I was once accused of bringing worldliness into worship. “Cool!” I thought. Then I realized it wasn’t a compliment.
What the person was talking about, of course, was secular elements in a worship context. And it raises interesting questions about what’s appropriate in worship services, questions that have been wrestled with, I imagine, by anyone wanting to lead a worship service designed for modern people.
So I started out writing a long blog post that few of you would read. At the risk of being misunderstood, I’ve decided to simplify things to a few disjointed bullet points. Discuss amongst yourselves.
-Worldliness, as defined in the Bible, does not mean the same thing as secular. Worldliness is defined as being quarrelsome, greedy, and proud, among other things. Worship services should not encourage these things. Not all secular things are worldly.
-Jesus said we are to be in the world, but not of the world. Most sermons will preach the second part of that statement. But why not the first part? Why is it ignored? Should some of us, perhaps, be more in the world?
-One understanding of the word “holy” is “set apart”. Something is made holy when it is set apart for the work of God. A cup is holy when it is set apart to be used in a communion service. A car is made holy when it is used to deliver meals on wheels. Our very bodies are set apart for the work of God when we become “living sacrifices”. Anything, even something as profane as I, can be used for God’s holy purposes. Even things commonly thought of as “secular”.
-While there is clear Biblical distinction between sacred and sinful, there is not the distinction between sacred and secular.
-Jesus used secular examples all the time. Farming was secular work. There was nothing particularly sacred about it. But Jesus frequently used illustrations from secular work to illustrate the Kingdom of God.
-Speaking of work, one tax collector (Matthew) became a full-time disciple of Jesus. Another remained a tax collector, as far as we know, but was transformed by Jesus. “Today, salvation has come to this house,” Jesus declared. One tax collector quit his secular job; another realized he could follow God and continue in his work. Jesus seems pleased with both of them.
-Paul, in Acts 17, quotes secular poets. In one of the most remarkable passages of scripture I know of, Paul shows a deep understanding of the misguided secular people he was trying to convert. How did he know so much about them? He was in the world. He wandered their city, saw their alters, listened to their music, heard their poets and philosophers. And then he told them, “You got it partly right. Now I’m going to fill in the blanks for you.”
-Some say that knowing the secular culture is fine for evangelistic purposes. Just keep it out of my Christian worship. But consider this: When we go to plant a church in Malawi, one of the worst things we could do is teach them American forms of Christianity. We shouldn’t teach them our worship songs. We would all agree that they should come up with their own indigenous expressions of worship. So why not apply that to our culture, too? I grew up listening to John Cougar Mellencamp. Can my indigenous worship sound like that? I don’t listen to pipe organ music in my car.
-Do churches go too far to be hip and cool to reach people? Some do, sure. I’m not saying lines aren’t crossed. But I think that for a lot of them it isn’t about reaching people as much as it is a simple expression of who they are. Sometimes we only think of a worship service as a way to reach the lost. But shouldn’t worship help people who once were lost worship their God in a way that feels normal to them?
-Reality check, though: For most American churches, their worship service is their main evangelism strategy. Right or wrong, the way we do evangelism is to invite people to church. Knowing this, we’ve got to realize that the focus of worship cannot simply be the Christians worshiping their God.
-True worship is inherently evangelistic. My friends will know this quote of mine, because I’ve said it for years. An unbeliever in the midst of worshipers will naturally wonder what they have that he or she doesn’t. (This is true for Muslim services, too, by the way. Or any faith. Or political rally. Stand in the midst of a people expressing their belief and you’ll always find yourself questioning your own. You’ll likely refine what you believe as a result, either strengthened or weakened. But in Christian worship, I believe the truth of God is on our side, and is powerful and compelling.)
-Does the use of secular elements in worship detract from people experiencing the holy presence of God? It absolutely can. So can listening to a service in Latin. I might miss some of the important stuff if that happens.
-Some want Sunday morning to look radically different from the rest of their lives. They think the use of a movie clip is wrong during church, but it’s fine to go to the movies during the week. Huh? I don’t get it. Our lives and our faith should be fully integrated. I get that they might be talking about how the Sabbath is a special day, but if something’s sinful or immoral, then it’s immoral any day of the week. Faith is not just something we put on for Sunday morning. As I see it, these folks probably have 2 logical choices: 1) Become Amish. Or 2) Find some balance.
-Please understand that sometimes a point can be made from the negative (Homer Simpson trying to trick God during a prayer) or by trying to understand the mindset of people without the hope of Christ (the Foreigner song “I Want To Know What Love Is”). These secular elements when used in a worship context are anything but worldly. They become “set apart”. They are made holy by their use for Kingdom purposes. Just as you and I are.
-The Bible is the foundation of our faith. Just about anything is fair game to help point people to the truth, but our ultimate source of truth is the Bible. If we ever quote the secular poets like Paul does in Acts 17, but fail to then reveal ultimate truth, then we have failed in our mission.
Okay, these are some over-simplified statements, and I reserve the right to come back and clarify or expound. Big picture: Worldliness is not the same as secular. The sacred and secular should and do overlap more than some people think. And secular elements in worship services not only are permissible, but, I think, necessary. What do you think? Feel free to comment below.