Derek Webb - A Modern Day Martin Luther in Worship Ministry

Jun 07, 2003 01:35 PM EDT

Robin: Okay, we've got to talk about your album. Everyone I talk to is talking about it -- even other artists.

Derek: Really? Wow. That's nice to hear. (Laughs.)

Really. I know you didn't exactly have an intentional desire to "go solo," right?

No, no, not at all. I had been with Caedmon's Call for ten years. I was pretty comfortable with my role there, and not ambitious at all about ever doing a solo record or having a solo career. I found myself, just a couple of years ago, realizing the church's need to be hearing the Gospel. To be reminded that the Gospel's only function is not just to bring people down to our churches, but also to function in the life of a believer. I think that once you make that decision, and you come down to the altar, and become saved, that we often move on to bigger, better, deeper spiritual things, and say, "Well, the Gospel has done it's job, and now I'm moving on." When the truth is, we'll never be without our need for the Gospel. In fact, what we don't need is bigger, better, deeper spiritual things; what we need is the Gospel. And if everything is not mainlining us back into the Gospel, then we're wasting our time.

I think it's probably a product of the church playing by the rules of consumerism, and taking its cues more from pop culture than it does from looking at who we are historically and globally as a church. Specifically here in America. Being in a Christian band, being in this industry, seeing some of the effects of that tangibly, I felt like, "What do I want to put my time into, after seeing the church's need for the Gospel?" To know that Christ is sufficient and does meet all our needs. What we don't need is another book mimicking self-help techniques, promising us eight steps to the victorious Christian life. If there's anything that Christ has saved us from, it's our complete inability to live a victorious Christian life! (Laughs.)

Moreover, I don't think there are "eight steps" to effective weight loss, let alone to point us to a victorious Christian life. And even moreover, what we especially don't need in our church is for us to construct yet another new law by which we might please God and by which God might give us what we want. What we need is Jesus. There is one step to the victorious Christian life, and that is faith in Christ. Because He lived the victorious Christian life, and by Him, we do also. So a lot of these books are out in our culture, kind of playing on our consumerism, and I think they'll definitely sell more books, but they're promising things they can never deliver.

We are unfortunately content, as a church, in this country, to pay for things that we already get for free, through Jesus. That is the type of liberation that I really have a burden for, for the church to see and experience.

So what is the church doing right, and what is it doing wrong? What are its strengths and what are its weaknesses?

Well, the church's strength is Jesus. And the church's weakness is everything else. (Laughs.) The church has been established to be the antidote to pop culture, whatever shape or form pop culture might take. That looked as different in the 3rd Century as it did in the 15th Century as it does in the 21st. But the church was designed to be the true counter-culture. It was not designed to be a subculture, which is what we've become. It's almost become a rhetorical question, to ask whether the church looks more like a counter-culture or a subculture. Because we've been pretty content over the years to refer to ourselves as "the Christian subculture."

I agree. That's a term I've used myself, many times.

And I have as well! And I think that's really unfortunate, that we've gone to a point where we admit defeat by saying that we are, indeed, a subculture. Because a subculture is [defined as] one or more microcultures or microorganisms that are derived from another culture. In our case, here in America, we have "pop culture," and we take all of our cues and in every way mimic what they do in order to reach them. Which doesn't make any sense. Because if the marketing doesn't work on them, in the first place, as they consider what soft drink to buy, or what shoes to wear, for us to take those ideas and those marketing plans and simply remove whatever their products are and put our product in -- Jesus -- as though we can market and sell Him, and then try to sell that right back to those very same people, it's like trying to take the sugar out of cola and sell it back to them.

I don't think that's going to work. I think that is a symptom of us, as a church, playing by the rules of modern consumerism. That kind of pragmatism. There is no pragmatism in someone like Jeremiah, who taught repentance for 40 years, with no converts. What would that look like in America? He would get three months into that deal, and then he'd have to have the bigger band, the bigger screens, the brighter lights, the more dynamic pastor, and he'd be removing all of the things that historically remind us that we are peculiar as God's people. The things that are instituted into the church in order to cause us to transcend in a way that's right for us, to remind us that who we are as the Ecclesia -- God's called-out ones -- has more to do with who we are historically, and globally, and those who's shoulders we stand upon, than it has to do with even the country we live in and our skin color and language. We need those moments of sanity when we come to worship, when we gather as God's people.

But I don't know, it's interesting... I just think that popular culture -- its main characteristic being consumerism -- has definitely come in and gotten its claws into us as a church, and we have got to learn to take off the consumer goggles when we enter into our churches. Because those moments are not about us -- neither individually or as a group. They are about -- when we talk about the church, as we gather -- it's never only us, we gather in the midst of all those that have gone before us, and the host of Heaven. It's a bigger story that we're a part of. So if there's ever a moment to set aside our cultural preferences, it is when we come to worship as God's people.

That means me putting aside my own preferences and choices and options of how I want to worship -- musical styles that I like, how I like the preacher to preach, and what traditions I like to see and I don't like to see. I need to not hold my preference so high that I'd be willing to leave over it and go worship at an alternate service where I can get it the way I want it -- which I'm trained by modern culture to believe is healthy -- or even leave my church to go somewhere else where they do it the way I like. I need to stay in there and submit myself to those people and love them more than I love my preferences.

That's the status quo in most churches today -- people get mad and leave their church over anything and everything.

It is the status quo. And our worship should be as diverse as the Body is diverse. We cannot sing all one kind of song. But even more so, we can't cater to the felt needs of our congregations. We can't. Because God has preferences in worship, He always has. And thank the Lord that He doesn't punish so severely as He did early in scripture, for those who might worship Him incorrectly. He has a great amount of grace for His people. He's longsuffering, and praise Him that He is. But having said that, submitting ourselves to Him completely, and His preferences and the way we worship and the way that we do our business at the church, there is a certain amount of preference that can come into play, as far as what kind of songs we're going to sing, and what are we going to do, and the pettiness of our "major minors," so to speak.

My opinion is that in a truly diverse Body, in a true biblical community, it is right for you to not like about every third song that you sing. That's about what it breaks down to. Because while I'm singing a song that I don't like, there's someone else in that room who's nothing like me, who I'm there to be in community with, who does like that song. And that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make to be there in that room with them. And in a few minutes, their third song is going to come up, and it's going to be something that I do like, and they don't. That is part of our submitting to one another in our communities. And it's not happening. Any one demographic should never dictate how we do church. And unfortunately, we have whole church services that are completely tailored for certain demographics.

So rather than do the hard work of the church, we're content to split things up. We say, "Okay, we have our older folks, who like things traditional, the way they've always done it. That's what they're comfortable with. Their comfort, their preference. Then we have our youth and our younger folks, who don't like traditional things, they like contemporary things. That's what makes them comfortable, that's their preference." But neither of those is correct. If we were really submitting to one another as the church, and as we should, biblically, we wouldn't say, "Let's do the easy work. Let's just create two services. We'll have a contemporary service, and a traditional. And all the people that like traditional go here, and all the people that like contemporary go here. And that way, you don't even have to worship together. You don't even have to see those folks that you don't like that like stuff different than you. You don't have to be with them."

Well that's not the job of the church, to separate us out by catering to our preferences, our felt needs. That's not the church's work to do. It's the church's work to figure out ways to engage all the members of the church, from the youth to the college to the singles to the young adults to the married couples to the elderly folks -- all of us, making sacrifices and submitting to one another in such a way that we can all be together in one room worshiping together. That is what the church looks like. It does not look like all one demographic. And that's something that we've got to figure out as a church: What are we doing? What are we exalting above all else? Our comfort and our preferences? Or are we willing in all ways to submit to everyone around us, and make them more important than ourselves, and cast down the idol of our own security? Our culture trains us to be consumers; unfortunately, our churches are training us to be consumers as well.

What about the churches that are doing post-modern services that are meant to bring people into the church -- people that might not ever attend a more formal Sunday morning service?

Sure. Commonly called "seeker-sensitive" services, I think. I think that's a great idea. We should be doing whatever we can to make Christ beautiful and believable to those around us. However, we should not make Him into something other than the offensive Savior that He is. Because the Gospel is offensive. If there are people who are not offended by their own sin and hearing the Gospel, then we're not preaching it correctly to them. If our concern is to make people comfortable so that they might come and respond, if that's our goal, instead of faithfully preaching the Gospel... It all depends on what we're after. Because we can get people in all day long by setting up a culture here in our church that looks exactly like pop culture, where we've removed everything that's dangerous and provocative about it, and replaced it with Christian things. The problem is, the only thing that's compelling about popular culture, is what's dangerous and provocative about it. So you're remove those things, and people are not going to respond.

But as far as the idea of having seeker-sensitive events, I think we should be doing that. I think that is part of our job as the church. Not relying upon our church to do our evangelism for us, by any means, but engaging with the church in such a way that we might draw people in. However, that is not the job of -- when we gather on the Sabbath day as the Ecclesia, when we gather to worship Him, in those moments literally joining transcendently with the saints that have gone on before us and the community of believers throughout all history and across the world, as we do that, that is not the moment for us to try to make those services sensitive to the seekers. For two reasons.

One is, those moments are for the church. Those moments are for us to gather as God's people and worship Him rightly. That is our concern, and it's not wrong of us to say, "These moments are for us." We have to have this. We have to have our sanity restored. This is the only way we can do it, is to come into the presence of Jesus, and to worship Him and submit ourselves to Him and those around us, and submitting to Him by submitting to those around us. We need that, and that's what we're commanded to do.

The second reason is that what we need is what we have. What we possess is what we're looking for. There are those in our culture, even from our pulpits and our Christian bookstores, who are trying to sell us things -- be it a deeper spiritual life, a victorious Christian life, deeper spiritual blessings -- whatever it might be that people are out to set up for us a formula or law by which we might achieve those things, or by which God might be fully pleased with us. When those are all things we possess in Jesus. We don't have to buy the book or follow the formula. We have those things. So what we need, when we gather as the church, is the Gospel. We need Jesus. Again, and again, and again.

Martin Luther was once quoted when a member of his congregation came in and said, "Pastor, why is it week after week you preach to us the Gospel? We've read your books, we know you to be a brilliant man. Why do we never move on? When do we get past this, on to something else?" And he said, "Beloved, because week after week, you forget it. You will never be without your need for the Gospel, so I will never cease to preach it to you."

Having said that, as we gather as a church, hearing the Gospel again and again, those who are not believers will be there in our midst, and will hear the Gospel presented, and in those moments, they will respond, and will be saved. I don't think we have to dress it up a certain way for certain people. I think we should be content to just boldly and faithfully preach it. And like Jeremiah, we should not be concerned if we go 40 years with not one convert. We should be content to know that we are boldly preaching the Gospel, and that is our responsibility. Just say it. Tell people what's true. Give them a great hope. And then the Holy Spirit has a job to do, that is not our job. Because if we draw people in that might not have been drawn in otherwise, what are we drawing them to? We're drawing them to our great big screens and our smoke machines and our big lights and our very dynamic preacher and our accomplished rock band. But if that's all they're being drawn to, why over-complicate the issue? Let's just give people the Gospel. Let's just give people Jesus.

By Robert Parrish