A number of years ago, I read about a Broadway theater critic who avoided contact with playwrights and actors. He did not have meetings with them, he did not go to dinners with them, and he did not call them for friendly conversations. He felt that if he did any of these things, he would not be able to objectively critique their work. A few years after that, I heard of a group of churches that hired non-Christians to visit their churches and report on their experiences during the worship services. It must be said that the appreciation for this type of evaluation was mixed. There were some great comments on friendliness, the way that the buildings looked, and the flexibility and the movement of various parts of the service, but there was very little description of the worship because the visitors did not have any experience with worship services.
During the two Sundays that I was abroad, I visited 5 churches with different sizes and contexts. One was in the capital city of Bucharest, another was in an industrial center, two were in the same region as the largest Baptist church in Europe, and another church was at a university. I preached in three of them and I sat in the congregation at the other two churches.
When I sit at the front of the church, I am constantly analyzing what is happening around me. Are the greeters and the people in the congregation friendly? Are they participants or passively sitting through the service? Are they singing with enthusiasm? Do they have their own Bibles or does the church provide Bibles in the pews? Are things projected on a screen and what colors and artwork are they using if they do? From time to time when I preach, I pick 2-4 people in the congregation to see how they respond to my sermon. I try to pick people based on age – a kid, a young person, and two adults.
On the second Sunday, I attended a church where I did not know anyone. Many of my friends suggested that this was the place to worship when I was in this particular town. I arrived early and found a place where I wanted to sit in the middle of the sanctuary. The church meets in a youth center that is equipped with the latest technology – lights, screens, and a worship team of twelve singers with an equal number of instrumentalists. The service lasted about one hundred minutes.
Since most worship music is written in English, my personal criticism quickly started over imprecise translation. As someone who loves old, traditional, rhyming poetry, my soul is jarred by poor hymnodic poetry/lyrics which become worse when they are translated. I react with some neutrality when the worship ambiance is created by dimming and raising the auditorium lights. I am striving hard to increase my repertoire of contemporary music, but I am always startled when people on the praise team draw attention to themselves. This is, of course, the same problem that all of us preachers have: how do we preach the message of God without drawing attention to the messenger?
As we approached the preaching time, it hit me that I was not ready to hear the sermon. I had become the critic and I enjoyed being one, but I had not worshipped at all. My heart was not prepared to hear what God had to say to me that morning. When the preacher came up and complimented the group on their great music that brought us into the presence of God, in my mind I wondered what music he was talking about. I did not worship that morning; instead, I was a critic of the entire worship service. I listened as attentively as I could to the sermon and I did receive a blessing from it. At the end of the service, one of my friends came and introduced me to the pastor. We hope to continue our relationship when I go there again next year.
Since it was an early service, I left that church and went to a second service at another church. I decided to be a worshipper and it was a completely different experience. Even though I did not know some of the worship songs, I was less critical of the structure. I wanted to worship, I wanted to connect with God, and I wanted to enjoy being with my brothers and sisters as we shared in the Lord’s Table.
That morning I praised God for my critical gifts, but I also praised the Lord for inviting me to be one of His followers and worship Him in spirit and in truth regardless of where I am.