Has The Church Become the Newest Contestant on “American Idolatry”

“If it feels good, do it!”

This catch phrase, introduced in the 1960’s, has become a well established creed in American culture. It now appears that the American church has adopted a similar slogan: “If it makes people feel good, we should use it.” And are we ever!   Today church leaders of every persuasion are trying all kinds of new methods in order to fill the pews. If something we do succeeds in drawing more people into services then it “works” and is therefore good, right, and stamped with the very approval of God Himself.  Because as we all know, God wants people in pews.  Or so the story goes.  But are these new methods approved by God himself?

One of the things we should be clear about…is that God is not confused about how He wants us to relate to him.  He was VERY specific regarding how he was to be worshipped. He gave Israel precise details:  what they were to do and not to do, as well as when and where and how they were to do it.  A casual reading of the Old Testament leaves any reader with a clear picture of God:  He unequivocally knows how He wants to be worshipped and cares enough about it to give us the details.  We were not left alone in darkness to stumble around and figure it out ourselves.  He has told us how to worship Him.

Another clear picture that comes out of the Old Testament is that the people of Israel continually failed to understand how God wanted to be worshipped.  As a result, they regularly fell into idolatry. God demanded that they worship Him alone, but they almost always came up short! God summarized their condition in the following verse:

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jer.2:13 NIV

Notice the two aspects of Israel’s guilt: First, they abandoned and forsook the true and living God. Secondly, they did their own thing and worshipped in their own way. The cisterns are a vivid illustration of Israel’s love for worthless gods. They dug their own, meaning they worshipped other gods of their choosing, and they were broken gods, meaning they were worthless and could do nothing and were no gods at all.

What I find instructive is that the people living in the midst of those days did not think they were doing anything wrong. They didn’t think they had abandoned God. They thought they were faithful worshippers! Interestingly, their biggest crime was that they simply added additional practices to God’s own prescribed temple worship. They continued to go to the temple and worship God there, but they also did the other stuff. Read through the Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and you will discover the people were very religious. Their error? They worshipped God the way they thought they were supposed to but then took things into their own hands, essentially changing worship and doing their own thing.

I try not to be too harsh on the people of Israel. It is easy to look back now and say, “How could they?” but I don’t think it was easy at the time for them to realize what they were doing. People were uneducated, and relied heavily on their leadership for direction and guidance in these matters. Israel’s leaders were often misguided. What kind of leadership did they have in Jeremiah’s day? Here is God’s assessment:

“A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” Jer. 5:30-31

The spiritual leadership of the people proclaimed things as true that were false.  They did their own thing and ruled by their own authority, not Gods.  The amazing thing is the kind of impact this leadership had on the people?       Wait for it,  wait,  wait just a bit longer.  Ok here it is:  The people loved it! Let that sink in for a moment. They LOVED it! They embraced and wholeheartedly followed their leadership down a horribly wrong path.  All the while thinking that the way they were worshipping God was acceptable to him.   Of course, what they “did in the end” was  go into captivity!

Today, we can look down the long lens of history and see that Israel’s practices were clearly idolatrous.  Yet living in the actual moment, they had a harder time seeing this. Recognizing this historical reality should lead us to examine our own worship practices very carefully. Perhaps we are doing the same thing?  Shouldn’t we at least have the moral courage to look at what we call a “worship service” and ask ourselves if we are being faithful to what God wants?  Or do we just accept it because we like it the way it is?  If we won’t examine our practices, we could unintentionally be acting like the spiritual leaders of Jeremiah’s day and doing our own thing.  By doing our own thing, we could be leading God’s people astray.

This is not just a question that church leadership should be asking. Every faithful follower of Jesus Christ should be asking the same questions about their own lives and the congregations they belong to.

If Israel, God’s chosen people, could fall into idolatry over and over again while maintaining the appearance of a temple worship “service”, we should not think that we are immune to it.  I wonder how history will look upon the American Church of our times?  Will it speak well of us?  Or will we look like the people of Jeremiah’s day and be considered American Idolaters?  I don’t know the answer to that question.  My hope and prayer is that we get it right.

I am curious if I am the only one who ever thinks about these things.  Feel free to join the ongoing discussion, especially if you have a different take on things.

I have written about this in other posts like Does God Care How We Worship?, Worship Leader Make-Over:  Defining the Goal of a Worship Leader, Blasphemy! If You Want the Congregation to Worship More, Try Singing Less, and Does God Give Us Freedom To Worship Him Anyway WE Want to?  and many others.  If this topic interests you, give them a read and then subscribe to this blog so you will be notified of new articles as they are posted.

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About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on September 17, 2011, in Christianity, Church Leadership, Contemporary Church Culture, The Christian Life, The Seeker-Sensitive Church Model, Worship and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Well written. I need to temper my disdain to righteous indignation, and not move into a position of judgment against all Christians. It’s one thing to be sidetracked for lack of understanding it’s another thing to knowingly reduce the active work of the Spirit within the church, for preference of ‘pleasing the people’

    I’ll never forget one particular nationally recognized church Pastor who was videotaping an intro to his website. The video started about 2 seconds before his opening spiel…. he looked stern and uncaring, and then when it ‘started’ he launched into full charismatic mode, and was very slick, polished, and full of energy. I ust rolled y eyes and moved on.

    But for as much as Evangelicals have diluted their attitudes, the conservative scripture heavy crowd have also lost their heart as they’ve overwhelmingly moved into judgment-against non christians, AND their brothers in the church, who don’t do as they do. Either movement is out of balance of the Spirit led life. All experience and lacking foundation, or all head knowledge, and lacking spirit sensitivity that it’s His church and we do things His way Either way that is not our model in the church, there CAN be balance.

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  2. it’s also a matter of who wants to be in control? or will we give the control over to the Holy Spirit as He hovers over us; He will either stay or leave: staying when we hunger and thirst for more of God, or leave because we want to do our will/thing.
    very good message.

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  3. “He unequivocally knows how He wants to be worshipped and cares enough about it to give us the details. We were not left alone in darkness to stumble around and figure it out ourselves. He has told us how to worship Him.”

    I could not agree with you more! It is sad to see how the ancient biblically based liturgy has been supplanted in most congregations with worship dancers, banner waving, praise bands, etc. God has given the Church direction in the proper worship of His Son, but it is very hard to find. I confess, that we are blessed in that we attend Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Detroit which is the highest expression of Reformation Evangelical liturgical worship in the LCSM globally.

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  4. The Bible is clear on the order of a service, that things are to be done decently and in order yet the churches that are trying to please everyone seem to forget about those passages. If a non-christian were to walk into some of these services and they had any biblical knowledge at all they might think a golden calf was being worshiped again. Especially if they went to pushing the tithe.
    Along with worship being worshiped, the tithe-an old testament principle, one of the only ones they cling to-is pushed on worshipers every sunday. They don’t want to do any of the commandments, because we are not “under the law” but yet they don’t remember the tithe as being old testament. Or they do and they justify it in some way.
    I am not angry with these people and do not have ill will toward them. We need to pray for the eyes of those who are following along blindly to be opened, and for the eyes for the leadership to be opened to what they are doing.

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    • It is a bit painful when you first realize that the church at large, or at least the one you have been a part of, has gone down the wrong path. I can sense that hurt and frustration in your comments. I’ve been there and know that God brings us through all that!

      I agree with you about the tithing thing. It is a vicious circle. The mega-church concept that the church is currently in love with requires lots of money. One church I visited in Colorado Springs, had a weekly budget of $166,000 and they were begging people to give more. I can remember sitting in the service thinking to myself “You need $166,000 every week to produce this?” It does take loads of cash to pull it off. So tithing has to be a law or principal for the church. Without it, those ministries could not sustain themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is wrong to tithe. I do share your concern with making an OT jewish law, binding upon the gentile world, with no basis for this in the NT. When we were leading The Church Up The Street, we never took offerings. We didn’t even have a church bank account. How is that possible? Check our About Us page and read the article called “Why We Don’t Take Offerings” and find out.

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  5. I think people can worship God in different ways. It depends on your relationship with God, culture, society etc. As long as God is pleased, there is nothing wrong with it.

    Btw, you never mentioned how you think churches are not worshiping God right?

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  6. As you were detailing Israel’s faults:
    They did their own thing and ruled by their own authority, not Gods. The amazing thing is the kind of impact this leadership had on the people? Wait for it, wait, wait just a bit longer. Ok here it is: The people loved it! Let that sink in for a moment. They LOVED it! They embraced and wholeheartedly followed their leadership down a horribly wrong path. All the while thinking that the way they were worshipping God was acceptable to him. Of course, what they “did in the end” was go into captivity!

    The interesting thing is, that although I know your heart is growing more intolerant of evangelicals/pentecostals (some of which for justifiable reasons) by way of years of conversation together, the description above could easily describe Catholics, Presbyterians and other churches who have become just as idoltrous with their religious liturgy, observances & methods of worshipping God that completely inhibit the allowance of the Holy Spirit to be the head of the church.

    Scripture details it very simply, in a childlike manner, Christ will build the church….. unfortunately more and more ‘traditional churches’ are being boarded up and sold off year after year.

    With every single denomination showing declining numbers, almost in double digits with the exception of Modern Evangelicals (reference Barna Institute of Studies on Megathemes affecting the church published 2010) then it could be equally offered that the traditional churches have pushed out the Lord in favor of enforcing their religious dogma on others.

    So, I see idolatry affecting churches equally. The religious types with all the scriptural head knowledge, yet with their mind closed like a steel trap against the moving of the Holy Spirit, shutting down Christ leading the church based on stale doctrines taken out of context to fit their religious walls built up over time are just as much to blame for any idolatry as experience filled evangelicals.pentecostals who want to ‘feel’ God and be moved with a life affirming message that tingles them week after week in a facility that almost resembles a quasi rock concert environment & want to play church but whose lives, and results in no effectual long term change.

    Unfortunately, the overtone of the writing above seeks to point the finger at Evangelicals only… Could that too be bordering on spiritual pride in suggesting ‘we’ve got the solution, do it our way’-which of course every denomination believes they have the right way superior to all others.

    Perhaps thats why I like leading worship in my weekly situation that has Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutheran, Souther Baptist and Holy Rollers in every meeting. We just gather as a body of believers that choose to worship God, not worship our way of worshipping God. I have no doubt that there are godly, good Christians in EVERY denomination, whether that is the hardcore super-reformed orthodox church types, just as there are people in the most Holy Spirit led experiential churches.

    I think it’s a matter of heart-God reads our hearts after all. Why was one offering acceptable, yet the other not in Gods sight with Cain & Abel? They both sacrificed accordingly after all, but God read their hearts.

    Perhaps it was observing so many Pastors families in Australia, but show me a family whose kid/s are walking with the Lord by personal choice once they’ve come of age-regardless of denomination, or doctrinal influences & that is evidence of a real relationship with Christ to the point where kids hunger after the same relationship the parents have. That is simple evidence of fruit behind closed doors.

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  7. Hi Fletch,

    I agree with you that the same thing that plauged Israel, is not limited to them. It can affect anyone and any group and it is easy for that to happen. Israel’s history has humbled me personally. I have been just as guilty of worshipping God in my own way, and doing my own thing, never considering if I could be wrong. If we could put that approach to worship into an equation it would look something like this:

    I enjoy doing x therefore when I am doing x I am worshipping God.

    Rather than this:

    God defines worship as x therefore when I am doing x I am worshipping God.

    My desire for this post was to invite others to think about this topic.

    What happened to your blog?

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  8. While the equation does make perfect sense, using the above rubric nullifies, and condemns Brother Lawrence for example, the carmelite monk in the 16th century, who wrote the Christian standard ‘Practicing the presence of God’ It could be stated using the above formula that he was not just merely deluded, but heretical, as he felt, and encouraged you could be just as connected to God when you’re peeling potatoes, an activity he considered to be equating to the highest form of worship?

    Not seeking to argue, just suggest that I personally feel it is more of a heart attitude as opposed to observances of the law, that we must do x uniformly to equal worship of God, and that failure for all believers to adhere to x nullifies their connection or worship of God.

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    • Hi Fletch,

      We need to talk! What happened to make you close the blog?

      I don’t think we could make that statement about Brother Lawrence. I think he was much closer to understanding worship than the modern church is. We have made it 30 minutes of singing, while he made it a life you live.

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  9. …As for the website, I’m in an Ecclesiastes state of mind. I no longer want to be part of the church machine. I don’t play politics, and when others wish to strong arm you out of the way, let them, Colorado Springs Christianity is such an enterprise, clique & political machine, I now see little value in Church, being part of the church, and being identified as one who resides in the church. I would rather be in the world & surrounded by non-Christians who display more Christ like qualities than many Christians I know..

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  10. I think that entirely too much of our thinking in Christianity is utilitarian. We tend to do “whatever works” and confidently believe that the ends justify the means. But I don’t think that’s what God is necessarily after- I think the process is just as sacred and important as the result.

    Thanks for the post, the American church needs this.

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  11. We are so thankful to be members of a truly Evangelical congregation, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Detroit. Zion is one of the last hold-outs within the LCMS and still follows the historic Reformation liturgy as an expression of our confession. Personally I come from an extreme charismatic background and I have seen and participated in ALL of the foolishness which parades itself as true worship or “new wine” or whatever label is popular at the moment. What a shame to see millions REJECT sound theology and practice for whatever is “new” or “exciting.

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