I was speaking recently with an evangelical friend who described how, at his large, affluent Presbyterian Church, the current pastor is pushing the vision that the church service should be designed with the outsider in mind. “Seeker”-friendly church is hardly a new concept, but it is obviously becoming more pervasive, since it has spread even to the mainline churches.
The theological or biblical rationale for this approach is that Jesus went and met people where they were. Christ’s meeting with the Samaritan woman may be the supreme example. He doesn’t browbeat her for her immorality and her misguided religious notions. He does make a number of important truth statements — God is Spirit — but he does so in the context of their established conversation. Even in addressing her personal life, his tone does not express moral outrage. If it was intended to induce any shame, its only purpose was so that she would know her life had been put in the light of the Lord, in which forgiveness was already on hand before it was even sought.
Creative individuals who have been trying to apply this model to the activity of the Church see our Lord’s encounters with individuals like the Samaritan woman as a paradigm for churches today. Build relationships and community with individuals, and then within that loving relationship the truth of the gospel can be shared. As such, the goal of the Church should really be to get outsiders through the church door so that those relationships can be established and that community can be nurtured.
Such a model for church is perhaps evident in the way Jesus relates to those whom he encounters, but it is very difficult to reconcile it with the remainder of the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles in particular. Paul did not go from town to town in Asia Minor devising brands and constructing attractional communities. Rather, he and the other apostles are seen proclaiming the truth of God in the death and resurrection of Christ. Their primary goal was not increasing the rolls but, out of a sense of obedience to God, preaching the gospel to the nations.
Such seeker-friendly churches can engage in practices that border on the absurd. Smoke machines, rock bands, and internet churches are today commonplace. Recently I came across the “Cover Songs” from a worship band at a church in Colorado. Their Sunday morning renditions of Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” speak for themselves. Though I found it difficult to pick the worst example, the following cover struck me as particularly cruel because it celebrates a level of worldly success that many of the lost and wounded souls for whom we care will never know.
My argument will hardly be controversial to the average Episcopalian or Anglican. Our typical reaction to such extremes is scorn and derision. Our reactive reasoning might fall along these lines: “Church should not be mere entertainment — we’re trying to educate, illuminate, and transform people. As such our worship is not designed to be attractional, but to cater to the spiritual needs of our congregation.” For many of the congregations in my current diocese (New Jersey), most are looking at simply maintaining what they have by meeting the spiritual and communal needs of their members.
Such a view of the purpose of worship — supplying a need of the members — is all too common. It could be said that in the Episcopal Church, in its various liturgical and theological expressions, specializes in boutique congregations that cater to their members’ needs, desires, and (dare I say) prejudices. We’re really not expecting that all or even many would want to come to our churches, but for the ones who can appreciate such things as high-brow music, progressive preaching, or traditional liturgy, we have the church for you. It’s easy to pick on the so-called attractional churches, but the alternate view of the church and worship hits closer to home and is likely to threaten cherished idols.
Both formulations of the purpose and design of Sunday worship are deficient because both are anthropocentric. One view says that the Church ought to be designed to appeal to the unchurched, while the other argues that the Church ought to minister to the faithful. In both cases, the starting point involves meeting the perceived needs of a chosen demographic. Like the catechism of the current prayer book, we (unhelpfully) start with the doctrine of anthropology.
While I think there is place to consider how we might welcome outsiders into loving Christian community where the gospel is proclaimed, and while we need to weigh how what we do (or don’t do) feeds and ministers to the body of Christ in a local congregation, we would be better served if we started from a theocentric position. Worship — on Sunday or otherwise — is for God and his glory, not because God needs our praises or is imperfect in himself but because he has made us the priests of all creation to return in praise and thanksgiving and sacrifice what he has given to us.
My current parish has maintained for over 100 years a noble custom that may not provide definite proof of a theocentric attitude toward worship, but it at least suggests a different framework. In our parish, every memorial dedication — whether on the stained glass, Eucharistic vessels, or vestments — contains the abbreviation A.M.D.G.: Latin for ad majorem dei gloriam, to the greater glory of God.
Please don’t imagine that I am claiming our congregation offers a sterling example of theocentric worship. But like many older congregations, it has vestiges of that older rationale, which I am arguing we need to reclaim and recover. If our worship is truly vertically founded and vertically inclined, for the greater glory of God — not as a ploy of entertainment or the lure of a boutique — I believe it will both draw in those who are called and are seeking the truth of God, and will minister to the faithful. For what they need is not more entertaining preaching or better music, but preaching and music that lifts them to God and puts their hand in the hand of the Master.