In Romans 3, Paul makes abundantly clear that unconverted people do not seek after God. Thomas Aquinas understood this and maintained that to the naked eye it may seem that unbelievers are searching for God or seeking for the kingdom of God, while they are in fact fleeing from God with all of their might.
The adage tells us that there is a destination, the road to which is paved with good intentions. It is the destination that we would prefer not to reach. Good intentions can have disastrous results and consequences. When we look at the revolution of worship in America today, I see a dangerous road that is built with such intentions. The good purposes that have transformed worship in America have as their goal to reach a lost world — a world that is marked by baby boomers and Generation Xers who have in many ways rejected traditional forms and styles of worship. Many have found the life of the church to be irrelevant and boring, and so an effort to meet the needs of these people has driven some radical changes in how we worship God.
Perhaps the most evident model developed over the last half century is that model defined as the “seeker-sensitive model.” Seekers are defined as those people who are unbelievers and are outside of the church but who are searching for meaning and significance to their lives. The good intention of reaching such people with evangelistic techniques that include the reshaping of Sunday morning worship fails to understand some significant truths set forth in Scripture.
In Romans 3, Paul makes abundantly clear that unconverted people do not seek after God. Thomas Aquinas understood this and maintained that to the naked eye it may seem that unbelievers are searching for God or seeking for the kingdom of God, while they are in fact fleeing from God with all of their might. What Aquinas observed was that people who are unconverted seek the “benefits” that only God can give them, such as ultimate meaning and purpose in their lives, relief from guilt, the presence of joy and happiness, and things of this nature. These are benefits the Christian recognizes can only come through a vital, saving relationship with Christ. The gratuitous leap of logic comes when church leaders think that because people are searching for benefits only God can give them, they must therefore be searching after God. No, they want the benefits without the Giver of the benefits. And so structuring worship to accommodate unbelievers is misguided because these unbelievers are not seeking after God. Seeking after God begins at conversion, and if we are to structure our worship with a view to seekers, then we must structure it for believers, since only believers are seekers.
When we look at the early church, we see that the Christians of the first century gathered on the Lord’s day, devoting themselves to the study of the apostles’ doctrine, to fellowship, to prayer, and to the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). This was not an assembly of unbelievers. It was an assembling together of believers. Of course, as our Lord warned, there are always present among believers people who have made false professions of faith. There are always the tares that grow alongside of the wheat (Matt. 13:36–43). But one does not structure the church to meet the felt needs and desires of the tares. The purpose of corporate assembly, which has its roots in the Old Testament, is for the people of God to come together corporately to offer their sacrifices of praise and worship to God. So the first rule of worship is that it be designed for believers to worship God in a way that pleases God.
The Old Testament has manifold examples of His severe displeasure that was provoked when the people decided to structure worship according to what they wanted rather than to that which God commanded. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of that is found in Leviticus 10, in the narrative account of the sudden execution of the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for their attempts at offering strange fire upon the altar. These young priests “experimented” in a manner that was displeasing to God, and God’s response that He spoke to Aaron through Moses was this: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev. 10:3). Corporate worship is not the place to celebrate the profane or the secular. It may be more attractive to Generation Xers to turn Sunday morning worship into an imitation of Starbucks, but it hardly can be thought to be pleasing to God.
Another erroneous assumption made in the attempt to restructure the nature of worship is that the modern generation has been so changed by cultural and contextual influences — such as the impact of the electronic age upon their lives — that they are no longer susceptible to traditional attempts of being reached by expository preaching. Early in the twentieth century, the liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick pointed out that people were no longer interested in coming to church to hear what some apostle or prophet wrote a couple thousand years ago. Such words and messages were completely irrelevant according to Fosdick, and so the focus of preaching has moved in many cases away from an exposition of the Word of God. We assume this alteration is necessary if we’re to reach the people who have been trapped within the changes of our current culture. The erroneous assumption is that in the last fifty years, the constituent nature of humanity has changed, as if the heart can no longer be reached via the mind. It also assumes that the power of the Word of God has lost its potency, so that we must look elsewhere if we are to find powerful and moving experiences of worship in our church. Though the intentions may be marvelous, the results, I believe, are and will continue to be catastrophic.
R. C. Sproul is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, the founder of Ligonier Ministries and currently serves as pastor of the independent St. Andrews Church in Sanford, Florida. This article appeared on the Ligonier website and is used with permission.