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How Charles Finney Ruined Worship Part 3: Worship and Church Growth

In this final post on the subject, I will explain how the changes introduced into Sunday worship by Charles Finney will ultimately damage both worship and evangelism in many American churches.

By 1850, Charles Finney had fully incorporated his three-stage revival structure into the Sunday worship of the First Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio. His "new measures" for revivals were already widely known through his writings. Most American churches had no set structure or liturgy for Sunday worship. Merging Sunday night revivals into Sunday morning worship was an idea whose time had come.

The Age of Revivals

Unlike Europe in this era, churches in America competed on a level field, with none favored and none proscribed. The freedom to change, innovate, adapt, and experiment was limited only by success or failure. As Nathan Hatch (The Democratization of American Christianity) has explained, this climate produced an explosion of new methods and movements unknown in Europe. Adapting the traditional "Service of the Word" (see earlier post) into the three stages of Preliminaries into Sermon into Harvest had undeniable appeal.  

The Revival Industry
By the early twentieth century, the only Christianity many experienced was revivalistic Christianity. Hundreds upon hundreds of revivals, especially in the summer months, crisscrossed America's cities and towns. They were just as regular and widespread in the isolated churches of the Appalachian ridge or the rural south. Many of these meetings were grand city-wide crusades, employing celebrity preachers like Billy Sunday, Gypsy Smith, Aimee Semple McPherson, and R. A. Torrey. These were supported by many different churches and organizations. A far greater number, however, were operated by local churches, often tightly limited within denominational boundaries.

To support these, music publishing companies poured out hundreds of newly compiled camp-meeting songbooks with page after page of recently written revival songs. From Blessed Assurance to the newly composed Old Rugged Cross, these were some of America's most popular songs for parlor pianos and music boxes.  It is no wonder the older hymns of praise that had long dominated Sunday worship gave way to the bright gospel songs of Philip Bliss and Fanny Crosby. By the end of World War Two, in thousands of conservative Protestant churches, the only real difference between a revival meeting and Sunday worship was when they occurred.

Revival Thinking
It cannot be a surprise, then, that fundamental assumptions about worship also changed. The reason is obvious. Finney's structure and methods for revival meetings were designed to produce decisions, what he called "the Harvest." That's the whole point. By incorporating revival music, revival sermons, and, above all, the revival practice of the invitation time into the structure of Sunday worship, people are naturally going to absorb revival thinking. Sunday morning's most important purpose must be decisions for Christ.

"How many decisions did you have on Sunday?" is a question every evangelical understands today that no one would have understood in 1830.

How Does this Prostitute Worship?

I realize prostitute is a strong word. Perhaps it is too strong. Because, I'm not suggesting what has happened to Sunday worship is all bad. I enjoy Sunday worship and, as an interim pastor in a small town church, I work within its traditional worship structure. Ministry demands we love the church we have and take the time to learn her story. As Eugene Peterson suggests in Practice Resurrection, ministers need to be careful because the church we want can be the enemy of the church we have.

A Bible-believing Shibboleth 
But, at a fundamental level, Finney's methods mean that people understand and design Sunday worship with Finney's assumptions. After decades of revivalistic Sunday worship, people accept as gospel – pardon the pun – the most important single thing that can happen on a Sunday morning is for someone to come forward and be saved. To criticize this is to potentially forfeit your membership card in the Bible-believing Christian club.

The commitment of conservatives to evangelistic worship was intensified by the polarizing divisions over liberalism in the twentieth century.  Liberal Christians were the ones practicing what was labeled the Social Gospel, while Conservative Christians believed in good old fashioned soul-winning. You knew which were the Bible-believing churches in town because they were the ones with gospel preaching and invitation hymns. Revival style worship became the shibboleth of orthodoxy. And why not? Evangelism is commanded. Congregational growth is surely a good thing. So, using worship for the purpose of evangelism was more than simply effective. It was biblical.

You Cannot Serve Two Masters
There are some problems with this. One of these, of course, is the realization that Finney's approach was new. From apostolic times to Finney at Oberlin, the simple fact is Christian worship did not have a decision time after the sermon. No one went to church on Sunday to "go forward." This fact means, whatever they were doing in the process of evangelism, it didn't include using a Sunday worship invitation. The scripture and teaching portion of worship might, indeed, have people present in the process of learning of about Christianity (thus it was sometimes called the Service of the Catechumens).  But, there was no invitation time and the unbaptized were not permitted to participate  in (and perhaps not even be present at) the climactic Service of the Table.

Many biblically-informed Christians assure me that when they lead or gather for worship, the main purpose is glorifying God. Certainly, the lyrics of our popular praise songs seem to back up this assertion. This is what we design the service to do. This is what it sounds like we are doing. Many times this is what we tell ourselves we are doing. But, take a long hard look at Sunday morning. There are some questions we need to ask.

Ultimately, Sunday worship cannot serve two equal goals, any more than we can equally serve two masters. If it is designed primarily to draw and reach unchurched people, then its primary target cannot be the already-churched people. If it is designed primarily for worship, then it's primary goal cannot be church growth. Evangelism or worship. Biblically and historically, gathering for worship and going out for evangelism were two very different things.

Go with the Flow 
So, if you aren't sure where the "this is the main point" was last Sunday, then follow through on this simple experiment: Just ask yourself, "Where did Sunday worship this past week seem to flow?" Another way to say it is, "Where did the service seem to reach it's climactic moment?"

You can usually tell where that moment-of-purpose fell in the service by a simple observation.  On most Sundays, everything in the service after this will feel a little like an epilogue or appendix.  It's like everything starts winding down after that. Look around this coming Sunday. When do you first see a few people quietly start preparing to leave? When you see that, just back up a few moments. Whatever was happening then, that's usually where the high-point of that service was.  Like the climax of a movie, the high point of Sunday worship doesn't work early in the service. It does not need to be the last thing. But, if it is too far back in the service, there's that feeling the service reaches its high point and then begins to drag on and on and on.

So, whatever was happening just before things started to wind down is the first place to look for primary purpose. So, the question then is, was that a moment primarily about insiders' worship or outsiders' decisions. For many years, in the great majority of churches, that great moment was always the invitation time after the sermon and before the benediction. In the 1990s, when some churches eventually announced they would intentionally design Sunday mornings for seekers, there was both insight and clarity: What many had long structured as the primary purpose of Sunday worship, Willow Creek openly and intentionally made their sole purpose.

This mindset, whether acknowledged openly or not, redefines worship without necessarily changing its forms. What sounds like it is all about worship is arranged and planned to also accomplish something else. That something else is tremendously important. Reaching unchurched people – does anyone still call them lost? – is a command our King has given us.  But, it was not the reason the church gathered as church for the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. In order to accomplish something good, we find ourselves hijacking something even better. The second greatest commandment supplanting the first great commandment in the priorities of the church.

Playing Charades
The greatest single danger of Finney's methods is that they work so well. They do what they were designed to do. Finney did his homework. People are drawn by excitement, moved by music, and touched by an engaging practical sermon. Get the flow right and the sermon moving, especially at the end, and people respond. Maybe not every week. But, by and large, it is the effectiveness of Finney's approach to Sunday worship that makes it too attractive to abandon. We use Sunday morning in the great cause of evangelism. And therein, as the Bard would say, lies the rub.

A man who openly showers his wife with hugs and kisses and gifts certainly looks like an example of a loving husband. A next door neighbor who has taken his own wife for granted and whose marriage is doing downhill might even see all this romance and be inspired to change. Maybe watching his wife-loving neighbor saves this guy's marriage. That would be a good thing. After all, who would not want to help a friend's marriage?

But, what if the romantic husband planned and carried out his lovey-dovey actions with his neighbor's needs as a central thing in his head? What if when a romantic time is done, the most important question was whether or not the neighbor was moved to change his unromantic ways? It's a noble goal to help a friend's marriage.

But, to hold a woman's hand, gaze into her eyes and tell her how much you love her in order to, at least in part, help your neighbor improve his marriage is bizarre. Planning and carrying out words and acts of love in order to accomplish something other than what those acts suggest is a charade. It does not matter if he really loves his wife. What matters is what prompts his choice of what he gives her, when he gives it, and what words he uses. Is it for just for her or was it to help his neighbor?

Game Changers

The Word
Reframing Sunday worship as a means of church growth, as Finney's model inevitably points, makes subtle changes to many things done in worship. Everything before the sermon will serve the function of preliminaries. Music will be used primarily to move the congregation from where they start to where they need to be before the sermon. Long scripture readings will have long since been jettisoned. Even if it were what the church needed to hear, it is certainly not what visitors want to hear. Unless you're careful, allowing a variety of long passages might include unpleasant references to death or pestilence or the threats of an angry God. Not what you want to have read aloud if you have a lot of visitors that Sunday.

The Table
For some groups, such as the Christian Churches or Churches of Christ of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the practice of weekly Communion poses a special dilemma. For most American Protestants, adopting revivalistic worship was simply a matter of adjusting what had always been the Service of the Word portion of Christian worship. Communion had no place in Finney's three-stage model for worship.

Christian Churches will respond to this in two approaches: Communion will be placed before the sermon or it will come after the invitation near the end of the service. This places the Eucharist as either part of the preliminaries (often with music continuing right over top of it) or it hangs on as a kind of slightly awkward appendix: We're just about done with worship, just hang on for one more thing.  And, so what had been done weekly becomes simply done weakly.

By the twenty-first century, some church-growth committed congregations rooted in the Stone-Campbell Movement will simply acknowledge the Lord's Supper gets in the way of service flow and isn't of much interest to visitors, anyway. Communion will simply be dropped from worship altogether. One can appreciate the clarity and brutal pragmatism of the approach.

Maybe the most surprising result of Finney's model in worship is how dramatically it has undermined evangelism. The very thing it appears to promote it ultimately ruins. What people used to call witnessing has now been politely redefined as inviting people to visit our church. "Do you have a church home?" has replaced "Are you saved?" or "Have you committed your life to Christ?" Evangelism has become what the church does by building attractive buildings and hiring the most talented speakers and musicians and then inviting people to come visit on Sunday.

One undeniable evidence of this is the language people use when describing what might be called their conversion experience. In centuries past, conversion might be described by saying, "My life was without God and without hope until, in faith, I found salvation in Jesus." Now it is far more common to hear, "My life with lonely and hopeless until I found this wonderful and loving church." It is no wonder we speak of church growth and the unchurched instead of evangelism and the lost. The entire locus of conversion has shifted under the weight of Finney's revivalistic Sunday gatherings.

One amazing result is how rapidly and how large churches with the right kind of Sunday gathering can grow. Growth driven by enthusiasm for church needs no catechism or doctrinal education. It can be extraordinarily fast. In communities with a broad evangelical base, any church that manages to foster a great Sunday morning experience along with lots of friendly welcoming people is going to grow at rates and to sizes churches years ago could not even imagine. People who move from that city to another will look for a church with a similar worship service. The name of the church or its doctrines, within reason, are not that important.

Competition for top talent for the two central performers of Sunday worship drives aggressive searches and salaries for these positions ever upward. Instead of the sheep stealing of the 1800s (we are no longer those narrow old Pharisees), we have replaced it with pastor stealing and worship pastor stealing. "Have you met our worship pastor?" one Christian Church elder proudly told me. "We stole him from Second Baptist in Dallas. Doubled his salary."  We have come to accept such boasts without shock or shame.

No one can question the effectiveness of Finney's model.  Like I noted in the opening of this post, there is much good in this.  Lives are changed.  In several instances, churches long working within a strongly pragmatic framework have found themselves questioning their own measures of success.  By and large, however, the appeals of rapid growth and ministry success continue to mute most questions and draw church leadership onward in the quest of bigger and better.

In a generation or two, I cannot help but wonder whether or not we will have demonstrated it is possible to be getting bigger and be disappearing at exactly the same time.

Don't Know if We're Coming or Going

Once there was a King who told His church to go out into the world. Instead, they decided it would be better to just invite the world to come to church.  That was pretty much the same thing.

And Jesus wept. John 11:35


Joshua Hoover said...

Great series. Sad, but informative. The impact of Finney is pretty amazing and I would guess that most don't know his name, let alone his legacy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this series. I was familiar with some of it from reading the chapter on "Frontier Worship" in James F. White's book "Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition". After discussing Finney, White is blunt on page 177, "Pragmatism has triumphed over biblicism," but didn't go into a much detail or layout precisely the effect on both worship and evangelism. Of course White was a Catholic looking from the outside in (as it were) and he was writing a survey with chapters on everyone from the Anglicans to the Quakers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for so succienctly explaining yet another way in which evangelicalism is a cancerous perversion of Chrsitianity.


David Kneip said...

Thanks for the post! One clarification to eliskimo: White was actually a faithful Methodist. He did teach liturgy at Notre Dame (among other places), and he seems to have been more of a "high-church Methodist," but he wasn't Catholic. FWIW.

Unknown said...

Who ruined the model of worship that King David instituted? What was it's climax? Where did he get his ideas, and is his model the pure and holy model? If we brought it back what would it look like, and how would it incorporate Christ, or how did Christ make it so that David's model could be restored? Or is all that a type idol (model) worship instead of what interaction with God looked like in the Garden of Eden? Afterall, the end of Revelation is the restoration of the Garden of Eden. Can we have that model now?

Will said...

Great writing. Thorough analysis. Thank you for this service to me.