant messages are effective tools in “growing” a church, but they certainly are not used by God in the gathering of His people into the true church. Neither do they serve to strengthen the faith of those already members of the church. Excitement in these churches is not an indication of the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit is present only where His Word is faithfully preached. The child of God must not be tempted to leave a church where the truth is preached and where God is rightly worshipped and join another where the marks of the true church are not found. As our Belgic Confession states, our duty is to join ourselves to or remain members of the true church. That church is known by the preaching of the “pure doctrine of the gospel,” the “pure administration of the sacraments,” and the exercise of church discipline (Art. 29).
Having considered these two primary characteristics of mega-churches, next time, Lord willing, we hope to look at mega-church organization, leadership, and membership.
1Kris Axtman. (2003, December 30). The rise of the American megachurch. Csmonitor.com, Retrieved March 15, 2005, from http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1230/p01s04-ussc.html.
2Luisa Kroll. (2003, September 17). Megachurches, Megabusinesses. Forbes.com, Retrieved March 5, 2005, from http://www.forbes.com/2003/09/17/cz_lk_0917megachurch.html.
3Luisa Kroll. Megachurches, Megabusinesses.
4Barry Gritters, David J. Engelsma, and Charles Terpstra, Reformed Worship, (Reformed Free Publishing Association, Grandville, MI, 2004) p. 29.
5Barry Gritters, p. 37.
6David Engelsma, p. 2.