It is Sunday; the day you always gather with others to worship. You are on vacation in an unfamiliar city, but you found a church in the phone book that looks promising. You drive up to the parking lot, and see a lot of people lined up at the door of the building. Since you are visiting here, you do what everyone else is doing; you fall into the back of the line. As you approach the door you see that there are people standing at the door, like ticket-takers at the theater. When you get to the door they tell you that the admission price is $15. If you had prepaid online it would have only been $12, and you would have priority seating. As it is, you pay $15 per person and hope for a decent seat. When it is time to begin, everybody turns their attention to the stage (yes, it is a stage) where a moderately famous band starts singing their songs. After each song everyone applauds, and they introduce the next one. At some point a person (probably a band member) steps out and asks for further donations for a pet missionary cause. Then another band plays for a while. A preacher gets up and gives a short message, complete with multimedia experience. Some pyrotechnics go off and then a really big-name band comes out and performs. They might even ask you to sing along with some of their hits. Afterward, everyone files out, gets in their cars, and go home.
Sound more like a concert? Would you pay at the door, or turn around and find a different place? Is this what you expect from a Sunday worship assembly? This is exactly what to expect from some Christian entertainers when you go to their concert, only they don’t call it a concert. Instead, it is a “worship experience.”
Many people would stop at the door. They would willingly pay big money for a concert, especially for names like Chris Tomlin or TobyMac (don’t forget your hearing protection). For the regular assembly of the church, however, they prefer the biblical model of collecting money; a free-will offering. “Let every one of you lay by him in store, as he has been prospered.” (1 Cor 16:2) Setting a head-price of $15 doesn’t take ability to pay into account. “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7) Paul had a lot to say to the Corinthians about voluntary giving.
Suppose, though, that you do pay and get inside. Then comes the experience. Well, it does at least fit one definition of the word, something personally encountered. Higher on the list of definitions, however, is learning through participation. What is about to happen is an experience done to you, not necessarily one you participate in. Of course, that could be said about most sermons in any church today; but it is still hardly an experience in the active sense of the noun. The real question, though, is whether it is a “worship” experience. Somebody is worshipping, most likely. Most of the time, though, the audience is passive. When Paul gave instructions to the church about the public assembly, he generally advocated active participation. “Give attendance to public reading [of the scriptures].” (1 Tim 4:13) The whole passage from 1 Corinthians 12-14 is about the participatory teaching in the assembly. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Eph 5:19) (Some try to take this verse out of the context of public assembly, but if you aren’t assembled how can you speak to one another? The parallel passage in Col 3:16 refers to teaching one another, again implying active participation in the assembly.) Congregational singing appears to have been the norm, rather than the exception, among the early churches. If what the assembled church does is to be called worship, it clearly involves full participation of the congregation, not entertainment.
If you want to attend a concert, pay for a concert. If you want to attend a group worship, then it should be participatory worship, not passive listening. It should also not involve an admission fee. If you paid for a “worship experience” and got a concert with some preaching, maybe you should ask for your money back.