Contemporary “Worship” [A Critique] Part 1


In the writer’s bookcase sits a volume of cartoons from a strip called Beyond Belief by Roger Judd.  One of these strips shows people participating in a “Worship Workshop for the Charismatically Impaired.”  One of the facilitators/instructors is shown correcting one of the participants by telling him to put down the hymnal because only choruses are allowed (1994:24).  In many ways, that is the approach to worship in many congregations today, because those involved in the church growth movement have told congregations that this is the only way worship can be relevant and meaningful to baby boomers and GenXers.  The implied threat is that congregations which are not perceived to be relevant and meaningful in their worship are dinosaurs which soon will and should be extinct.

The problem with the position taken by church growth/contemporary worship proponents is that they fail to provide satisfactory explanations for basic terms such as “worship” and “relevance.”  In addition, the advocates of church growth/contemporary worship by means of “seeker-sensitive” worship appear to distort biblical teachings concerning evangelism and the nature of the church to further their agenda.  The result has been that, instead of fostering community and a deepening faith on the part of congregants, one critic of the movement charges that it is instead promoting trans-generational divisiveness and an overall “dumbing down” of faith and worship (Dawn, 1995).


Operationally Defining the Terms Is Necessary

When this writer was pursuing his undergraduate degree, he majored in psychology.  As a part of the research requirement, he was instructed that any proper write-up of an experiment required the researcher to “operationally define” the experiment.  This meant that the researcher had to define every aspect of the experiment in terms of procedure, subject, controls, variables, method of measuring the data, and method of analyzing the data.  This was done in order to ensure that the experiment could be replicated in such a way as to yield similar, if not identical, results.  Such a discipline also allowed peer reviewers to determine if the research was flawed in any manner.  The same discipline is followed in virtually any other field of research in social sciences as well as the natural and physical sciences.

Any time controversy arises within the Body of Christ, such as the present “worship wars,” there can be no resolution without a common understanding.  This cannot take place unless all parties to the controversy are defining terminology in the same manner and using the same standards.  Unfortunately, what seems to prevail in many settings is a “winner-take-all” mentality with the means being justified by the ends, with each side insisting that it alone has the authority or right to define terms.  In other words, part of the problem which must be overcome in resolving the issue is that both parties have to operationally define their terminology.

The first question which must be answered is what does the Bible mean when it uses such terms as “worship” and “evangelism?”  In addition, the questions must be asked:  [1] Why do Christians assemble?  [2] Does the Bible mandate assembling for worship or evangelism?  These are key questions because how they are being answered is part of seeing how the worship wars have started.

The word which is most commonly translated “worship” in the New Testament is proskuneo.  According to Vine, it can be used to denote reverence shown to a man or God (1997).  Zodhiates notes that the word signifies one of inferior rank prostrating himself before one of much superior rank (1997).

Mike Root, in a book titled Spilt Grape Juice: Rethinking the Worship Tradition, states that the idea that the purpose of assembling together for worship is a myth which is unfounded in the New Testament.  He points out that nowhere in the New Testament can it be demonstrated that believers in the first century assembled together for what this culture thinks of as “worship” (1992:20).  His contention is that worship is “a life given in obedience to Christ.”  The logic of the argument is simple and irrefutable:  if proskuneo is homage paid to a superior and the English translation of the term is “worship,” then what greater homage can there be than to live one’s life in obedience to the One to whom he or she claims to be paying homage?  Root states it succinctly and vividly when he writes, “If you are a Christian you are worship to God” (1992:20, emphasis in the original).”

Given such a definition of worship, therefore, the idea of “seeker-sensitive worship” is a contradiction in terms which is unscriptural.  “Seekers” are, by definition, not Christians. And if they are not Christians, it is impossible for them to live their lives in obedience to God, for they have neither His Spirit or the context of Truth in which worship is grounded.

The next term which requires some evaluation is “evangelism.”  The word itself is a transliteration from the Greek euangelizo which means to bring or preach good news.  The question is whether or not the assembly is the place where evangelism should occur.  Thus, when assemblies convert to “seeker-sensitive worship,” what is really taking place is a shift from an assembly of believers to an assembly of unbelievers for the purpose of evangelism. While the idea of using a Sunday morning assembly for evangelism is not new, it must be noted that it is not grounded in Scripture, nor is it worship.  The idea of using the Sunday morning preaching meeting as a time for evangelism originated with the evangelist Charles Finney in the nineteenth century as he advocated that the emphasis of sermons be shifted from teaching to evangelism (Webber, 1994:118-119).  In other words, the whole idea of “seeker-sensitive worship” originated with a preacher whose theology and doctrine were founded on pragmatism and quantifiable results rather than fidelity to God and His word.

Biblical evangelism occurs when believers go to an unbelieving world to make disciples instead of trying to entice the world to come to them.  The assembly is for believers.  Or as Root expressed it, “The assembly is a celebration of sonship, not a recruiting drive” (1992:149, emphasis added).”

Thus, as suggested earlier, the questions deserving consideration are two-fold:  [1] Is the assembly for believers only or is it for unbelievers as well?  [2] When assembled, is the purpose of the assembly evangelism or teaching?

It is the contention of this writer that, according to the New Testament, the assumption is that any assembly of the church is a gathering of believers only.  There is only one reference in the entire New Testament which indicates the presence of unbelievers in a local assembly—1 Corinthians 14:23.  The passage does not indicate the presence of unbelievers in an assembly was to be commanded or even encouraged.  Nor does it indicate that such an occurrence was even normal.  And this is the passage upon which the proponents of “seeker-sensitive worship” base their entire ecclesiology.

It is the writer’s contention that assemblies should be oriented toward believers rather than unbelieving “seekers.”  The basis for the writer’s belief is found in Acts 2:42, in which Luke writes, And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.*  Contemporary worship does not model assembly according to the New Testament model.

Contemporary Worship Advocates Have Twisted Scriptural Definitions

When the writer began researching this paper, the answer to one question was unclear, Are the advocates of contemporary worship interested in dialogue or an exchange of ideas on this issue?  While much material was available either from a “traditional worship—love it or leave it” approach to a more moderate and inclusivist viewpoint of selectively assimilating elements of contemporary worship into a form and style of worship which is accessible to all ages, the writer had no means by which to gauge the thought of those who advocate a complete and total shift to contemporary worship by excluding all “traditional” forms and styles due to a lack of literature.

Then the writer discovered a book titled The Contemporary Christian Music Debate: Worldly Compromise or Agent of Renewal? by Steve Miller. (1993)  Written by a proponent of contemporary worship, this writer had hoped for a work revealing some thoughtful insight into the debate from the contemporary side.  Instead, he discovered a polemic for the other extreme, “contemporary worship—love it or leave it.”  This writer’s hopes that the book would be the sole display of aberrant definitions of “worship” and “evangelism” from an advocate of “seeker-sensitive worship” were ended when, on November 18, 1998, David Clark of Central Christian Church of Beloit, Wisconsin, addressed the “Lifelong Leadership Development for Ministry” class at Lincoln Christian Seminary on the subject of “Leading the Church Through Change.”  In that 90-minute session, many of the same beliefs claimed as proper by Miller were reinforced by Clark.

The first point where this writer would assert that contemporary worship proponents have a heterodox teaching in this matter would be the nature of worship itself.  Very basically, they would claim that worship is something a person can do, regardless of what he is in relation to God.  Thus, even a non-believer can approach God to worship.  This cannot be true if, as this writer asserted earlier in this paper, worship is a state of being and not an action. Only those who are in a covenant relationship with God can be worship.

The second question deals with the proper purpose of assembly.  In his presentation to the seminary class, David Clark asserted that the purpose of the assembly is to fulfill the Great Commission.  This is not taught anywhere, either by explicit command, approved precedent, or necessary inference, in Scripture.  When Mr. Clark was challenged on this point, his basic response to the person who questioned him was to call into question the commitment of the questioner to fulfilling the Great Commission.  This was not a reasoned response, but an ad hominem attack.  The questioner had over thirty years of experience on the mission field and had probably done far more to fulfill the Great Commission than Mr. Clark.

The only Scripture Clark presented to defend his view was 1 Corinthians 9:22I have become all things to all men.  Since nothing in the text indicates a mandate to bring the unbelieving into our assemblies, and Scripture informs the Church that the church at Corinth had an extremely corrupt view of assembly, worship and holiness, then any polemic which seeks justification from the practices which occurred there must build its foundation on very sandy soil.  After all, Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:29 that there were members of the Corinthian church who were being baptized as proxies for dead people (Radmacher, 2007:1819), and only one religious group uses this as a basis for such a practice today.

Finally, the question remains as to how contemporary worship proponents view evangelism.  It would appear that their concept of evangelism is to structure the assembly so as to attract the curious in the hope that those who are identified as “seekers” would somehow “catch” Christianity in much the same way that someone catches a cold.  While many proponents claim phenomenal growth rates in their congregations, what they have not done is provide documentation as to the retention rate of those who do come. Moreover, there is a question as to whether or not all of the new attendees were previously unchurched, or if some had been affiliated with other congregations and left those congregations.

Such an approach to evangelism is anthropocentric [man-centered] and does not honor God or reverence Him.  The basic philosophy is that if a church or person can package the Gospel in an attractive enough package, people will want to be saved.  And if people are not coming to Christ, it is the failure of the congregation or preacher in presenting the Gospel.

But let’s look at this from another perspective–the Biblical perspective.  Scriptural premise number one is that all men [and by this term I mean generically all of humanity, not merely the male gender] possess an inherited sinful nature and are enslaved to that nature.  [Psalm 14:2-3;  Romans 3:23;  7:18;  Ephesians 2:1-3;  2 Peter 2:19]

Premise number 2 is that because of our basic nature, we are hostile to God and incapable of demonstrating any response of faith in God.  [Romans 8:6-8;  1 Corinthians 2:14]

The conclusion which can be drawn from these premises is that unregenerate man is incapable of pleasing, let alone worshiping God.  [Hebrews 11:6]

The corollary to this is that the Gospel itself is offensive to those who are outside of Christ. [1 Corinthians 1:18;  2 Corinthians 2:14-17]

This being the case, if what is being presented by those following the Bill Hybels/Rick Warren model of “evangelism” is so attractive, that unregenerate men are attracted to it, without demonstrating any true evidence of faith, it isn’t the Gospel and any gathering of those to promote this model of “evangelism” is not worship according to the Biblical definition of the term.

* Unless noted otherwise, all Bible references are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Dawn, Marva. Reaching out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn of the Century Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Judd, Roger. Beyond Belief. Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 1994.

Miller, Steve. The Contemporary Christian Music Debate: Worldly Compromise or Agent of Renewal? Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993.

Radmacher, Earl D. (ed.). The NKJV Nelson Study Bible, 2nd Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.

Root, Mike. Spilt Grape Juice: Rethinking the Worship Tradition. Joplin: College Press, 1992.

Searby, Mark, and Wilson, Robert. “Guiding the Church Through Change: Presentation by David Clark.” Lincoln, IL: Lincoln Christian Seminary, 18 November, 1998. Class Notes.

Vine, W. E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997. In Nelson’s Electronic Bible Reference Library (Deluxe Edition).

Webber, Robert E. Worship Old and New: A Biblical, Historical and Practical Introduction, Revised edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Zodhiates, Spiros, ed. The Complete Word Study Bible and Reference CD. Chattanooga: AMG, 1997.


About davestheology

I found a book that was kind of worn, But to my surprise, not a page was torn; It had a title, that I could not read, "Red Letter Edition" was all I could see.
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