Denton Mystery Worship Ten: The Passive Performance, Baptist-Style

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An hour and 10 minute service, including high-sound Christmas music and a high-speed 40 minute sermon, left me a bit overwhelmed when I emerged from early worship at First Baptist Church, Denton this past Sunday morning.

I had been greeted at the door by the friend of a friend, who happily welcomed and escorted me into the large sanctuary. The green carpet, green pew cushions, brick walls and the simple buff colored pillars set off the Christmas decorations. The stage, lined with poinsettias, fronted the choir loft with the baptismal font covered by a sheet of burlap. On either side of the stage sat the musicians, orchestra left, percussion right.

At 9:28, the 50 person choir entered. Dimming theater lights lowered slightly the level of animated conversation filling the sanctuary and drew attention to the two side screens. A video of a young woman offered announcements, and then eyes moved to stage center. A man invited everyone into the morning fun and to fill out the prayer/registration cards.

We stood to greet one another. A couple previously introduced to me shook my hand, and I turned to the person in the pew behind and initiated an handshake.

A children’s choir began to sing and sign, “It’s Christmas.” The children’s voices, supported by choir and voice track, received robust applause by the audience/congregation.

After congregational singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I thought about the words, “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning,” knowing that we are still several weeks from that happy morning actually showing up.  Nonetheless the celebration very much present.

A full performance of “Birthday of a King,” followed by more applause and the congregation singing various Christmas Carols led to the first prayer of the morning. A male worship leader asked God’s blessing on the offering and on the performances to take place at the church the next couple of evenings. As the well-dressed male usher team passed the plates, four men sang “Mary Did You Know?”

Loud applause thanked the quartet and greeted the Rev. Dr. Jeff Williams. This energetic preacher rarely stood behind the lucite lectern as he offered the message, “All I want for Christmas is . . . Patience.”

Starting with a projected photo of a young boy missing his two front teeth, Williams, a trim man in a dark suit and green tie, reminded us of that well-known song “All I want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” then raced into the current Christmas theme of “what do I want, what am I buying, what am I getting?” After reading a parody of the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” Williams said it is time to “put Christ back in Christmas.”

At that point he told everyone to take their Bibles and turn to Luke, Chapter One. No pew Bibles here–people bring their own.

Williams skillfully sketched the 400 years of prophetic silence that had faced the Israelites before the priest named Zechariah entered the temple one fateful day. During his once-in-a lifetime service, Zechariah encountered an angel and heard a prophecy that left him without voice for the next nine months. During those months, Elizabeth, his aged wife – Williams noted as an aside that he did not wish to comment on the sex habits of elderly people! – gestated their one and only child, known later as John the Baptist. Zipping through this story, Williams offered to the congregation lesson after lesson, claiming that even the most godly go through difficult times and that while God will punish our unbelief, He will still use us.

About 25 minutes into the sermon, Pastor Williams segued into his main point, the issue of “patience.” He asked the congregation to score their “patience reaction” to such things as irritations, interruptions, and inconveniences, warning us that one moment of impatience can ruin our lives.

Near the end of the message, and mentioning the name of Jesus for the first time, Williams exhorted us with the admonition that God is patient with us even if we have not yet responded to the gospel. He suggested we ask, “Why have I not yet died?” Perhaps it is because God is still being patient, hoping for response before we face eternity and learn it is too late.

At 10:36, we were led in the second prayer of the day, with the entreaty that those who have not done so to receive the gift of Jesus and then speak with the care team after the service. The prayer over, Pastor Williams looked at the congregation, said simply, “Have a great day” and walked off.

A split second later, apparently on cue, everyone stood and headed out, emptying the full sanctuary within minutes. I stood alone, wondering if anyone would introduce themselves and welcome a guest. Once I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I made my way to the rapidly emptying and refilling parking lot, trying not to get hit by impatient drivers.

[Note: This column is slated to run in the December 12, 2014 edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle]

Additional Thoughts

I admit that at this point in my life as a “mystery worshiper,” that, were my faith not solidly built on years of practicing the spiritual disciplines and careful self-reflection, I would have lost it by now. Successful “worship” is now all about fun, performance and celebrity. The idea of liturgy, the work of the people, is slowing falling by the wayside.

Without a coercive theology or a state sanctioned religion that guilts or forces people into churches, what’s the motivation to go? To follow Jesus? Really? Do you know where Jesus ended up? Who wants to go there?

But if the motivation is to get rich, be entertained, see your friends, to create your own enclosed “Christian” world which will safely keep children and youth busy with choirs and action-oriented youth groups, with the occasional vacationary* trip thrown in to make people think they are holy and service oriented, then church attendance might grow.

Will such places actually help shape mature Christians, form the kind of disciples that will turn the world upside down with grace and acts of charity, portray forgiveness and goodness so profound that the kingdom of heaven becomes visible all around us?

I don’t think so.

Now, I do know that many of the performance churches I have visited do offer clothing and food assistance to the indigent. They make sure that some children get Christmas gifts that might not see them otherwise.  I’m aware that the Texas Baptist Men’s association has a superb track record of sacrificial service, and I don’t want to ignore that or denigrate what they have done.

But . . . worship is the one thing that the church, and the church alone, can do. While we are about the work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, we must not lose our core. We, and we alone, can set aside time to focus on God in some sort of disciplined, coherent way that briefly takes us from our self-focused, survival-oriented lives.

Most people are hurting in some major way, and need to know that there is indeed something beyond themselves, something transcendent, something so full of love and grace that hope can rekindle, something that says, “I will not leave you, even as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

That is what we lose with the performance church. It encourages passivity in our faith lives. Passivity will always fail us when the inevitable trials of life land on our doorsteps or when the opportunities arise for radical movement in the footsteps of Jesus.

*vacationary: a term coined to denote those who do short term missions, but it is primarily tourism and often does much damage to the local economies. Read Robert Lupton’s seminal work, “Toxic Charity” for his take on the hard truth about such activities.

5 thoughts on “Denton Mystery Worship Ten: The Passive Performance, Baptist-Style

  1. Rev Thomas,

    I read your thoughts on FBC Denton, and am in a quandry about how I think.

    First, a little background. For the past twenty years since returning from Military Service in Germany, I have opted for the very large churches. My whole intent when I go to church is to completely tune out life as it exists, and focus on Jesus, what he has in mind for me. I firmly believe each week he wants to provide me a message for the week, and I strive to listen for his teaching.

    I found when I went to smaller churches, there was more emphasis on group activities, Sunday School, and various programs during the week. Additionally, I found that it was a bigger focus on who is “seen” or “missing…” The perception I saw was a bigger emphasis on people vs Jesus and worship.

    With my personal work schedule, my ability to engage in corporate worship is very limited. While I can sit at home and get very focused messages on television with some dynamic evangelists, I cannot get the music and experience from singing and praising Jesus.

    One of the things I like at FBC Denton is it’s non-traditional liturgy. The late service is even more dynamic; I personally would prefer it but family and work obligations do not allow full participation at this time. Let me clarify what I’m trying to say. As a kid, through early adulthood, I attended churches with the family that were very routine oriented. We same hymns, first, second, and last verse from the hymn book in the pews We had visitors stand up, get a ribbon, and then we zoomed in on them to shake hands and invite them back. I’ve been a visitor, and used to like this attention. I know longer want it. If I stumble into a church that treats visitors like this, that is the last time I will be there. Likewise, we had an invitation, traditionally “Just As I Am” with time running from a couple of verses to some itenerant evangelists running for 45 or more minutes. The perception from the pew was that some of these extended invitations were punctuated with “hard sell” for numbers rather than a true concern for comitment. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have personally committed myself to Jesus based on the message/teaching without a need for “going forward” and meeting with a pastor/staff member.

    I very seldom introduce myself in a room, because, in reality, who remembers. I do try to smile, greet, and acknowledge those in my presence. I’m OK with those who do the same to me, and in reality, try to treat individuals in church the way I want to be treated myself. In the large churches I have attended, to include FBC, a church in Colorado, and a church in the Bay Area of California, small group opportunities were available for more personal interaction by members and visitors. I have participated in these opportunities also.

    Don’t get the idea that FBC doesn’t have public invitations and opportunities for personal commitment. It does. It is just not every Sunday. However, there are ALWAYS individuals for personal counseling, prayer, etc. I find for myself that this is more intimate and personal. Allow me to seek someoe out privately.

    At the end of the worship commitment, I will be the first to admit that I don’t stick around looking for people I don’t know in the sanctuary. So, I plead guilty to being one of the ones you cited in the last paragraph “I stood alone, wondering if anyone would introduce themselves to a guest.” When I leave the church, i say very little to anyone. I am focusing on a couple of key nuggets in teaching that I need to incorporate in my life. Patience and tolerance is one. The message, as well as the music hit me right in the soul. I will, however, acknowledge and greet those in my area without introduction.

    Based on your column, I am doing some sould searching, asking myself the following question….should I be less focused on Jesus and more on people. Should I meditate less on the message immediately when leaving, and more on those who I don’t know? Should my personal mediatations be more centered at home, when I need to watch church on television, and my church experience be more people centered? I really don’t know.

    One thing that dumbfound me was your comment “trying not to get hit by impatient drivers.” I am shocked that some church members willfully attempted to hit you. This is something I have never seen. While I traditionally park in the handicapped area since I transport disabled family, almost everyone I see is very cognizant of pedestrians and other drivers. When I drive myself, I always park at the very back of the lot and walk. So, I have seen the lot from the vantage of a pedestrian as well as a driver. I will apologize as a member of the church for the assault you received when leaving the lot. That is not the norm I have seen for the last decade or so.

    So, again, just to let you know, your column is a source of prayer for me. Should I focus less on Jesus and His message and more on his people whom I have not met? I will keep you advised of the answers I am given.


    1. I wish you the best in your search for God’s leading here. It’s a complex issue: do you care for the self or welcome the stranger? One never knows but that you might be welcoming an angel unaware. And, yes, getting to my car was fascinatingly complex–cars took precedence over the one on foot. But again, I was only the stranger, and not important in the larger scheme of things.


  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your visits to different churches. I wonder how the church I attend is perceived by visitors. Your point about worship is spot on. What if our churches took more of the approach of a Buddhist temple?


    1. Great question, Lee. I know the few hours I spent last summer walking around a Buddhist silent retreat center in Northern California were incredibly meaningful to me. I was fully engaged in the silence, in the walking, in the times to stop and think and meditate. Really powerful.


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