Years ago I was challenged by a churchgoer that I have no right to critique another church’s worship unless I have personally attended and witnessed for myself what is happening. I took this challenge and visited the local evangelical church in which thousands from the community were attending. The church adopted the Saddleback model of worship that still is, to this day, the common practice of many churches in the United States.

As I made my way to the worship center, I couldn’t help but to be impressed with what felt like a giant theater. I estimate that a few thousand seats were set up. There were a lot of grey haired baby-boomers. Families in general did not sit together. In fact, I really didn’t see very many families. There was a giant youth center next door where most of the young people gathered while the main service was happening.

I tried to discern a general liturgy or order of worship. This was a challenge. There was a worship team with three ladies, a band, and lead singer. The worship leader read a few verses from a Psalm that I assumed was to be some form of a call to worship. We then spent the first 25 minutes singing praise songs.

The senior pastor then walked forward and welcomed the church and visitors. We had a moment of congregational hugs and greeting. The pastor then encouraged us to applaud God, so we did—everyone clapped for God. We were then shown Video #1 on how men can recover their manhood through outdoor recreational activities. Men were encouraged to sign up for an upcoming retreat to recover their purpose in life. Prayer was offered.

Another Pastor from the church was introduced and he came up to give the message. It was Valentine’s Day weekend, so before we heard the message we were again directed to the screen for Video #2—a Valentine’s Day tribute comedy video. It was in black and white and the people seemed to really enjoy what was evidently a love-comedy.

We then came to the message. The series that day was: “Off-Roading With God: Satisfaction Guaranteed”. The Sermon was titled “Promise Fulfilled.” The First “Off-Roading Observation” explained how God placed his promise in Abraham and Sarah. Didn’t God call Abraham to embrace the promise by faith? The pastor seemed to teach that God dropped the promise into Abraham. I was genuinely confused with what he was saying.

The sermon then rehearsed Abraham’s stumbling along the way, as the next “Off-Roading Observation” called us to live our lives out-loud. As I was trying to figure out what he meant by this, all of the sudden, the lights went out, and the pastor had an imaginary conversation with God. God’s voice came out of the speakers and the pastor, pretending to be Abraham, had a real life imaginary conversation with God.

In the Third “Off-Roading Observation” we were called to see that God is faithful and that we can have astounding faith and confidence to squarely face off against our repeat offenses like Abraham. The pastor felt the need to work in the Valentine’s Day theme, so we then watched Video #3—a love tribute to God. A woman gave her testimony of God’s love. She described how madly in love she is with God, and how she now wants to squeeze out God’s love upon everyone else since she has broken his heart so many times. People seemed generally moved by this.

The pastor then made some general applications to Abraham’s example, that “the key to attitude is focus, and the key to behavior is attitude”. This seemed to be the driving point of the sermon. “When your faith is focused on the treasure in us, wonder and worship will increase exponentially motivating me to change”. “Is this what you want”, we were asked? He then made us all close our eyes, say a version of the sinner’s prayer, and asked if anyone “really” prayed for salvation. Prayer was offered.

The worship leaders and the band then came forward. We sang a traditional song and then a contemporary praise song. Offerings buckets were then passed. As this was happening, pictures were shown of suffering children in Haiti and how the church needs to give more to do great things for God. We were dismissed and thanked for coming. All of this was done in one hour and ten minutes.

While this may be an extreme example for most, what’s important to notice are the common themes are universally shared in many worship services across the United States: a lack of discernible liturgy, the absence of reverence for God, an obliteration of ordained offices as the laity control worship, self-help messages, and music that panders to sentimentalism and is vainly repetitious.

In the next part, I will offer a Biblical critique.

Christopher J Gordon, Escondido, CA