Certainly one of the major trends since 1990 when it comes to ‘having church’ is the invasion of the casual. There are no dress codes, there are no rules about drinks or food or cellphone usage. It’s the come as you are picnic. Of course there are exceptions to this in some churches, but not many in North America whether one is talking Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. Yes the ministers and the priests and the choir and the liturgists dress up in many cases. But not so much the congregation. Open doors, open seating, open mouths, and open choices about dress and the rest. Why exactly has this happened in the church, especially since in the business world in many sectors it certainly has not happened? It for sure hasn’t happened in the army either, or in government in general. When’s the last time you saw a woman in flip flops and a tank top selling wedding rings at Zales or say houses in your neighborhood? You get the point.
So is the ‘done gone casual’ approach to church happened in a desperate attempt to attract the dwindling numbers of people who might consider coming to church? Is that what this is all about, because if so, Rachel Held Evans has put the church on notice that the millenials can see bad P.R. campaigns a mile away. They are media savvy, and being allowed to come to church ‘as they are’ is not in itself a good sales feature any more.
Is this a sort of ‘let’s all be blue collar’ and identify with the poor and working class folk sort of vibe? Well, again, if that’s what it is, it is an insufficient marketing strategy. Skinny jeans doesn’t make a pastor cool any more, much less ‘a man of the people’.
I suspect however two deeper roots to this whole phenomena are under-girding this trend, and they are problematic: 1) the consumer approach to worship. Worship is there for me to get some benefit out of, its not for me to come and give something and be my best self. Those people up on the platform are the producers of worship, and I’m just a consumer, so of course I can come as I am, like when I go to Best Buy and they are all wearing their uniforms but me— not so much. I’m a couch potato for Jesus in the pews, and this doesn’t require anything of me but to show up and consume…. like going to a movie or a concert. But worship is not a spectator sport, it’s meant to be a time when we are caught up in love and wonder and praise of God. All of us. 2) we have lost our sense of the sacred, or if you prefer the sense of the holy. We see God as our buddy or pal, whom we can cozy up to as we are. Boy is this different from what we see in the NT! Take the experience of Zechariah in the Temple in Luke 1. He expects to encounter the holy, and he knows he needs to come prepared. He needs to be clean, he needs to be repentant of his sins, he needs to know the ritual drill. Even then when he encounters the presence of the supernatural he is unprepared— its a close encounter with the Other, not like his encounter with his wife Elizabeth or the crowd outside. He at least understands that when one encounters the holy, one doesn’t want to encounter it like Uzzah did (2 Sam. 6.1-7; 1 Chron. 13.9-12). And yet even so, even with preparation, Zechariah is dumbstruck! Have you had an encounter like that lately with God or his angels? Probably not.
My point is that there are all sorts of bad theologies of worship under-girding current practice, and some of them North American casual culture is especially prone to. Maybe if people believed something special happens in worship, maybe if they saw it as more like one’s wedding day when something dramatic is coming down the pike, maybe if they realized God was summoning them to a real close encounter and it required their full attention not a casual or distracted approach, maybe then more people would want to come to church. What I know for sure is, that when something truly IS happening in worship, such as healing, or prophetic speech or the like, all of a sudden, people start showing up, people who need help, and healing and a fresh word from God.
It has been said ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing of God, for they shall not be disappointed’. I would say ‘Blessed are those who come, presenting themselves as living sacrifices, giving their whole selves to God, for they will not go away the same’.
Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies.
Witherington has also taught at Ashland Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt University, Duke Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell. A popular lecturer, Witherington has presented seminars for churches, colleges and biblical meetings not only in the United States but also in England, Estonia, Russia, Europe, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia. He has also led tours to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.
Witherington has written over forty books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies works by Christianity Today. He also writes for many church and scholarly publications.
Along with many interviews on radio networks across the country, Witherington has been seen on the History Channel, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, The Discovery Channel, A&E, and the PAX Network.