Minutes With Messiah Logo

Time to Move?

by Tim O'Hearn

A friend recently attended a church because her children like the youth group there. This is a large congregation that fills two huge parking lots for multiple assemblies each Sunday. Their traffic attendants are generally respectful of traffic from surrounding locations. They play popular Christian music on the patio, and it can be heard over a block away. Several visitors have complained that they felt the assembly time was more of a show than worship. This friend complained about several things there. The music was too loud, and they refused to turn it down when she pointed out it was hurting her ears. One time she was running late and another time she left to go to the bathroom, and they locked the doors and told her she had to go to the “overflow” room, even though her family was in the auditorium holding a seat for her. She felt disrespected and unwanted. She doesn’t like going back to that church anymore. Perhaps this points out some reasons you can know you are going to the wrong church.

In fairness, I should say that I do not know many specifics about their doctrine. Like most “community churches,” they seem to be more closely aligned with Baptist doctrine without claiming to be Baptist. They mayWhat is the purpose of the assembly of the church? Is it entertainment? Is it something else? be teaching the gospel exactly as put forth in scripture, or they may not. The following points don’t judge their basic doctrine, or that of other congregations. These are more about what is practiced than what is preached. Nor is this about one congregation. This particular one is not alone in these failings, nor are all of them necessarily exemplified by this congregation.

Entertainment trumps edification

Entertainment is fun. Entertainment is good. Entertainment can even be educational, a la Sesame Street. It might even be that entertainment has a place in the church. But churches can get carried away with entertainment. Sometimes it is because entertainment may fill the seats. Sometimes it is because it is easier than actually teaching.

Entertainment may take many forms. Most commonly it is music, but it may come in other ways. There is a man who paints portraits of the common idea of Jesus to contemporary spiritual songs. There may be a message that unfolds as he builds the painting, but it is not always clear, and he doesn’t explain it. There is a juggler for Jesus, who is quite talented and at least teaches as he juggles. Magicians, dancers, and comedians. All may be entertaining, and some may actually speak a clear message from the Bible. Others say nothing and leave one wondering what their talent actually communicated.

Churches have turned singing into entertainment. There was a time, a few centuries ago, that musical instruments were added to the a capella singing of the church. At first it was designed to help the congregation sing. An organ or piano may help with the melody, and especially with harmony. When J.S. Bach composed a whole new mass every week, the organ helped the chorus (by now not the full congregation) with unfamiliar music. As time went on, people started being entertained rather than just assisted. They let the professional singers form a chorus, accompanied by professional organists and, eventually, orchestras. The modern equivalent is the “worship leader” and the electronic band.

Studies show that fewer members of the congregation sing (on the whole) at each stage along the continuum from congregational vocal music to worship bands. All along the scale there are those who do not participate, but the percentage is greatest when the music moves into professional entertainment.

Part of this may be a function of volume. Even as non-instrumental congregations get larger, a greater percentage feels that they don’t need to sing. After all, their voices are no longer as vital to the congregational sound. When the decibel level gets into the “you need earplugs” range, most people feel that their input would be minimal, and even unheard. Sometimes even the band cannot be understood. (I went to a TobyMac concert where my son couldn’t even identify his favorite song from one of the supporting bands because the volume was unbearable. Interestingly, they seemed to turn it down for the headliner.)

What is the purpose of the assembly of the church? Is it entertainment? Is it something else? What do the scriptures say?

“Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting.” (Heb 10:24-25) The writer, while comparing the church to the priesthood, says that principal functions in the assembly include encouragement and exhortation.

And what about the singing, specifically? “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks.” (Eph 5:20-21) “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col 3:16) Part of our singing is directed toward God, but part is also directed toward each other. Everyone is a teacher, if they sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Some people have abrogated their responsibilities to bands and worship groups. That may not in itself be wrong; we have done the same with professional preachers. When those bands cannot be understood, then they have gone from edification to entertainment. When bands (or even song leaders in a congregational setting) call attention to themselves rather than the teaching, they have become mere entertainers.

The preaching becomes an end in itself

With the advent of professional preachers whose main concentration is on the flock (taking away the responsibility of the elders) rather than on growing the flock (the work of an evangelist), preaching had become the centerpiece of the assembly. Unfortunately, we have all seen or heard of those men or women who have decided that they are the center, rather than their message.

Sometimes it is the congregation that elevates preaching for preaching’s sake. When a member comes late to the assembly and then leaves as soon as the sermon is over, that person gives a clear indication that the preaching is the sum total of what is important. I once attended a congregation that unintentionally gave that message. Because the sermon was being broadcast on the radio, the order of worship was one song, then the preaching (for precisely 28 minutes), more songs, and then the Lord’s Supper and the contribution, along with some prayers. The unwitting message, at least to the radio audience, was that the preaching was all that was important.

Because the preacher has a message for the congregation, it is good that he not be interrupted. Congregants should be reminded to silence their electronic devices. Conversations should be held to a necessary minimum, although sometimes it is good to explain things to a visitor or a child. Bathroom breaks should only be taken when absolutely necessary.

When a congregation locks the doors as soon as the sermon starts, and doesn’t allow someone to join their family (or especially their guests) if they had to leave the auditorium, then the sermon is no longer all about the message; it is about the process. When a congregation banishes the babies to a cry room, or the toddlers and developmentally disabled to a “training room,” they are giving the message that the message is less important than order. Children may be a distraction at times, but a congregation that says that children are only a disturbance may end up with parents that make sure their children go where they will be welcomed and loved.

A lot of churches have signs in front of the building giving the assembly times and maybe the church web site. Many of these also name their minister or preacher. While there is nothing wrong with that in itself, it is really unnecessary. If people are coming just for the preacher, they are coming for the wrong reason. If the preacher insists on his name being on the sign, then he is preaching for the wrong reason.

The individual doesn’t matter

In the incident where the person complained about the painful volume of the music, it is likely that she was not the only one who felt as she did. Whether that is true or not, the person who responded to her complaint essentially told her that she did not matter. The desires of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that isA congregation that believes children are a disturbance may end up with no children. athirst come.” (Rev 22:17) But only let him come if he is not going to upset the status quo. Only let him come if he is in complete agreement with how we do things. Don’t come as you are, but as we want you to be.

Somehow, it doesn’t appear that this is what the scriptures teach. What James said about the poor man applies to more than just dress and wealth.

For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become evil-thinking judges? (Jas 2:2-4)

Every congregation will make mistakes. Until those grow into a pattern, they should not cause a person to want to move to a different church. There are times, though, when congregations show that people are less important than process; that entertainment is of more value than education or encouragement. When this becomes the pattern, then it may be a time for migration. Even worse, though, is that the mere appearance that the individual or the gospel is not important may cause people to turn away, and maybe turn others away, from what may truly be a gospel-teaching congregation. That is a serious responsibility to bear.