Whose service is it anyway?
Ads show that many churches have done their “market research” and are offering worship services tailored to the expectations of their target audience (or market share)
by William Smith
When Susan and I were in British Columbia last summer, I followed a newspaper story about a woman who had been denied marriage in a Roman Catholic Church because it came out that she worked for Planned Parenthood.. She and her family were incensed. What right did the church have to deny her the marriage service she wanted? Recently I received a copy of some very extensive funeral instructions given by a dying person to a pastor. Among the instructions was a directive that the minister’s funeral message not have any points and a warning that the deceased person would be upset if he did not comply. Ads show that many churches have done their “market research” and are offering worship services tailored to the expectations of their target audience (or market share).
These and similar experiences led to my asking: Whose service is it anyway?
In my opening comments at wedding rehearsals I almost always describe one way of looking at the wedding service. I say that some think if it as a play, produced by parents, starring the bride, co-starring the groom, with the rest as bit players. The implication is clear that the producers and stars will have a major say in the production. I always then go on to say that this is not the way we look at it. I point out that the wedding is a service of worship in which God is the focus and our goal is to please Him. I say that the couple desire to be married in a Christian service of worship because they both are Christians and desire to be joined in this relationship in the context of worship. I call attention to the fact that, according to our Confession of Faith, the very taking of vows in God’s name is an act of worship. All this in necessary because these things are so little understood.
Most ministers would say that they have experienced more troubles from weddings than funerals. (Thirty years ago I was “dismissed” from the first wedding I was invited to conduct, because I would not agree to the singing of We’ve Only Just Begun by a soloist.) But funerals also can be challenging, especially when the family wishes to have the service in some way honor the deceased person, or in the case when some other service intrudes upon the Christian service. Several years ago I was called on to conduct a Christian service for a man who, while a member in good standing of a church, showed little evidence of knowing Christ. I did the service, but I displeased the family, because I did not say enough nice things about him. It is important for those of us who are ministers regularly to teach Christians that the funeral is a worship service in which, confronted with the last enemy and often overwhelming grief, we come together as a community to worship. This is not time for lengthy tributes, cheesy poems, or sentimental songs, but a time for the most profound truths of the Faith to be held clearly before us from Scripture, the great hymns, and the sensitive proclamation of the Word of God. It is not a time to deny grief but to do our grieving in worship.
But what about the weekly service? Don’t we have to be concerned about the needs of the seekers who will attend? Of course we do, but not by denying that the service is God’s. Our desire is that the unbeliever will find that “the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25). That is guaranteed not to happen when market research drives the form and content of the service so that it meets the felt needs and appeals to the pre-existing interests of the unbeliever. How will it happen? If we are charismatics, we will say it is by the currently active gift of prophecy exercised in the worshiping congregation (I Cor. 14: 23,24). If we are historic Protestants, we will say it is by the church’s worship, the heart of which, according to Reformation principles, is the preaching of the completed, sufficient, and inscripturated Word of God.
Whether the service is an occasional one or the weekly Lord’s Day worship, it is God’s But whose job is it to look out for God’s interests? It is the church’s. It is the church’s responsibility to frame the services and then to offer them to those who seek the church’s ministries. While there is some room for the “personalization” of a wedding or funeral, these should not be occasions of negotiations resembling a summit of the great powers. Nor are they times when the church should be presented with list, written or oral, of lengthy demands. The church has a wedding service to offer to those who wish to be and are qualified to be married in a Christian wedding service. It has a funeral service for those who wish to and are qualified to have their departure from this life marked by Christian worship. So, too, the church has ordinary worship services to which it sincerely invites believers and unbelievers, and where they should expect to receive a warm and affectionate welcome. At the same time the church constructs its service on the pattern that gives to God what He has every right to expect and demand of those who invoke His presence in their service.
Services belong to God. The church’s first responsibility is to make sure He is pleased with what goes on in His service.
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