"And out came this calf…"*

A revolution is happening in church worship according to an analysis of three Detroit area megachurches by David Crumm, religion writer for the Detroit Free Press. Under the headline New Script for Worship: Americans Use Talents, Creativity to Reshape Religion, the article examines “the rising power of self-expression” in worship.  Seems what prompted Luther to nail his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg wasn’t his anger at the Church’s drift from truth and doctrine after all.  Rather it was his “individualistic streak” which is now being patterned more than 500 years later in your local megachurch through a consumer principle known as “crowd sourcing.”

Self-expression is on the rise in the United States and so is participation in religious faith. Are the two related?  I suppose it depends on what you mean by “religious faith.”  Sweden has the highest levels of self-expression and yet one of the lowest levels of “religious faith.”  Why have self-expression and religious faith intersected in the U.S. church? Because the Church Growth Movement, and its expression in the megachurch, has redefined the expectations of Christianity to meet the demands of a consumer culture in the United States. Sweden, evidently, hasn’t figured out how to do that.

The church in modern America also knows something the ancients evidently didn’t: the power of the church isn’t solely in the Holy Spirit’s calling and gifting, at least not in America.  The Holy Spirit needs the assistance of “the freedom of self-expression” characterized by “allowing ordinary people to shape the future of congregations” through their “religious self-expression” and “religious choices.”

Today’s followers of Christ can sit disobediently on the sidelines, feeling no pressure to serve, unless and until the perfect niche opportunity comes along where they can express themselves.  One member of Kensington Community Church in Troy, Michigan testifies that he was a “Chreaster – You know? Just Christmas and Easter…just sitting on the fence waiting for a good opportunity.”  He found that “good opportunity” when KCC started a new church in Clinton Township where he could get plugged in to the electronics ministry.  (Well, at least I think it’s an electronics ministry because he says something about enjoying working with electronic gear.) I’m not suggesting that what the technology people contribute to worship isn’t important. What I’m criticizing is a philosophy that excuses the exercise of your spiritual gifts simply because the slate of available opportunities for service don’t excite your self-expression.

The message is loud and clear: if you can’t serve in ways that reflect who you are and in ways that offer you fulfillment, and in ways that are fun, you are excused from serving until the church finally gets its act together and creates a niche that fits your personality.  After all, the new worship is all about your self-expression. The mandate to “take up your cross” is conditioned on the church you attend having a place for you to express yourself.

In this “new worship” the key to church growth is to get people excited about expressing themselves.  Stop putting people into classes, a pastor featured in the article suggests, teaching them all these beliefs we want them to swallow.  Quit telling people they are expected to serve. Even though the New Testament puts a high priority on “teaching and admonishing one another,” that’s so First Century! The Apostle Paul didn’t have to compete with Cedar Point. Or MTV. Or the local megachurch.

Seems people aren’t excited about that old “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” kind of Christianity, either.  Never mind that it was the founder of Christianity who said all that stuff about self-denial.  When Jesus spoke those words he wasn’t aware of the power of “crowd sourcing.” (Well, he was aware of the power of crowd sourcing in one sense: “Give us Barabas” comes to mind.) Jesus was naive enough to believe that the power of the Holy Spirit would be sufficient to build a church that the gates of Hell could not prevail against, even if the crowds chose the wide gate and the broad way that led away from His Church. 

But when Jesus spoke those words he wasn’t aware of the Internet. Or the electronics ministry. Or the priority of “family time” on Sunday morning versus the command to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” But not to fear; these modern fully devoted followers of Jesus have his back! How could Jesus have known that today’s consumers would find sacrifice and self-denial unpalatable and less than fulfilling? Today’s church leaders are relaxing the rules of the founder in light of recent developments in sociology.

In today’s contemporary church you can be a twice a year church attender, call yourself a follower of Christ, and sit on the sidelines until a “good opportunity” that matches your gift assessment profile comes along.  And when you get to heaven you can say, “Lord, Lord, have we not done many wonderful works in your name.” And you can follow the crowd straight to hell.
The terms self-expression and worship are fundamentally at odds.  Fundamentally at odds in the same way they were fundamentally at odds when Aaron and the Israelites decided they’d express themselves by creating and worshipping a golden calf while Moses was in executive session with God Almighty.  On the return from Sinai, Moses and Joshua could hear the crowd sourcing and the self-expression

They thought an enemy was slaughtering God’s people! It was. And it is.

*Exodus 32:24