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’d have a great place for roller skating and riding our bikes. He began the project with an old farm tractor that he borrowed, scraping the driveway as level as he could. Then those who were experts in pouring concrete came and set up little wooden barriers, called forms, along the sides of where the driveway would be. Next, the cement truck came and poured the formless mud between those forms. It rolled out and filled the area between the forms and became the shape of what would be our new driveway. Once the concrete hardened, we threw the forms away. But think about it. Did the concrete actually 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 just something about the order of straight edges that is more pleasing to our eyes.
Life would teach me that more things use forms than just concrete, and 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 jackhammers and chisels to change the shape of hardened concrete, and the same can pretty much be said about church forms too, which is not necessarily a bad thing. That this is the way things are is true for every church form, even the formless forms. Yes, some like to think that because they didn’t use a form when they formed their church, 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. Liturgical churches seemed to have been some of the boldest leaders on the pilgrimage into the land of apostasy. Not that liturgical churches are all bad, but rather, their forms were not a safeguard, as it turns out, against the naturally rebellious spirit of Man.
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 doctrine by others, and still more unpleasant things by others yet. He was shocked by the response. My guess is that if a preacher who wears vestments and speaks from an imposing, elevated pulpit removed that 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.
Church1 in the west has an overall shape something like this: We sing some songs as a form of worship, and then we listen to a message. You‘d be hard pressed to find a church that doesn’t fit this basic form. And since the Bible isn’t specific on exactly how it’s done, there’s liberty to do it that way, or to not do it that way I would say. But within this standard form you’ll find a lot of different sub-forms. Some want upbeat songs with lots of instruments while 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 even 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 the act of performing music might be an idol for a musician. Then it’s easy to see how the “worship-band” form can become a performance opportunity for that man. There are a lot of apostate pop-stars who got their start in the performing arts right there on a church stage somewhere. They were worshiping alright. They were worshiping the glory of performing. Or consider the rhetorician want-a-be. Perhaps a preachers’ unique style or his ability to engross his listeners can be an idol to him, or even to his listeners. Then still others may worship an experience. For those, the form must consist of emotional music followed by an emotional “message.” Having our heart-strings pulled might well be more important than “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” for that person. (Col 3:16)
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 until they become idols. 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 also. I would that you simply love God’s Word, and His truth revealed within, no matter what form it’s poured into. The 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. 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, even if it does have the word Jesus somewhere in its lyrics. Guard your hearts. A form is not an indicator of truth, and truth is not determined by forms. If reverence for God and His Word are not present, then that’s a good indicator that things have gone awry, regardless of the supposed beauty or liberty of the form.
It is glaringly apparent that no particular form has thwarted the deluge of apostasy in our day. The only “forms” that have stood the test are 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 be 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.
- We should always remember that Church is much more than a weekly service, but here, the weekly service is all I’m referring to.