The auditorium darkens, the smoke machine churns, the spotlights find the singers, and the cameras pan across the stage. It is the beginning of a weekend worship service at my mega-church.
The first time I attended this church, I was enthralled by the experience orchestrated by professional musicians and media technicians. But after being part of this congregation for almost 5 years, I find my soul parched. Somehow, the lights, the sounds, and the show have alienated me from the authentic, corporate worship for which my soul aches.
The last weekend we attended services, I found myself standing in the dark, listening to musicians sing songs I didn’t know surrounded by people I had never seen before. As I looked around, I saw people facing the front, shadows of the projected images flashing across their faces. Very few were singing. Very few were smiling. Most were simply watching.
Is this all there is to worship? According to Quentin Schultz, in his book High Tech Worship, worship is about dialogue and community building. It is dialogue in that it is “responsive and reciprocal”. God speaks and we respond in praise and thanksgiving. Then God speaks again and we, again, respond. But what happens when the worship music becomes nothing more than noise filling in the gaps of our meandering thoughts? Is this truly worship when the highly structured format leaves no space for silence, thoughtfulness, or personal contemplation?
Schultz also suggests that worship is more than individual communion with God, it is “one of the main ways that Christians foster community”. Worship involves the vertical communication with God and a horizontal re-commitment to the body of believers. “Worship directs us to participate as one in the divine life of Jesus Christ.” So what happens when the service intentionally disconnects me from those around me, intentionally moving my thoughts away from my neighbor and upwards, toward the stage?
If I can neither see nor hear the people I stand next to and can only watch as the professionals hit the soaring notes, interludes, and rythms of the newest Christians songs, is that true worship? On the other hand, is it supposed to be that kind of worship? It is, without a doubt, this type of performance that invites non-church-goers to venture into a strange place to see what the gospel message might have to offer. It is this high-quality, low commitment experience (similar to a rock concert) that gets the target market through the doors.
So, maybe some of us just need to just suck it up. A worship style that inherently separates us from a dialogical, community-based experience with our God might be worth the price of bringing others to faith. Unfortuantely, that leaves many of us with a parched soul and a longing for something that brings us into an authentic, intimate, corporate time of worship.
But there is a larger challenge with this pervasive approach to Sunday mornings. This kind of service communicates to a whole generation of new believers that corporate worship is nothing more than a free concert where the performers slip in a Christian thought and a little prayer between the second and third song and the passive audience watches as lights and images create the illusion of depth and communion where none actually exist.
Mega church worship is complicated. Trying to coordinate very different goals for very different audiences can result in experiences that leave none completely satsified. However, I believe it is time for mega-churches to re-evaluate the choices they make and the messages they communicate through their “worship” services. True worship is important. As the mega-church evolves, we may need to re-consider how and where worship takes place. We may need to quit equating worship and performance. We may need to find space to turn the smoke machine off and come together to figure out what will move all of us closer to a truly worshipping body of believers.