The Wastefulness of Worship

It has been a long time since I’ve written in this space and don’t know how many people would even read this.  This is actually an odd post to start a resumption of my blog

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I must admit that this post is a response to a write up I read by Hugh Halter in Outreach Magazine.  Now admittedly, I don’t know the man and don’t regularly read anything he writes, so I’m not qualified to make any broad assertion about what he thinks and how he interacts theologically with the issues he raises in his post.  With that disclaimer in mind, I found myself responding a bit negatively to what he says. but since I was inspired I thought I’d strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

He says a couple of things to which I agree wholeheartedly:

In other words, worship on Sunday is only going to be as deep as our worship the rest of the week.

I agree with this.  Worship is intended to be a whole life response to God, not just a weekly musical concert with a lot of emotional content.  However, he then continues to assert:

Depth through song, liturgy, spoken word and preaching is only going to be as meaningful as the level of meaning we bring to others around us.

Whoa!  That’s where my caution meter kicked in.  Depth through song, liturgy, spoken word and preaching is only going to be as meaningful as the level of meaning we bring to others around us?

This is, in my opinion, quite an erroneous statement and a misapplication of the biblical admonition to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbour as yourself, which he cites as support for his assertion.

He mentions:

The average church spends well over 75 percent of their time and financial resources keeping the “house of worship” open for business. How can minimize the consumer tendency, justify the expenses or at least find a balance that brings glory to God?

He then goes on to make some quite interesting suggestions geared towards minimizing the consumerism that threatens to creep into the life of the church — something that I believe NEEDS to be combated fiercely.

My problem though is at another level, and again, I’m not attacking the man, his motives, nor really even his good intentions towards the reform of the church.

My issue is that worship is inherently wasteful.

Significant sections of the entire book of Leviticus and Numbers are given over to description of elaborate ceremonies, costly garments, excessively expensive structures that God commanded to be constructed for the sake of his worship.  A huge waste of materials, time and resources.

All of Israel was required to pay tax (tithe) to support a whole tribe of people whose sole job was maintenance of the worship apparatus.  These people literally did nothing but conduct religious services.  How wasteful (and unfair!).

Sacrificial ceremonies required people to travel quite some distance to offer the first and best of their produce and flocks as worship to God.  In a subsistence agricultural context, this is very costly — indeed wasteful.

Israelite boys were required to be cut in their most vulnerable parts a mere eight days after birth without anesthetic, without antibiotics and in a context where infant death was very common.  Also a wasteful act.

Of course these are all Old Testament references, which does not of course invalidate them though many Christian effectively behave as if it does.  Rather we ought to look at the Old through the lens of Christ.

In this light, Mr. Halter’s words seem stunningly familiar.  There was another disciple who decried wasteful indulgence of worship while insisting that the money would be better spent on the poor, or in Halter’s words:

put the same amount of money into serving the poor, equipping people to go out in missional communities or simply giving the money away to smaller church plants that can’t even afford to buy a portable Bose sound system.

Of course Judas was a thief and betrayed Jesus.  I’m not suggesting that Halter is either a thief or a betrayer.  I am merely observing that their suggestions are virtually the same.

Christians shouldn’t be wasteful and extravagant and wasteful in a consumerist fashion, spending only on themselves and their entertainment, and it is far too easy for the apparatus of worship to become that. Agreed.  The larger point though is that everything concerning worship can be considered wasteful or extravagant.

By a drum set? Wasteful.

Pay the musician? Wasteful.

Have a carpeted sanctuary? Wasteful.

It is all waste — depending on your point of view, the money can always be spent on something more ‘worthy’.

God save us from a Judas spirit.

(Cathedral picture from: http://worshipvj.com/church-architecture-worship/)

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  1. #1 by Jeff on April 5, 2013 - 3:07 pm

    I read both your article and the article by Mr Halter and I think you are both saying the same thing, with one exception. You indicate that consumerism may be creeping into the church and he says, or implies), that it is an epidemic. From what I see in all the churches that I have been to, it is not an epidemic, it is pandemic. Greed and consumerism is a subtle, yet rampant, evil that has stolen the focus of the American church in an attempt to remain “relevant”. I can worship without any sound system or I can worship to the sounds of the latest gadgets. In either case, it is the depth of my worship, the intent of my heart, that matters. And for me, the latest in equipment means that I will usually watch the performers who “lead” worship and listen as the audience applauds after each song that is performed. As for what I read in Mr. Halter’s article, it appears that he is simply suggesting that churches set their priorities according to the commandments that Jesus provided. Instead of putting all (or most of), their money into buildings and equipment they should allocate their money wisely. While that may sound like Judas to you, I see bloated churches everywhere that do nothing for their communities except ask people to “come in”. It’s time that the American churches started putting their focus where Jesus commanded: loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, and loving your God. These are all actions as well as acts of worship and faith, and this is the lifestyle that Jesus modeled. Relevance is aligning with the world. Faithfulness is following God.

    • #2 by elderj on April 5, 2013 - 3:22 pm

      Jeff, thanks for stopping by and for your perspective on the issue. I don’t actually disagree too much with the sentiment expressed by Halter, and I agree with you that consumerism is pandemic in the church. For the record I believe that most large churches can do without a great deal of the accouterments that have been built up as part of their ‘programme’ through the years.

      What I am challenging is the presumption that (in your words) putting all or most of their money into buildings and equipment is necessarily a poor allocation or unwise allocation of funds. It very well might be, but then again so might spending money on the poor. Churches, despite their flaws, do a great deal of loving of neighbor, loving of God, and even loving of enemy — but none of this is always so easy to assess based on the size of the worship band and the quality of their equipment.

  2. #3 by Jason on April 8, 2013 - 11:49 pm

    Your skills in the art of simple observation need help. Making the connection between Hugh Halter and Judas is disgusting and wrong. Halter did not say to take the money that we spend on worship and give it to the poor. He said take the SAME amount that we spend on worship and put it “into serving the poor, equipping people to go out in missional communities or simply giving the money away to smaller church plants that can’t even afford to buy a portable Bose sound system.” He’s calling for balance. Even you must have seen that. So for you to say that they are “virtually the same,” I can only conclude that you are either intentionally trying to disparage someone by your comments, grossly ignorant in your logic or both. I ask that you remove your blog and ask the man’s forgiveness for your lack of sensitivity and poor choice of words.

    • #4 by elderj on April 9, 2013 - 6:43 pm

      Jason, thank you for stopping by and commenting. Although your tone is rather impertinent and your demand that I ‘remove (my) blog and ask the man’s forgiveness’ is definitely inappropriate, I nonetheless am grateful for your engagement with the post.

  3. #5 by Lue-Yee Tsang on April 23, 2013 - 4:26 pm

    How then shall we so furnish the Lord’s houses of prayer, as to avoid sanctioning conspicuous consumption? What kind of ornaments would encourage the worshipping laity to remember their giving God and give their goods to the poor?

    • #6 by elderj on April 23, 2013 - 4:40 pm

      good question.. or put another way, how do we push against the overreaction of early protestantism against the excesses of the high medieval catholic church, which is the father of this same iconclasm

  4. #7 by Steven Records @ Church Marketing on June 23, 2013 - 1:56 am

    The heart of worship is all about sacrifice and giving back to God. For a long time I didn’t “get it” but I understand now how a great worship set magnifies God, because we bring our best before His throne. People flock to see the sistine chapel because it is magnificent. I believe our praise should mimic that of the sistine chapel. For our worship to be so big and magnificent before God, that the lost cannot help but come from the corners of the earth just to discover this great God that we worship with such passion.

    • #8 by Lue-Yee Tsang on June 23, 2013 - 5:41 am

      I do appreciate Allegri and Monteverdi, but there is something immediately arresting about unaccompanied Gaelic psalmody too.

  5. #9 by G.O. @ James River Leadership College on October 8, 2013 - 2:36 pm

    Great thought provoking article! The essence of worship is sacrifice. It can be very easy to ration our resources else where, however the women who broke a jar of precious ointment over Jesus before His burial could have been “better spent” else where. Is it stewardship or greed that keeps up from investing in the things that truly matter most?

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