Has The Church Become the Newest Contestant on “American Idolatry”
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.
Posted on September 17, 2011, in Christianity, Church Leadership, Contemporary Church Culture, The Christian Life, The Seeker-Sensitive Church Model, Worship and tagged christianity, early church history, faith, leadership, Not For itching Ears, Purpose Driven, religion, seeker-sensitive, spirituality, Worship Leading. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.