Perhaps one of the most comforting and stabilizing verses in all of Scripture is, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” Hebrews 13:8 KJV Every revealed truth concerning Him, every promise that He’s ever made is unchanging. What a pity that the same cannot be said for His churchÃ¢Â?Â¦namely, the organized church. The organized church, i.e. the visible incorporated institutions of worship, has felt the need to grow with the times. Indeed, the mega-churches of today might easily rival huge corporations in their use of technology and in their business structure. Hence the pastor sits as a CEO with his board of elders, and associate pastors serve as vice presidents, supervisors and chairpersons.
Maybe there is no help for this. With membership roles ranging from hundreds to thousands of parishioners, necessarily there must be a high level of organization, accountability and record keeping. One wonders, though, if it has become impossible to retain at least something of the earlier days of the churches. Have we utterly lost the simplicity of worship of years gone byÃ¢Â?Â¦and not so many years, at that? The New Testament offers this injunctive: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Colossians 3:16 KJV Back in the day this meant a worship leader – actually, back in the day they were called devotional leaders – breaking out in a song. Perhaps it was an old hymn of the church which almost everyone knew. Or maybe it was a congregational song; the devotional leader would sing a line and the audience would answer back. Leader: “Put your time in.” Congregation: “Payday is coming, after while.” These were joyous occasions with hand clapping and tambourine playing. Or, the serene sound of the mingled voices singing an ancient hymn; “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I feign would take my standÃ¢Â?Â¦” would fill the atmosphere with the almost palpable Presence of God.
Somehow, something has been lost with the emergence of the technology and methodology of today now widely used in many churches. Years ago, if a visitor or new convert became part of the congregation it could be very likely that that individual may not know the words of a particular song.
This was the familiar scene in many of churches. The new comer listening, head cocked slightly to the side, waiting to hear the next line of the song: “Treat your neighbor right! – Payday is coming after while.” Soon the new comer was busy clapping and rocking, joining in song with the rest of the congregation, having easily picked up the words after a few moments of listening. Now, granted, that old-time hymn took a little more effort. In some churches, perhaps a Southern Baptist Church or Methodist Church, there was the use of those familiar hard covered, musty smelling hymnals. The leader might say, “Alright everyone, turn to hymn number 107 – Beneath the Cross of Jesus1.” Of course, there were never enough hymnals for everyone in the church. There may have been four or five books stored in the racks behind each pew. Depending on the number of people on the pew, one would probably have to look on with his or her neighbor. Instinctively, parishioners drew closer to one another to make it easier for each to see the hymnal page. Sometimes, one member would hold the book while his or her neighbor would look on. Other times both parties would grasp an end of the book simultaneously. Husbands and wives would share a hymnal; youngsters would peer over their parents’ arms at the words and sing alongÃ¢Â?Â¦if they could read. The younger ones – for there were very few kiddie churches in those days, kiddie churches are part of the modern, mega-church world – would stand and listen, singing what few words they could pick up and remember. The choruses were always easier for them to catch. By the time they reached book holding height they would know the entire hymns by heart. Still other churches, the more spontaneous, Pentecostal type would just sing one or two verses of the hymn. It seemed that everyone knew the words, but perhaps, if you didn’t, you were sure to pick them up quickly. Those Pentecostals had a way of singing the same words over and over again; you’d get home and hear those songs in your sleep.
Alas, those days are all but gone. Enter PowerPoint, slideshows and big screen TV. It is Sunday morning at Eastside Mega-Church, USA. The congregation has gathered; it is 11:00 AM. Worship begins. The worship leader, or team, as often as not moves forward to grasp the state-of-the-art microphones from their stands. The music begins for “Here I am to worship.2” Enter next, Robert and Roberta New Convert and George and Georgina Visitor. Neither couple is familiar with the song, but no matter. A large movie screen has just now dropped down from the ceiling above the stage-like pulpit. For a moment the screen is blue, and then the words, “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God. You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.” The congregation begins to sing and Robert and Roberta, George and Georgina look straight forward, heads un-cocked, no waiting, listening only to the melody as they read along with the rest of the congregation. How smooth, easy and effortless. No book sharing, no musty smelling hymnals, no children peering over their parents’ arms. The audio-visual technician presses the arrow key on the laptop computer; the next slide appears on the screen: “I’ll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon the crossÃ¢Â?Â¦” Some of the worshipers raise their hands in worship. Others keep their eyes glued to the screen anxious not to miss any of the words. The gathered masses tend to keep reading the screen, even if they know the words; after all, they’re up there, why not read them?
So then what is the end resultÃ¢Â?Â¦order, organization and harmony. Every one can read the words, nothing is missed, and nothing is lost. Or is there?
For one thing the whole contingent of non-reading adults is left out of this phase of the service. Those who don’t know the words will not know them unless they employ the old method of simply catching on. And what of the embarrassment they may feel standing next to someone singing and they themselves unable to join in? For another, there was something to be said about pew neighbors sharing those hymnals or listening to the song leader lead out in a frame and the congregation singing the answering frame. Parishioners began to feel like part of a big family; if you didn’t know the words you could tap your toe to the beat or meditate in the solemnity of the atmosphere until the lyrics became yours. The real issue however may just be this one: did we really need to automate the service of the living God? We have hired accountants to keep up with the tithes and offerings so that members can have records of their charitable donations; we have portable communion kits so that deacons can serve the bread and the cup to homebound or hospitalized parishioners; but do we have to have screens for the worship? No matter how crude or repetitious, isn’t the heartfelt melody more meaningful than the artful one? For the mega-church perhaps simplicity has been lost forever. The technological trend is no doubt inevitability. The husky, booming voice of the now unemployed devotional leader may never again be heard. He or she has put their time inÃ¢Â?Â¦hopefully, they’ve received their pay.
1 Beneath the Cross of Jesus: Author: Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane; Composers: Frederick Charles Maker and Ira David Sankey
2 Here I Am to Worship – Composer and Lyricist: Tim Hughes