Slaughtering Sacred Cows
We recently met to “Review, Plan, and Pray” about the many new directions that NeoXenos seems to be heading. I was astounded at how easily we agreed to become a “church without walls.” This is one of the major “sacred cows” of western Christianity. At Xenos, we’ve ditched a number of the prototypical features of American ecclesiology. For example, we’ve given up legalism in favor of grace, we’ve abolished the clergy-laity distinction, we’ve abandoned the worship service, and we’ve recently set out from the safe, respectable, sterile church building in favor of itinerant-preacher-style meetings.
This all started decades ago, a long before I came around to Xenos in Columbus and before NeoXenos was planted. It was a bit of a shock when I encountered Xenos for the first time in 1996. I remember well, how refreshing it was to encounter a group that understood concepts like grace and “every member a minister.” I was overjoyed to give up singing, but mostly because I don’t like to sing. I think Christian music is boring, embarrassing, and out-dated. Maybe it was the hot new ministry tactic when Martin Luther took tavern songs, wrote some Christian words, and had the audacity to allow the parishioners to sing (strictly verboten in the Catholic church!). But in the 20th (and now 21st) century, it is mostly weird and uncomfortable. I was so sick of the worship service that when we arrived in Columbus that I let it go with more relief than careful thought. However, recently I had to reconsider my reasons for disdaining the worship service.
Some of us from NeoXenos recently attended the “Multi-site Exposed” conference in Chicago to learn more about one way of breaking out of the “church in a box” syndrome. Before the conference we attended New Life Community Church at their Midway campus. The service began with three praise songs, which were tastefully performed and expertly sung by a clear tenor and two somewhat energetic female back-up singers. Everyone stood on command and many clapped along as requested. The service ended with an altar call and communion, accompanied by soft music and the singers crooning “I live to worship you.”
It brought back memories of my time in the “regular” church, which is a stark contrast with Xenos where we do not sing or even have Christian music performed at our main meetings. Many people outside our fellowship find this odd or even appalling. I remember when one of my friends from California visited Xenos in Columbus he left saying “that was nice, but when do you worship?” I have invited a number of people to NeoXenos who say that they are not interested in visiting because “they would really miss the music.”
I’m sure that the planners of Multi-site Exposed did not intend for us to walk away with the impression “hey, that’s just like church,” but that is what I was left with. I was not able to get a satisfactory answer to whether or not the multi-site phenomenon is resulting in actual church growth as opposed to merely an in-gathering of disaffected Christians who had left other churches or church-hopping from a boring service to a better show. I started to complain a lot about “The Show,” or what I perceive to be an approach to ministry that relies excessively on public performances. The multi-site experiment is still basically a worship service, repackaged for modern tastes. I wondered out loud “If your church was somehow prevented from meeting, and you couldn’t have ‘the show,’ would it still exist in 6 months?” I hoped that NeoXenos was different, that our church was not essentially a service-based or program-based enterprise. Our recent history has been proving this point.
The Scriptural Basis for the Worship Service?
Is Xenos off-base? Are we wrong not to worship the Lord in song? Should we have worship services? Some would say we must. The website for Mars Hill in Seattle indicates that “The Scriptures provide a number of directives regarding corporate worship and require that there be the following.” They then list prayer, scripture reading, preaching, singing, giving of tithes and offerings, warm friendship, and communion. Does the bible really command singing at worship services? In an address entitled “Why do we sing?” Bob Kauflin (2000; Sovereign Grace Ministries conference on worship) says that there are about 20 references to music in the New Testament (and 500 in the Old Testament, including 50 direct commands to sing), and that most are connected with singing. I can’t find 20, but the most commonly cited references supporting singing are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The verses read “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16; italics added) and “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19-20; italics added). So both of these passages include the caveat “in your hearts,” which does not seem to be principally about a public worship service with group singing. Furthermore, the only example of Jesus and his disciples singing is their singing the Hallel Pslams after (and probably during) the Passover meal, as would have been customary during Passover (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26).
So there is absolutely no scriptural basis for the worship service as it is currently practiced. Jesus never commanded anyone to sing, although he taught on prayer, railed against religious formalism and hypocrisy, and devoted extensive time to explaining the Kingdom of God. None of the books of the New Testament discuss proper procedures for singing at the worship service, despite many ‘one another’ passages and extensive discussion of other matters of ecclesiology (e.g., qualifications for leadership, the importance of teaching the word, the exercise of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ, submission to authority, relations in the Christian family and the relationship of the Christian with society and government).
Song in a Box: Worship in the American Church
Yet even a cursory glance at the landscape of evangelicalism in North America reveals that singing at worship services is a major element of contemporary Christianity. You can get undergraduate and graduate degrees in worship, which is always connected to musical performance (as opposed to a broader definition of worship such as sacrificial service). Nearly every church in this country has singing at the worship service, and the “worship theory of evangelism” has been described as the dominant strategy of the American church to win the lost (Dennis McCallum, 2008 Xenos Summer Institute). The Christian music industry has subcategories devoted to worship music, large churches have worship teams that sometimes write and distribute their own music, and TV commercials advertise worship CD’s (e.g., “Songs 4 Worship: Shout to the Lord”).
On a personal note, I remember all this very well. In the church of my youth we sang straight from the hymnal tucked into the back of the pew. I started playing the drums in church as a child at special events (remember the “Easter Cantata?”—you would if you grew up in a conservative Baptist church!). It was controversial—can there be drums in church?!? During college, I occasionally played for the gospel choir, played for special events with the “chorale” (e.g., Christmas concert), and toured with small vocal ensemble “Triumph!” We performed many Sunday mornings in all kinds of churches around Southern California. I’ve been to hundreds of different church worship services and there was singing at every one of them until I found Xenos in Columbus. I’ll never forget my first Sunday walking in to hear the cover band playing Sting and Steely Dan covers, but no worship songs. Yet even at Xenos I played with Nathan Dickson (singer songwriter) at Central Teaching, and for short time we were required to perform praise songs for the 30 or so people who would show up to sing before the very early service (8 am?). (We glumly rushed through some boring contemporary Christian songs, intentionally mispronouncing certain words to amuse ourselves.) At last year’s Christmas program at NeoXenos it was yours truly who was pressed into service to lead the singing of several Christmas carols, to my great dismay (none of my experience ever included singing in public).
In contrast to my experience and mainstream evangelicalism, there is also the opinion that musical instruments should not be allowed in church. Apparently John Calvin, John Wesley, Martin Luther, and Charles H. Sturgeon were all opposed to having musical instruments in church. Lavelle Layfield of the Church of Christ wrote an essay arguing that the New Testament only authorizes singing without musical accompaniment (http://www.scripturessay.com/article.php?cat=&id=426). When I was younger I would have scoffed at this minority position, and I still do. No instruments in church? Why not? There’s no scriptural prohibition against musical instruments in church, and freedom in Christ covers a lot of territory on non-essential matters like music (Galatians 5:1; Galatians 2:4).
Reconsidering the Worship Service
Why have we at NeoXenos dropped the worship service? Given that there’s no scriptural support for the worship service, nor any scriptural prohibition against music, we certainly have the freedom to sing or not sing as we see fit. We have chosen not to, for a number of reasons.
First, non-Christians don’t like it. Newcomers to our fellowship are primarily the non-churched youth of our culture. They are not familiar with the Christian sub-culture or church traditions. They are not used to singing in groups, and often find the worship service to be bizarre and off-putting. This was not the case 500 years ago, where there might have been a cultural precedent for group singing. There was no recorded music, and live performances with group participation may have been commonplace. But in our culture, it doesn’t make sense to require strange rituals of people with no background to understand what is going on. Paul said “to those who are without Law, as without Law” (1 Corinthians 9:9-14) to describe his efforts to bring the good news to all kinds of people. Here, I’m saying “to those who don’t like to sing, as those who don’t sing.”
More importantly, I believe that there are aspects of the worship service that actively promote false doctrine. In contrast to common opinion, the Church is not defined by having sacraments and a worship service. Rather, the church is the body of Christ (Ephesians). The church simply not a worship service, and requiring a worship service does a tremendous disservice to church planting efforts. As NeoXenos becomes a “church without walls,” saddling us with all the demands of a worship service would be a terrible waste of time, money, and energy.
In addition, the worship service sends the message that God must be approached in a mystical and emotional manner by groveling penitents. This idea is directly contradicted by passages such as Romans 8:15-17 and Galatians 6:6,7. Both of these passages portray Christians as having such an intimate and loving relationship with God that we call Him “daddy,” with no fear. We are not to grovel before God, but rather approach God boldly, like members of the family.
The worship service also promotes the false doctrine that we exist primarily to worship God in song. For example, the lyrics of one popular Christian praise song are “I live to worship you” (Israel Houghton’s band Israel and new breed, “to worship you I live”). This sweet-sounding slogan slips by unnoticed, but it numerous passages in the NT contradict this doctrine. For example, Ephesians describes a much more glorious purpose and destiny for which we were called (Ephesians 1:18-19; 3:16-19; 4:1-3; 5:1-2; 5:15-18). We are evangelists, pastors, teachers, and saints who comprise the body of Christ. We are His witnesses (Acts 1:8), ambassadors through whom God is reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Peter 3:9). Our destiny is to be co-heirs of the Kingdom of God with Christ (Romans 8:16-17; James 2:4), even judging angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). Our calling is indeed glorious, so implying that our only purpose in this life or the next is to sing nursery rhymes to Jesus is insulting and patronizing. No wonder so many people have no interest in wasting their lives in pews when there are so much more interesting worlds to conquer outside the church doors!
Finally, and perhaps most troubling, the typical worship service redefines worship from a lifestyle of sacrificial loving service to singing at a group meeting. Paul defined worship in his letter to the Romans. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1). A lot can be said about this passage, but simply put the most reasonable worship we can offer to God is to give our whole lives and selves to God in thanks for what He has done for us. To reduce this to mere participation in a musical show is incredibly offensive if you think about it. Becoming a living sacrifice, or setting yourself apart to serve the Lord instead of yourself, is a profound decision with wide-reaching implications. You cannot simply punch the “worship” clock once a week and consider yourself a faithful servant of the Lord.
Moving Out Without Baggage
To conclude, at NeoXenos we’re moving out. We focus on the gospel of grace, all of us are ministers, and we own no property. We stopped a lot of religious formalism a long time ago, and most principally the Worship Service. We are an underground movement meeting from house to house and in a variety of rented rooms. We bring the good news of salvation as a free gift by faith in Jesus Christ, with full membership in the body of Christ, and resurrection from death in order to enjoy eternal life with God. We are free to sing if we want to, and you’ll probably be treated to joyous song every year at our Christmas celebration. In our meetings, however, we can’t afford all the baggage of the worship service. There’s no scriptural basis that requires it, there’s no advantage for attracting people that it affords, and there’s some heinous false doctrine that it promotes. We will probably continue to be criticized for being the only church around with no worship band, but that’s a small price to pay for the freedom we enjoy.