We may think that by removing the offense and making all of our corporate worship apart from a portion of the sermon as normal as possible we will be able to make the gospel more approachable, more appealing. But we can’t. If we try to, we do not even achieve what we are seeking to achieve. We do not help the unbeliever, because we deny both who we are and who Jesus is.
My first article began with the observation that Satan ambitiously aims to attack the church at the very points that are intended by God for its defence. He seeks to bring the world into the church through its elders, and at the heart of its public worship. Having considered the growing problem of distractedness, in this article I turn to reflect on the desire that Christians can feel to demonstrate to the world that they are normal, and the resultant risk of churches becoming like the world at just the points where they should be different.
Apart from a few eccentrics who like to stand out from the crowd, most people feel a powerful desire to appear to be normal and not too conspicuous. Think back to your days at high school. When I was a teenager in the 1980s there were some who listened to the fringe music that was passed around on bootleg tapes, but most were into mainstream groups like Madonna or U2. There were a few Goths who looked obviously different from the rest, but most of the boys didn’t dress all in black or wear purple make-up. Some burnt joysticks and wore patchouli oil, but most smelt of Denim or Lynx. And of course even the more far-out boys were conforming to the norms of their own group precisely by not conforming to the rest. It is a safe generalization to say that few like to be thought odd, and those who do usually want to be odd in a cool way, rather than simply weird.
In thinking through their witness to the world, Christians rightly ask if they are appearing to be different from their non-Christian friends and neighbours only in the ways that they need to be different. Conscious that we are bound to be different in certain respects, we seek to minimize our difference where it is not essential. We do not want to be different for different’s sake, but for Jesus’s sake. This is a proper concern, because there is a danger that we put people off the gospel by associating it with a weirdness with which it ought not in fact to be associated, and with which it has not been associated by God himself. Where we can, we aspire to some kind of normality. Normality is of course only ever defined by a subgroup of society, but it is a kind of normality nonetheless. Perhaps the world has many definitions of normality, but have them it does.
What does this concern for normality look like when it is applied to public worship? In services it manifests itself in attempts to make visitors, especially non-Christian visitors, feel as comfortable as possible. It is worth pausing to note that it will only ever be a subgroup for whom a service can be made to feel relatively normal, no matter how polished the attempt. Just as there are many normalities, so the church seeking to be normal will only be able to align itself with one such definition. Typically the favoured subgroup is the young: services are far more commonly spoken with the accent of youth than of maturity, a choice reflecting the worldly phenomenon of prioritizing youth culture.