About two-thirds of the way through Chris Tomlin’s Fairfax, VA show last Friday, he joked that there was probably somebody in the crowd who was still standing with his arms crossed despite the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in the room, etc. Well I was that guy. I tried to clap for at least some of the time, but a lot of the time I had my arms crossed because it was crowded and I didn’t have any other place to put them. I also wasn’t really feeling it.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I can’t warm up to Chris Tomlin. Part of it is straight-up sinful envy. I found out last year that he and Louie Giglio were launching a church plant in Atlanta this year and they were going to start off in a sports stadium. How do you start off in a stadium?
There’s some envy there, but there’s something about the principle that feels wrong too. It just feels like what’s happening in Christianity today is akin to the way that Walmart put all the mom & pop stores out of business. Twenty years from now, are they going to be any non-stadium churches left? Will the vocation of pastor (shepherd) still be relevant in such a world or is our function reduced to being electrifying motivational speakers who draw large crowds but don’t have personal relationships with audience members?
I listen to Christian radio in my car every day even though I often hear things that make me bristle. One of the things that rubs me the wrong way are all the self-promotional ads in which a a listener says tearfully, “You guys were the only ones there for me during a really rough time.” I’m sorry but that’s something we should mourn, not celebrate. A radio station can’t be “there for you” any more than a celebrity motivational speaker can. It is a tragedy that someone could be so bereft of community support systems that their radio station is their best friend.
Whatever has created this world in which lonely people think they’re BFF’s with the singers on their radio is an enemy to the community-building process that the body of Christ is supposed to be. Now I’m not saying it’s Chris Tomlin’s fault that thousands of adoring fans have built a cult of personality around him nor am I saying that he shouldn’t exploit his own cult of personality to minister to people and build God’s kingdom. He was very intentional throughout the show about telling the audience that they should be worshiping God and not him (though the jumbotron LCD screens above him made it hard to take his words at face value).
It just sucks that the church is becoming a lonely anonymous place of isolated individuals relating to God “personally,” but not interpersonally. And I suspect that at least part of the reason behind this is because evangelical Christians today don’t see authentic community-building as part of the purpose of worship perhaps because historically communion has always been what those Catholics do (and the way that evangelicals do the Lord’s supper with single-serving crackers and shot-glasses shows that we’ve completely missed the point).
In the contemporary worship ethos that predominates American pop evangelicalism, worship means two things, one openly and the other subtly. The stated purpose of contemporary worship is to give glory to God by singing songs and giving speeches that talk about how great God is. But underneath the surface, these songs and sermons provide a personal emotional experience for individual worshipers that combines the right amount of catharsis and euphoria so they feel “uplifted” as a result. The second subtle purpose is always a scandal to name aloud because worship is supposed to be all about God. Yet I don’t think Christian worship can avoid having the underlying purpose of individual consumer satisfaction, regardless of the adjectives we use to talk about God in our songs, unless it instead has the purpose of building the community of people who love God together, aka the body of Christ.
For most of Christian history, the purpose of our worship was to become the body of Christ. The communion table was the centerpiece of worship: not the singer, not the pastor, but the bread and cup. The original reason to preach a sermon was to prepare listeners for confession so that their hearts would be prepared to receive the body and blood of Christ and so doing become the body of Christ redeemed by His blood.
Jesus never commanded us to sing about Him; He did command us to practice communion in remembrance of Him. We should of course sing songs about Jesus but not to flatter him or feel pious about how we feel about him; our acts of worship are supposed to cultivate the disposition of heart both individually and collectively that grow us into a Christ-centered community.
I think that communion should be the goal of every element of worship. The reason to sing about God’s greatness, confess our sins, share testimony of God’s deliverance, explore God’s word together, and receive the body and blood of Christ is to become people through whom God moves most efficaciously both individually and collectively, i.e. to be brought together with other believers into a real body created by the Holy Spirit. To be incorporated authentically into the body of Christ, we need to know and live in the knowledge of our dependence upon God as our provider and redeemer; we sing, pray, listen, dance, eat, drink, and whatever else we do in worship to gain this knowledge which is more than just intellectual. I’m just not sure this happens most effectively in a stadium.