Last Sunday, Pastor Benny Ho finished up his last message on the book of Jonah as our church began to move into a season of outreach using the Alpha Course.
It was a clarion warning to any church: we can encamp around the blessings of God and the affairs of the church in complete neglect of a lost and dying world. And that was Jonah’s problem. In Jonah 2, whilst in the body of the whale, the prophet cried twice: “I will look again toward your holy temple” (v4) and “my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple” (v 6). Whilst he loved the temple, he was absolutely indignant about preaching to the Ninevites.
In the same way, the church can be consumeristic. We want to listen to the best sermons, listen to (and occasionally sing!) to great music, enjoy a climate-regulated auditorium with comfortable seating and drink good coffee. And we when we don’t get what we want, we complain. Like Jonah complained. As if we have every right to do so.
Worship is especially prone to consumerist leanings more so than most other Christian practices. We put on skilled musicians who wear cool hipster clothes, pretty lighting, colourful moving visuals and sexy dancers (appropriately and modestly covered of course); we stick it all on an elevated platform and make it a focal point. We dim the lights on the congregation, as if they were the audience in a play who had paid good money (their tithe) to get the good seats.
A friend of mine, Kelwin Wong, recently brought this review of a well-known worship album to my attention:
I’ve purchased every [one of this church’s] album since the very beginning and I’m getting very disappointed nowadays. The production work on this album is really bad and the album is sooooo slow…. Everyone buys it because of the hype and label, but are clearly disappointed with the result. Just around the church office this morning those who have the album have made the same comments as I have. Someone better do something better at [at this church] FAST or they will begin to lose their crowd.
I find this sort of “review” and evaluation quite disconcerting (pardon the pun) but it evidences an increasingly consumerist mindset to worship that has been going on for years.
So why do we still do the “production”? Because we understand that as worship ministers, we need to create an atmosphere that is conducive to the people’s engaging with God. But the line is crossed when people stop worshipping just because the production is not to their liking. Or because they don’t like the songs.
As worship ministers then, we need to continually educate our people on why we worship. We need to teach them that worship is not, and cannot be, about us. We need to teach them that worship has absolutely nothing to do with individual preferences and all to so with God’s surpassing worth.
In fact, we need to teach them that worship is “anti-preference”. That is why the author of Hebrews exhorts us to bring a “sacrifice of praise”. If it remains within the realm of our preference, it is likely no sacrifice at all.
Jonah grappled with self-centredness, even after he saw God perform the miracle of saving an entire city. In response, God destroyed the shady vine Jonah was taking cover under and then gave Jonah a talking-to about the big picture. In effect, God said to him in chapter 4: “you are concerned about this vine, but what about the 120,000 souls who are lost?”
It kind of puts things into perspective.