Evangelical Worship Is Too Cheerful, Neglects Sin, Theologian Says

MIAMI BEACH – Worship services in evangelical churches do not mention sin, a major part of the Gospel message, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, said Monday at the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Faith Angle Forum.

"In very many evangelical and confessionally Reformed churches these days, sin is a rare topic," he said.

He came to this conclusion from his experience of speaking in different churches most Sundays for the past 30 years, talking to evangelical friends, observing the content of worship music used by evangelical churches, and reading the books and articles of Dr. David Wells, distinguished senior research professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Plantinga explained to the conference of journalists.

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Anglicans, Catholics and Lutherans continue to include confession or a rite of penitence as a regular part of their worship services, he noted. But in evangelical and Reformed churches, he sees "less and less" sin-related material every year.

Over 158,000 churches in North America get the music for their worship services from Christian Copyright Licensing International, Plantinga explained. CCLI provides a valuable service to churches by streamlining the process of obtaining licenses for their worship music. Churches can pay a single fee and obtain all the licenses from CCLI's library.

Looking at the content of CCLI songs, Plantinga observed that there are "very few penitential songs." The "biblical tradition of lament, which is all through the prophets and the Psalms is gone, just not there," he said.

One of the reasons Plantinga believes evangelical worship leaves out sin is a desire to be "seeker friendly" and avoid topics that may turn off non-Christians or new Christians.

"Mindful that seekers come to church in American no-fault culture in which tolerance is a big virtue and intolerance a big vice, worship finders in evangelical churches often want nothing in the service that sounds judgmental," he said. And for that reason "lots of evangelical churches these days are unrelievedly cheerful."

Quoting Wells, Plantinga argued that leaving sin out of worship is consistent with the theology of many evangelical churches in which "God is on easy terms with modernity" and mostly concerned with "church growth and psychological wholeness."

The Apostle Paul would not feel welcome in many evangelical churches today, he added. "Where is [Paul's] easy smile? Why does he want to discipline people? Why is he so doggone dogmatic? Where are the stories in his sermons? And where does he get off implying that the woman singing special music in church should not do so while also lying on top of the church piano?"

During the panel's question and answer period, Plantinga clarified that he is not only talking about non-denominational congregations but the "old confessional Protestant forms" as well, such as the Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America, and United Presbyterian Church.

This was not always the case with evangelical churches, Plantinga explained. "They used to be champions of the holiness of God, of contrition for sins against God's holiness, and therefore grace that justifies sinners," but "a lot of that has dissipated."

When churches leave the topic of sin out of worship, they are not relevant to the lives of their congregants, Plantinga believes, because people encounter sin and sin's consequences daily.

"Ceasingly cheerful worship does not fit with the lives of people who come to worship," he said. "... Churches that silence the biblical message of sin and grace simply aren't anywhere near where people actually live their lives, including people in their own congregations."

The theme of sin is more often found in movies and TV, Plantinga added, as Hollywood screenwriters display a consciousness of sin and evil through the stories they tell.

"Screenwriters are old fashioned people," he said. "They don't go to church so they have never learned that personal guilt for wrongdoing has become passé."

Twice a year, a select group of about 20 journalists are invited to EPPC's Faith Angle Forum for discussions with experts on topics related to the intersection of religion and public life. Other panels at this week's Forum included discussions about Pope Francis and the culture wars. Transcripts and audio of the panels will be made available on EPPC's website.

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