We spend a lot of time thinking about how our culture has affected Christian worship, and we often reflect on what sorts of things we need to address in order to even begin to think about leaving a better church for our kids and grandkids. It’s usually not pretty.
Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a few lasting effects from the now-moribund emergent church movement. But even before that, we had seen the evangelical church (broadly reckoned), taking cues from the wildly successful charismatics, who had long since begun to take cues from the world around them. Not every church and not every leader pursues these forms equally aggressively; and not every church or leader is even aware that he is doing so. But how pervasive is worldliness in the church, whether intentionally pursued or not? Click around a bit and see for yourself. Patterning worship space after theaters has been a thing since the middle of the 19th century, but patterning worship spaces after civic centers hosting rock shows is now a thing. Cultivating, intentionally, an image that evokes frat boys or hipsters (or Bono), even in the pulpit, is now a thing. And worship that would be more-or-less indistinguishable from a secular concert to someone who didn’t know the language (or was deaf) is now a thing. Even swearing from the pulpit is now a thing. It’s authentic.
All of these embody values, or, to use another word, loves. All of these point, like moral lodestones, to the magnetic north of the affections. Furthermore, all of these imply an underlying set of theological assumptions: if this is your worship, you believe that God a) demands it of you; or b) is as pleased with it as I am; or c) is at least tolerant of it.
But what if you are wrong about God? What if, as Psalm 115:8 concludes, you have not heard the voice of God directing you to do these things, but in fact, have become just like your idols? Would you necessarily be aware of it? Could you be so deceived and not know it? What if it had become completely natural to you, and all of your friends were doing it as well? And what if the idolatry of your day, in contrast with that of Isaiah’s or the Psalmist’s, was not embodied in little statues?1
David Wells describes the situation in his 1998 book, Losing our Virtue:
Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to the idolatry of the self. This is a form of corruption far more profound than the list of infractions that typically pop into our minds when we hear the word “sin.” We are trying to hold at bay the gnats of small sins while swallowing the camel of self. It is idolatry as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament.2
“But I don’t feel like an idolator! And I’m not passing my children through the fire to Molech! And those aren’t idols, they’re Precious Moments figurines, and that’s different!” Wells anticipates and answers this objection:
That this devotion to the self seems not to be like that older devotion to a pagan god blinds the Church to its own unfaithfulness. The end result, however, is no less devastating, because the self is no less demanding. It is as powerful an organizing center as any god or goddess on the market. The contemporary Church is whoring after this god as assiduously as the Israelites in their darker days. It is baptizing as faith the pride that leads us to think much about ourselves and much of ourselves.3
We might, with some warrant, trace at least some of the scourge of outright worldliness in contemporary churches to their attempt to uncritically borrow the fun parts of charismatic liturgy without paying attention to the theology that underlies it. I think Wells helps us to see the real problem behind the problem: we (yes, we) can love ourselves and think we’re loving God.
1 For a very academic treatment of this idea, see G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008). No kidding, Beale is a tough read; but he very helpfully shows from Scripture that a prominent root of idolatry is narcissistic self love.
2 David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 203.
3 Ibid., 204.