This past Sunday, I had two very different worship experiences. The first one was during the two services at Crestwood Christian Church in Lexington, where I serve as senior pastor. The worship took place in our pew-filled, stained-glass-adorned sanctuary and featured: traditional hymns accompanied by piano/organ; a robust and extremely talented choir (in robes); a liturgy featuring a call to worship, invitation to offering, and communion; a sermon that didn’t put too many people to sleep; and a friendly, somewhat subdued atmosphere. We had about 280 in attendance.
The second worship experience was much different. There were thousands in attendance, with millions more watching on TV. The setting was an auditorium, not a sanctuary. I saw Sara Barielles and Carol King playing piano, but most of the music was supplied by drums, guitars, and synthesizers. I didn’t see anyone in robes; instead, the music leaders wore white suits, cowboy hats, or dressed liked robots. There was no offering or communion, but people did come down the aisle to receive awards. LL Cool J’s tribute to Def Jam Records was about the closest thing we had to a sermon. And the atmosphere? About as far away from subdued as you could get.
So what made the Grammys a worship experience? Toward the end of the show, rapper Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performed their song “Same Love,” a surprise-hit manifesto in support of gay rights (which also offers a pointed critique of the church and scripture in relation to this issue). The stage backdrop was neon lights in the shape of church windows. And at the end of the song, Queen Latifah performed a short wedding ceremony for 34 couples in the crowd who had chosen to be married during the show. The couples were gay and straight, young and old, ethnically and racially diverse. Madonna closed the ceremony with her hit, “Open Your Heart.”
Was that moment on the Grammys actually church? My guess is that most people from my Sunday morning experience would offer an emphatic “No!” And, obviously, a lot of what took place on the Grammys Sunday evening was staged for effect. But is it blasphemy for me to say there was something holy about that moment? Yes, I know, it was the Grammys. And yes, I know the minister was Queen Latifah. And yes, I know, Madonna’s outfit made her look like Colonel Sanders. But still, there was something authentic and moving about that moment. It didn’t feel like church as most Christians would define it, but it was REAL.
You may completely disagree with me. You may think the Grammys made a mockery of the institution of marriage. And I can certainly understand where you’re coming from. My ministerial sensibilities got a bit ruffled (they didn’t read I Corinthians 13 during the wedding ceremony!). But here’s the thing: If the church wants to remain relevant in the future, if the church wants to be a hospital for the spiritually hurt rather than a museum for the petrified saints, if the church wants to actually be like Jesus, then we have to figure out how to bridge the gap between what I experienced on Sunday morning and what I experienced on Sunday evening.
This isn’t about musical styles (although I’d love to have Imagine Dragons as a worship band). Can we admit that putting a drum kit up on the chancel doesn’t make us hip with the kids? This isn’t about auditoriums versus sanctuaries. This isn’t about homosexuality or gay marriage. It’s about honesty and authenticity. It’s about being will to admit that our churches are filled with the same kinds of weird, imperfect human beings who were at the Grammys, people who deal with addictions (I’m looking at you, Willie Nelson) and money problems (still looking at you, Willie) and poor dancing skills (OK, now I’m looking at you, Lorde). We in the church have to figure out how to stop acting like we’re “us” and they’re “them” and to recognize that church happens in a lot of other places besides our Sunday-morning gatherings. God can’t be confined to our sanctuary; instead, God’s presence makes any place a sanctuary.
There was a lot about the Grammys that I didn’t like. Some of it even offended me (that’s saying something, coming from a guy who once went to a Naughty by Nature concert – on Easter). But saying that to those who “worshipped” there won’t open the door to any dialogues. The Grammys provided an avenue for the people who watched to experience community and blessing and grace in a whole different way than most of our churches provide. Does the fact that the ceremony took place at the Grammys make it any less authentic? Was God not on the guest list? Or is it possible that God WAS there, offering a blessing in the midst of those 34 couples and the words of Macklemore’s song and the neon stained glass, God speaking a word of healing, a word of hope, a word of love in the language of our culture. Our churches need some kind of spiritual Rosetta Stone so that we can learn that language, too, or else we’re going to end up talking to ourselves while everyone else just points and laughs.
I believe I experienced God on Sunday morning. And I believe I experienced God on Sunday evening. It breaks my heart to think that the Sunday morning worshippers would rather name what’s wrong about the Sunday evening worshippers than look for common ground. And it breaks my heart even more that the Sunday evening worshippers, at a rapidly increasing rate, don’t care.