Beware Of Church Forms*++
When I was a child my dad had our driveway paved with concrete. It was an exciting time for us because we would have a place to ride our bicycles and roller skates. He began the project with an old farm tractor, scraping the driveway as level as he could. Then those who were experts in concrete came out and set up little wooden barriers along the sides of where the driveway would be. Next the cement truck came and poured the formless “mud” in between the barriers, which are called forms. It filled the area, flowing out against the forms, and adopted the shape of what would become our new driveway. Once it hardened, we threw the forms away.
But think about it. Did the concrete need the forms to become a useful driveway? Not really. The concrete could have just as easily been poured right out onto the ground and the top smoothed out for a place to drive. But there’s something about the order of the straight edges that is more pleasing to our eyes.
I would learn later in life that more things use forms than just concrete; many more in fact. One of those things is the church. In some ways the church is like wet concrete in that it has liberty. The Bible really doesn’t say that much about how we ought to do church, so in some ways the whole Sunday morning observance is formless. It’s like the cement truck pouring out wet mud for us to do with as appeals to us most. Some like to simply pour the mud out and let it flow wherever. Others like to build elaborate forms that make elaborate shapes. And then there’s everything in between.
But like concrete, the church also hardens. It takes jack hammers and chisels to change the shape of hardened concrete, and pretty much with church forms too, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This is true… well, maybe mostly or somewhat true, for every church form, even the “formless” forms. Yes, some like to think that since they didn’t use a form that they are still malleable. But that’s not true. Just try to put some shape into a hardened pile of concrete and you’ll see what I mean. The formlessness is itself the form. And others like to think that because they have elaborate forms, that their forms make them orthodox, or at least protect them against unorthodoxy. That’s not true either.
I just read of a pastor who surprised his congregation one Sunday by installing a pulpit and wearing a suit and tie. In other words, he tried to change the form of the service a tiny bit. He said that even though his preaching style didn’t change, nor his message or doctrines, he was accused of being a false teacher by some, changing his doctrines by others, and still more unpleasant things by others. He was shocked by the response. My guess is that if a preacher who wears vestments and speaks from a big elevated pulpit removed the pulpit and wore a tee-shirt and skinny jeans one Sunday, the result would be much the same. Why is that? It’s because the forms are important to us as man, and we all need to realize it so that we can actively distinguish between truths and forms.
Western “Church” 1 has an overall shape something like this: We sing some songs as a form of worship, and then we listen to a message. You would be hard pressed to find a church that doesn’t fit this basic form. Since the Bible is not specific on exactly how it’s done, there is liberty to do it this way, or to not I would say. But within that form you will find many different sub-forms. Some want upbeat songs with lots of instruments, and others want more solemn songs, or no instruments, or whatever. Some people want a preacher who gives a little chit chat, and others want a preacher who yells to make his points. So each believer goes to the particular church that suits his particular fancy, and that’s kind of how it all works; and that’s fine I guess. But be on your guard. The mere existence of all of these forms, or the supposed lack of them, can invite deception into your midst and your minds. Here’s how.
As someone once said, the mind of man is a 24/7 idol factory, and church forms are not immune to becoming, in themselves, idols. They, in fact, can become such an idol that the form becomes more important than the content. Consider that performing is an idol for a musician. Then it’s easy to see how the “worship band” form can become a performance opportunity for that man. Many apostate pop-stars in fact got their start right there on the worship team at some church. Or for the rhetorician want-a-be, perhaps the preachers’ unique style, or ability to engross, can be an idol. Then there’s the one who worships an experience. For this man the form must be emotional music with an emotional “message”. That might well be more important than teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs 2 for that person. There really is no shortage of ways to turn forms into idols. Some worship families, others youth, and still others liturgy; all of which are fine to a point. But then again, that’s what makes them a more hideous kind of deception. It’s all so good and righteous… until it’s not.
You ought, therefore, to watch yourselves. I would that you simply love God’s Word, and His truth that is revealed within, no matter what form it’s poured into. Rote singing of doctrinally sound hymns with cold, dead indifference is worse than singing a twenty minute, upbeat ten-word song with great joy and thanksgiving over the truth it conveys. And, in like manner, all the joy, hand clapping, yelling and dancing in the world can’t make up for the singing of a lie to the same kind of music, even if it does have the word “Jesus” somewhere in the lyrics. Guard your hearts. Form is not an indicator of truth, and truth is not confined by forms. Yet, if reverence for God and His Word are not present, then that’s a good indicator that things have gone awry, regardless of the beauty or liberty of the “form”.
It is glaringly apparent that no form has thwarted the deluge of apostasy in our day, but only the hearts of men who have kept God’s Word. Truth always trumps form. Always! So the more you love God and His truth taught in scripture, the less the forms will matter to you.
I pray for you dear children that God would put an unquenchable thirst for Himself, and His truth in your hearts; that you would see past the distractions that are so plentiful, and that God would bless you with discernment. I pray that wisdom would reign in your hearts and minds, and that you would not get swept away by this fad or that, but that you would set your faces toward the mark, eyes fixed on Jesus, and that you would walk the path laid out for you.
1. We should always remember that “Church” is much more than a weekly service, but here, the weekly service is all I’m referring to.
2. Colossians 3:16