It's Time to Discipline Modern Worship Artists

The best false teachers don't contradict God, they circumvent him.

I recently read an article by Jonathan Aigner entitled "It's Time to Boycott Modern Worship." It gave five various reasons for doing so, but it was the last one that caught my eye: being a silently dissatisfied customer won't fix anything.

As Jonathan notes, Christians have a history of using boycotts to make a statement. For many, it's the product of an ethical obligation to not stand by and let their inaction imply consent. And while it's a positive step away from apathy, boycotting is just slacktivism's grumpy uncle--another hero in the first-world, feel-good hall of fame who makes doing nothing sound like doing something.

Boycotts are about as effective as government petitions. Even if you get enough people involved to be noticed by the White House or media, they rarely change anything without identifying an immediate threat.

A modern worship boycott won't work because for most people, including Christians, modern worship is considered harmless. To non-Christians, it's complaining over personal preference and to Christians, it's the symptom of a heart issue (that's Christianese for assuming that someone is sinning without being able to identify how).

Jonathan does point out a number of potentially harmful effects such greed and idolatry, but assigning motives isn't any less dubious than identifying heart issues. The real problem with modern worship emanates from its abuse of art.

In my opinion, the thing that sets art apart from street noise or spilled paint is simply representation. An idea must be housed in an image (aural, visual, etc.). But good art involves transcendence or the ability to elevate the mind above its mundane plane. It opens us up to greater truths and enriches our lives with experiences beyond our own.

Similarly, bad art is misrepresentation. It's the opposite of good art in that it manipulates us with deceptive concepts wrapped in fallible avatars. These aren't merely reality-altering falsehoods like sarcasm; they're immoral perversions stealing from the needy with empty promises. Bad art cheats its consumer.

Modern worship profits off of misrepresenting the Christian life. It is the soundtrack of the prosperity gospel and the fight song of the victorious life. Like them, it lures people in with a cure for the pain. It promises an intimacy with God that's determined by how persistent you are and evidenced by how happy you are. Everything about it depends on selling a false hope and a false joy.

In studying the history of the movement, Kate Bowler recently observed that the prosperity gospel is an evangelical adaptation of New Thought, or the power of positive thinking. Unlike the reality of worshiping a God who causes evil, she says they turned prayer into, "an instrument for getting God to always say 'yes.'" Reflecting on her current state of having stage 4 cancer, she continues:
The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America's addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude.
Hope does not laugh at frailty nor does joy wink at misfortune. They endure. They persevere. They do not expect from God but rather accept his will. They remind God of his promises but they also remind us of our place. We hope in God, not our persistence, and we take joy in his plan, not our ignorance to it.

Evil will happen. We will experience trial and loss, but we must not spit in the face of divine sovereignty by ordering our own steps. God designed our suffering, like that of his son, for a purpose--a purpose we reject if we sing songs glorifying our commitment to our own happiness.

Do we praise him in this storm because he is good or because we don't want to feel bad? If it's the former, then it's curious why we gloss over the storm. In fact, no mention is made in most worship songs about our current trial or the suffering it's caused us. Conversely, many of the psalms sung congregationally go into great detail concerning their complaint. Sometimes they even describe when God made them feel awful (perish the thought).

It's not easy to tell someone we love that we're angry with them. Nor is it easy to dredge up the details of a particularly painful moment in our lives, but that's exactly what David and many of the psalmists did. We, on the other hand, tend to ignore the problem and find something else to make us happy instead of trusting that we will be heard and comforted. Perhaps a memorable tune and pleasing lyric will do the trick.

Without honesty, our worship is just as false as our hope and joy. Like telling a loved one "I'm sorry" without answering "for what?", our relationship with God lacks a trust deep enough to share our doubts and hurt. Furthermore, dishonesty promotes defiance. It hardens our clay and makes us unmoldable before the potter. Though God may be trying to break us, in all our stubborn piety we exclaim in worship:
I'm trading my sorrow (I'm avoiding my sorrow)
I'm trading my shame (I'm avoiding my shame)
I'm laying them down (I'm ignoring what you're trying to teach me)
For the joy of the Lord (Because I want to be happy)
The warped theology and poor discipleship that this represents is not worthy of a boycott. Modern worship artists peddling such a malignant form of spirituality need to be held accountable.

By misleading people into their own presence in Jesus name, worship artists have made themselves out to be teachers deserving not double honor but public rebuke. Indeed, all church leaders tread upon a severe platform that we are warned to seek with caution. If Ananias and Sapphira were judged harshly for cheating the Holy Spirit, how much more so will those who cheat God's church for coin and clout be?

photo credit: Reveal # 11 via photopin (license)