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The evangelical golden calf

November 2012 | by Conrad Pomeroy

The evangelical golden calf

In The evangelical Cinderella we considered the downgrade of preaching increasingly to be witnessed at Christian events.

At such events the preacher, if invited at all, is in the shadow of the ‘worship leader’, and music, not preaching, takes centre stage. This is a tragic and dangerous departure from biblical Christianity.
    This downgrading movement is manifesting itself within a growing number of churches. Where once a simple piano and/or organ was sufficient to help the singing, now we seem to need an orchestra or a special team to lead the worship.
    A lot of money is being spent on equipment; space has to be cleared at the front; and sometimes the pulpit is moved to one side in order to make room. The architectural symbolism of all this is hard to miss.

Past lessons

It seems too that biblical lessons from the past have to be learned over again. When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive further revelation from God, the people of Israel grew impatient. Although they had received special revelation from the mouth of God, their carnal nature demanded something visible and tangible to aid them in their worship.
    Aaron went along with the people’s demands and provided them with a golden calf, an altar and a special day of celebration. Aaron took a pragmatic approach: the people were restless; Moses was absent and all-out mutiny was threatening.
    So he gave way to their idolatrous demands as a diversionary tactic, veiling his compromise in religious language, ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord’. The consequence was to break the covenant that had just been made and expose them to the wrath of God!
    The parallel with the church today should not be lost on us. Some of the God’s people have grown impatient with worship in ‘spirit and truth’, that is, worship governed by the Word of God, characterised by reverence and offered in faith.
    They want something more tangible, more pleasing to the flesh and less spiritually demanding. Music is threatening to become a new ‘golden calf’, with ‘altars’ in the form of a stage and equipment, and a proclaimed ‘celebration to the Lord’.
    Tragically, like Aaron, pastors can go along with this carnal spirit, often acting in fear and desperation: ‘If I don’t give the people what they want, they are going to go elsewhere’.
    The temptation to compromise is strong at a time when it can seem as though the power of the Word of God has retreated, like Moses, up a mountain.
    There is a natural and legitimate desire to attract more people to our services of worship, and the easy option seems to be to adopt musical entertainment to draw the people. Of course, we don’t call it the easy option, but justify it by pragmatic arguments.
    We need reminding that the arm of flesh will always fail in the spiritual work of the kingdom of God. We must stand against such short-sighted expedients and remember that syncretism with the world has always been the Achilles heel of the church.

Music’s appeal

Let it be clear, we are not arguing that the use of music in worship is sinful; music is a gift from God and can be a great blessing.
    However, we fear that, in a growing number of churches, music has assumed an importance and role that is dangerously near to idolatry. It is far easier to attract people with music, than by simply preaching the Word of God.
    Music has a ready appeal to the flesh, but only those who are spiritual will be attracted to the ministry of the Word. Our concern is with the priority that music has assumed over the preaching of the Word.
    We also have a concern over the nature of the music being used. This is a difficult subject to discuss objectively; inevitably culture and taste has a part to play, but when the music has a strong beat, swinging rhythm and loud amplification, then the echo of the world’s entertainment is unmistakable.
    Here are issues that ought to deeply concern thinking Christians. Evangelical Christianity is supposed to place the Bible at the heart of everything we believe and practice. Bible-centred churches have always taken the position that we must have New Testament justification for our worship activities. If such a test is applied to this musical trend, it is found wanting.
    The New Testament is surprisingly uninterested in music! Beyond a few references to singing, nothing more is said. In contrast, it seems that almost every page of the New Testament has something to say about preaching the Word of God.
    Without doubt, this is the overwhelming emphasis of New Testament Christianity. It is underlined by the parting words of our Saviour, ‘Go … and preach the gospel to every creature’. The New Testament church was Word-centred, not music-centred, but would an observer of evangelical churches today come to the same conclusion?

Spiritual singing

Furthermore, as we study the New Testament, we discover that the musical element of worship was singing, not instrumental; and singing was congregational, not professional. The Ephesian Christians were encouraged to ‘speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:19).
    The music that pleases God is the human voice lifted up in understanding, worshipping him in and through Christ (1 Corinthians 14:15).
    The use of an instrument may be prudent for giving the tune and keeping the timing, but that is its only justification. The human voice should be the main sound, and the human heart the place where melody arises.
    Surely the practice of giving a microphone to a person at the front, in order to lead (dominate?) the singing, runs contrary to the whole spirit of congregational singing according to the New Testament?
    Have we not all been in meetings where the noise from the front has been grossly amplified, but the sound from the body of a large congregation been shamefully muted? Musical noise should not be mistaken for spiritual vitality.
    It is true that when the church has been most vibrant, it has sung heartily, but this highlights an irony about the current scene: the more emphasis there is on music, the less people seem to sing!
    It’s almost as though we are happy to let the talent of the group up front do the work for us, whilst we are carried along by the ‘musical experience’.
    It is also observable that music is distracting many Christians from the importance of preaching the Word. When young people accustomed to music-centred worship attend a Word-centred church, they often voice appreciation for the preaching, but ‘don’t get on with the worship’ — and then are never seen again at that church.
    In their thinking, ‘worship’ equates to music, and preaching is subservient to it. But surely the preaching of God’s Word is to be the priority in any assessment of a church; and surely it is this, not music, that is the zenith of worship as we hear God speak to us?

Shunning idols

Some churches hold worship services that have an almost schizophrenic character. They are loud, casual and carnal in the music phase, then attempt to become quiet, reverential and spiritual in the preaching phase.
    The first part of the service is such a contradiction to the preaching that the preaching’s effect is undermined. It will only be a matter of time before one or the other aspect will dominate, and, human nature being what it is, it is likely that the flesh will win.
    Finally, we should realise that this emphasis on music in worship comes at a time when our society has made an idol of music. The music industry is huge and has learned how to market its products to gratify every conceivable taste.
    It is surely no coincidence that the church is displaying the same traits. This fact alone should make Christians wary about these developments.
    History shows us that where the world makes an idol, it isn’t long before it is introduced among the people of God. All kinds of arguments are used to justify it, but in the final analysis the choice is between human pragmatism or conformity to the Word of God.
    This issue is not a matter of taste or preference; it is about the Word of God. Do our worship services reflect New Testament priorities or cultural preferences? Is our confidence in Spirit-empowered preaching or carnal techniques?
    Are we holding to the simplicity of Christ or are we being seduced by a glittering new golden calf?
Conrad Pomeroy