Growth or Grounded?

One of the blogs I follow is the Internet Monk (www.internetmonk.com), and I read with special interest the May 9 post, “The Sermonator and the Culture of Pizzazz,” regarding Chuck Swindoll and the particular evangelical movement, over the past couple of decades, toward ‘entertaining’ or ‘high production’ worship.  You see, I cut my spiritual teeth on Swindoll’s radio show “Insight for Living” during the 1980s, when he was pastor of a large Southern California Church.  During the 1970s, I attended his contemporary’s church – also unorthodox for the time – Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, whose “tent” Saturday night concerts, Bible studies, and Sunday morning worship services were led by still-pastor Chuck Smith, now in his 80s.

The blog focuses on a recent interview with Swindoll for Leadership Journal, in which he discusses the common practice among many evangelical churches today of using the latest trends and technology (big screens, video clips, soundbites, kiosk cafes) to draw church attendees.  Has the result created true worshipers, or simply entertainment-hungry gawkers looking for their next Sunday morning thrill?  Swindoll admits in the interview that he undoubtedly helped to create this “Culture of Pizzazz.”  For anyone who can remember back that far, you will recall that Swindoll routinely created quite a stir with his popular charm, witty stories and illustrations, and sometime pranks, like the day he mounted a motorcycle dressed in sleek leather and called himself “The Sermonator” for a publicity poster promoting a new book.  (Yes, this was mentioned in the Internet Monk blog, but I also remember the poster!)

So are we destined for shallow, WOW factor-driven Christian worship, or need we go back to the days of Gregorian Chants and sermons delivered in Latin?

Without a doubt, what drew me to both Calvary Chapel and Chuck Swindoll’s ministry was how different their services and message were from the traditional services and sermons of my parents’ generation (even though my parents, themselves, did not attend church).  Newspaper editorial columns and letters to the editor openly and repeatedly criticized ‘Pastor Chuck’ for his casual Hawaiian-style shirts and unpastor-like laid-back manner, and Swindoll – always evocative, with no topic taboo in his radio broadcasts or Sunday morning sermons – caused a lot of tongue-clacking.  It was the same with Christian musicians of the time, who favored the same folk-ballad style so popular on the secular radio stations of the day.  We loved them, and listening, we grew in our spiritual faith.

If the old ‘avant-garde’ techniques of yesteryear worked for us, why do we want to deny the current generation?  While today’s slick, high-production worship services may cause us to catch our breaths in distress, we need to remember that the generation before us did the same thing over the new-fangled Christian music of the day, and pastors that more resembled beach bums and motorcycle dudes than ministers.

HERE, I believe, is the real crux of the matter….  While I strongly believe we need to engage each new generation with the tools that have become part of their everyday lives, the message (delivered with the latest techno-media capabilities) must have Biblical substance and be focused, meaningful, and completely genuine.  And, the technology must further and be integrated with the message, not be stand-alone misfits that serve only to draw attention to the various technicians’ or performers’ talents.  There is a huge difference between the churches with pizzazz simply for the sake of showing off all their special effect skills and techno-media capabilities, vs. a church that uses the same capabilities and technology as a tool to enhance the morning message.  (Thanks to my college friend, Sarah, for helping me think through this distinction!)  People can tell the difference, and that difference is what draws people into a deeper relationship with God versus simply attending church in order to be bedazzled.

While living in Orange County, we attended a large (couple thousand member) evangelical church.  A bright, colorful LED sign lights up the streets surrounding the church, announcing upcoming programs.  It is known throughout the community and its denomination for its high-end theatrical productions (engaging youth and adults alike), and many professional-quality music programs (both choral and instrumental), which draw dozens if not hundreds of non-churchgoers to the various productions and services each year.  Many stay, adding new members on a regular basis.

Today, we attend a small church in a small town on the Western Slope of the Sierras, in Northern California.  The choir numbers perhaps eight, and it doesn’t take a perfect ear to discern that they don’t always sing on-key.  The pianist and organist are talented enough, and a bass and harmonica player, along with a drummer and trumpet player, sometimes add their specialties to the mix.  The delivery on Sunday mornings is not always polished.  I prefer using the hymnal so as not to be distracted by typos on the overheads.  But we have regular visitors from the surrounding neighborhoods, usually of the non-churchgoing variety.  Many stay, adding new members on a regular basis.

These two churches couldn’t be more different in terms of production and presentation.  Practically polar opposites, except for one common denominator.  Pastoral preaching that has Biblical substance and is focused, meaningful, and completely genuine.  Preach God’s Word, and it will not return void.

Think about it, and tell me what you think.

3 comments on “Growth or Grounded?

  1. It is often the dazzling display that puts me off. A service I attended in Las Vegas was everything you would expect to find in a Las Vegas show: choreography, vocal parts… polished to a “t”, and it put me off. Perhaps that is what is required in a community jaded by productions.
    Isn’t it a measure of God’s love and grace that there are some many different kinds of church services? It is easy to find fault with another’s worship “style”; let us praise Him in the way that we were designed… and we certainly weren’t all designed to be the same.

  2. Wow…Can I relate! I couldn’t even make my mind up in the 70’s where to worship because I felt so drawn to both styles…traditional and contemporary. Truly as you point out, it wasn’t the style at all, it was the work of the spirit and the image of God in both pastors that preached, that really drew me in. Thank you for making this observation and reminding us that as long as we find a church and pastor that speaks the truth and is filled with the spirit…our worship experience will be one we want to return to each Sunday.

  3. This is definitely a challenge to think about. The Lord multiplied the loaves and fishes on the mountainside; another time, He turned water into wine at a wedding. There were lots of people around who were truly be-dazzled.
    On the other hand, He healed someone but clearly admonished him to tell no one. Another time, He met the woman at the well alone and dealt just one-on-one with her regarding her past.
    God does work in mysterious ways. Maybe that’s why I am stumped for a “right or wrong” answer to this question. Only God knows the heart of both the preachers and church members.

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