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.
Rob, I couldn’t agree more with your post. It almost seems like something I would write, only better written. I especially like the paragraph that’s 3 up from the conclusion. God calls us to live in relationship with him all the time, and for our entire lives to be worship (Romans 12:1-2). So yes, Sunday morning should be a natural expression of that.
One of the goals of my blog is to show how my faith is integrated into every aspect of my life. I believe God is the author of all creativity, and that which is not sinful can and should be redeemed for his glory.
Well written, bro!
Good points Rob. Someone recently did a good post to this effect on the Catalyst monthly. Our increasing determination to keep the secular out of our worship seems to be matched by the decreasing influence we have on the culture.
As I was asking myself why people seem to respond this way in particular to media (music and movie clips) but not to spoken word (I’ve never heard someone complain because the preacher uses an illustration from the world of sports, for example), it occurred to me that there is a third dimension.
I think we need to include, along with the supposedly sacred and the secular, the “anti-sacred.” That is, there are some cultural products that were originally produced, not for a “neutral” secular purpose, but for an explicitly anti-Christian purpose. For example, Foreigner’s “I want to know what love is” seems to represent a basic human longing. But many of Brittany Spears songs, or Madonna from an earlier generation, or countless other examples, are songs explicitly designed to arouse and/or glorify lustful sensuality. Or think of Billy Joel’s “Only the good die young” which is an argument against chastity. Or the Beatles “Imagine” which is a call to envision a world without God.
I think that even some of these cultural products can be used in worship (at least in preaching and teaching), often as you suggest to illustrate a negative or to set up a problem which the gospel is solving. Pink, for example, is a pretty raunchy performer, but I don’t know that anyone has captured the emotion of addiction and the longing to be set free from it better than her song “Sober”, or the pain of divorce better than “Family Portrait.”
However, these types of media must be used more carefully, just as you suggested, there is a line not to be crossed. But scripture has not left us without guidelines. All those chapters in Corinthians and in Romans dealing with meat sacrificed to idols I think are perfectly applicable.
Paul goes to great lengths to explain that meat itself is neither sacred nor secular, it’s all good if received from God with thanksgiving. Even the act of offering that meat to an idol does not make it bad; you can still eat it because you are fully aware that the idol means nothing, so it does not become false worship for you. However, you must, in the spirit of brotherly love, show consideration for those who are coming out of an idolatrous background; if it makes them “stumble” in their faith because they still think of the idol as real, and eating that meat tempts them to go back to their idol worshiping days, then by all means don’t make meat more important than your brother’s faith.
I think you can substitute the word “music” or the word “media” for “meat” in that whole line of thought. Those who insist that their music must have a “Christian” stamp on it are guilty of failing to recognize that all things in heaven and on earth belong to God, and are to be received from him with thanksgiving. But we must be aware that some music has been explicitly offered to the “idols” of our day. We can still use it in good conscience if our motives are right, but we must be willing to submit not only to our own conscience, but also to the consciences of others that may be weaker than our own. If playing a song would lead someone back down a road of sexual promiscuity, or drug abuse, or rebellion, etc., then it’s not worth it. Better to eat vegetables, though it may be a little bland.
Rob, I would definitely agree. I agree most with the point about sometimes these people have been out of the world. In order to truly connect with others, we have to get in their “world”, not simply expect they will join ours. Some church services only make sense to those who grew up in the church…we cannot lose sight for those outside, who have never been inside.
I hate getting the question, “so, you work in the secular workplace now?” (no longer working for the church). As if my job cannot be sacred because it falls outside the four walls of the sacred church. God calls all we do to be sacred, our jobs and our worship included.
Hi Rob. I think I may remember some of those people saying those things. I however just enjoyed the fun. I hope you are doing well. Thanks for your Ministry.
That’s pretty deep. I thought you just played songs on a guitar with a band. You might really be a “minister.” : )
I remember a lot more of those “compliments,” but I’m still glad we didn’t use “Another One Bites the Dust” on All Saints Day.
If it hadn’t been for the secular elements in CW, I never would have gotten plugged into that service way back in the day. And now there are so many songs on the radio, clips in movie, and even advertisements that make me think of the Lord and how he is integrated fully into every aspect of our lives. Not set apart for one day.
And Shane’s right. We sure dodged a bullet with that one. :-) I just thought we should have done “Easter Goes Broadway!”
So glad you wrote this. Great perspective.
Now, how do you address “Hop on the Bus”? :-)
Hey Rob —
You got me thinking — I think your blog is right on, great insights – I like secular music but I do prefer to hear Christian praise songs at the end of the service, it sticks in my head all day (sadly, many won’t hear these songs again until the next Sunday)…Appreciate your service to the Kingdom! ~pam
Rob, I agree with virtually all of this, and understand where you’re coming from. But I’d disagree that when planting a church in Malawi, we shouldn’t teach them our worship songs. I think it’s fine to do that; we just shouldn’t shove those songs down their throats. I want to learn from them – their indigenous music might influence my own music and writing, and help me to find new ways to express my worship. Likewise, my music may do the same for them. As long as we’re open and it’s a two-way street, I see nothing wrong with cross-cultural sharing, whether it’s between the people of Malawi and us, or across generations in our own church.
Rob, I have always admired, appreciated and benefited from your creative ways to make points in worship services more meaningful… I will never forget the day you opened to CW in the fellowship hall with Bon Jovi’s Livin on a Prayer! What a song….. then came the moment when you said “does anyone know this song…besides you, Julie” or something to that effect. Anyway,the sermon series was on prayer (i believe) and communication with God. If we all truly lived our lives as if communication with our God was not just an option but a neccessity for survival how different our lives and walk with God would be! I am glad for to be livin on a prayer!