Why are church meetings often so clumsy?
A Scripture reader turns to the wrong page and stumbles over a long list of Hebrew names he hadn’t prepared to pronounce. The PowerPoint slide gets stuck — again. An unusually enthusiastic congregant with an unusually loud voice holds out the last note of each song longer than everyone else, a brief solo that makes some folks giggle nervously. Others cringe. The bassist starts a hymn in the wrong key, and everyone knows it because the song leader turns to give him “The Look.”
I’ll admit it: these human quirks and errors sometimes exasperate me. I’m here to focus on the Lord! Your awkwardness is distracting me from worship! So mutters my self-righteous heart. Perhaps the real problem isn’t with the clumsiness of others, but with our expectations for corporate worship.
Deprogramming Consumer Intuitions
We live in an age of production. We’ve learned to value and expect polished professionalism from the various interactions that make up our daily lives, from the television shows we watch to our “customer experience” at the local Starbucks.
I call these expectations “consumer intuitions.” They’re not necessarily bad or wrong. But we must beware lest we let these intuitions dictate how we approach church gatherings. We attend church not primarily as consumers to experience a product, but as worshipers to exalt God and edify his people.
The church at Corinth was at risk of overvaluing polished production. Their culture applauded speakers marked by rhetorical flourish and artful presentation. Paul adopted a different approach: “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). No “lofty speech or wisdom” here (1 Corinthians 2:1). Paul rejected the man-centered “wisdom of this age” with its superficial focus on outward presentation, and instead heralded the “secret and hidden wisdom of God”: Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:6–7).
In other words, Paul understood that our hearts are easily drawn astray by outward appearances. What we need is not a distraction-free “experience” that wows us, but an encounter with the truth that transforms us. Slickness in presentation calls our attention to the human messenger. A more modest approach — one that is okay with a little human awkwardness — allows the spotlight to shine on the supernatural message of the gospel.
Christians Are Delightfully Imperfect
Paul also reminds the Corinthians who they are:
Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:26–27)
In worldly terms, these believers had nothing in which to boast. They weren’t “professionals” — and neither are we.
This means that we can expect church services to be a bit unpolished according to the standards of modern media. After all, Paul goes on later in the letter to instruct this young congregation about what they should prioritize in their Lord’s Day gathering:
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26)
Their meeting wasn’t a production, but a sacred opportunity to glorify God through mutual edification. Churches who can afford to do so should pay their preachers (1 Timothy 5:17; Galatians 6:6). But laypeople will facilitate many, if not most, of the activities in your average Protestant service — singing, praying, reading, serving the Supper. Why would we be surprised if volunteers sometimes make an amateur mistake?
In fact, Paul instructs us to show special honor to those members of the body who lack worldly credentials and strength (1 Corinthians 12:22–23). We need one another — including, and even especially, “awkward” believers. (The “awkward” is in quotes, of course, because awkwardness is often in the eye of the beholder anyway.) Rather than feeling exasperated that someone tripped up while leading a prayer or a song, we should rejoice that the church is for imperfect people. This isn’t a show. It’s a family.
What About Excellence?
Of course, I’m not saying that we should aim for mediocrity in our church services, or that pastors should encourage members to serve in areas in which they’re obviously not gifted. My point is not for us to pursue clumsiness, but merely to embrace it when it occurs.
And I’m not against “excellence” per se. It simply depends on what we mean by excellence. Yes, it honors God to serve him with our whole heart. Doing all things for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) means stewarding our God-given gifts as well as we can. It means resisting sloppiness. Church musicians would do well to emulate the Levitical singers who were renowned for being “skillful” (1 Chronicles 25:7).
Pursuing excellence in serving, facilitating, and accompanying the worship of God’s people is one thing. But if by “excellence” we mean professional-level production quality, I fear it reveals that our consumer intuitions have snuck into our churches.
God knows what we really need — not a slick service, free of distraction, led by seemingly perfect people. We need to gather with his family, a community of weak and error-prone people, to be reminded that we are all imperfect. We need to learn to love those who make mistakes and value them because they are in Christ, not because of how well they “perform.”
The only perfect worship service is the one envisioned in Revelation, where God’s redeemed people praise him in the new creation. Until then, God in his wisdom grants clumsy mistakes and awkward moments to occur in our gatherings — precisely because it’s for our good.