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Turning worship into a clown show

Saddleback Church has even deeper problems than female pastors

Congregants arrive at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., on Oct. 16, 2022. Associated Press/Photo by Allison Dinner

Turning worship into a clown show

The recent parting of ways between the Southern Baptist Convention and Saddleback Church focused on the status of women with regard to pastoral leadership and ministry, but a recent video clip of the Southern California church’s senior pastors, Andy and Stacie Wood, suggests that the problem is much deeper than the presenting issue. Leading worship while dressed as characters from the Toy Story franchise suggests theological problems that go way beyond debates about the nature of Paul’s teaching on eldership.

At the heart of the Saddleback project is the idea of seeker sensitivity, of making the church a relaxed and comfortable place for outsiders. The underlying motivation is no doubt a good one. We do not want churches to be unfriendly and unpleasant places. If God is a hospitable God, one who loves the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, then the people who bear His name today, as in the days of the desert wanderings, should be so too. And yet there are a number of very real dangers here, of which the short video clip is emblematic.

First, we live in a childish age, where immaturity is lionized, whether it be the spoilt-brat behavior of some celebrity or the cheap tantrums of Joe Public on Twitter. True, Jesus commands His disciples to have the faith of children, but there is a big difference between serious childlikeness and silly childishness. Leading worship as a pair of giggling cartoon characters can only be described—and that with charity—as the latter.

Second, the church is not called to mimic the world. Far from it. There is only one description in the New Testament of how an outsider should react when he blunders by accident into a church service. It is in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25. Paul tells us that such a person will be convicted and fall on his face, knowing that God is there. Presumably, this is because he finds himself in the presence of a holy God and is overwhelmed by his own sense of unworthiness. Turning worship into a comedy skit seems unlikely to produce the same result. In fact, far from being sensitive to the needs of any seeker, it sends a clear signal that the gospel is unworthy of attention by any serious-minded person, believer or unbeliever.

Such trivialization of worship rests ultimately upon a trivialization of God Himself.

Flowing from this second point is the third, and most serious issue. Such trivialization of worship rests ultimately upon a trivialization of God Himself. It is a function of the same culture where sports stars refer to the Lord as “the big man upstairs,” as if God was just one of their drinking buddies, and where Republican members of Congress joke about foregoing sex with their fiancé in order to make it to a prayer meeting on time.

It is, in other words, just one more example of a world that does not take the holiness and transcendence of God seriously. The only people likely to be falling on their faces in such a worship service are those Christians who take God seriously and cannot believe that adults who claim to be leading God’s people into His holy presence would behave that way.

Women in ministry was the focal point of the SBC controversy this year, but this inane childishness parading as church seems to indicate that there are problems much deeper than that of who leads worship. It raises the fundamental question of whether some pastors even understand what the nature of worship is and why the church exists. When worship is turned into a clown show with a religious patina, Christianity and Christians are infantilized and God is mocked.

Our God, our New Testament God, is a consuming fire and to be approached with awe and reverence, as the book of Hebrews teaches. And those incapable of acting in accordance with that have no place in the pastoral ministry. And the SBC is certainly not poorer for their departure.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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