Scripture and the Church

'We Thought It Was Part of a Skit'

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
A disturbing connection between two tragic incidents demonstrates serious problems with much of "worship" today.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

A disturbing connection between two tragic incidents demonstrates the root problem with much of what passes for "worship" today.

On September 15, 1999, during a youth meeting at a Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas, Larry Gene Ashbrook burst into the sanctuary and began shooting, killing seven people before taking his own life. On March 8, 2009, during a Sunday morning service, Terry Sedlacek entered a Baptist church in Maryville, Illinois, walked to the front of the sanctuary, and fatally shot the pastor who was in the middle of delivering his sermon.

A Disturbing Connection

There is a disturbing connection between these two tragic incidents, even though they occurred ten years apart. According to news reports, when the killers started shooting in both churches, many of those present actually thought it was a planned part of the service.

Here is an official Southern Baptist Convention press account of the Fort Worth shooting:

When Glen Bucy first heard gunshots outside the sanctuary of Wedgwood Baptist Church the night of Sept. 15, he thought it was part of a skit...

"I thought they were trying to do something about Columbine to remind us," he explained, referencing the deadly rampage last spring at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Bucy, a 17-year-old high school senior, was sitting near the back of the church sanctuary because he, his brother and a friend had arrived late. After hearing the gunshots in the foyer, he turned to look behind him.

Standing on the other side of a glass door was the gunman, peering into the sanctuary.

I looked at him, and he looked at me. We made eye contact. Then he started shooting right at me, through the glass," Bucy said. "We had glass fly all over us."

Then the gunman opened the shattered door and walked into the sanctuary, where a Christian [rock] band was playing and the lights were dimmed. Bucy grabbed his brother and best friend and pushed them under the pew, telling them to stay still.

As the gunman continued to fire, the band played on, and those in the front of the church did not understand what was transpiring behind them.

"A lot of people started applauding because they thought it was part of this skit," Bucy explained.

The applause angered the gunman, he said. "He started shouting, 'This is for real! This is for real!' "

That's when the gunman threw a pipe bomb, Bucy said, that "shook the whole building."

The band stopped playing, and terror reigned in the sanctuary for an unknown number of minutes as the gunman cursed religion and Christianity and randomly shot his 9 mm semi-automatic handgun around the room.

That's when the applause turned to screams...1

A news account of the Illinois pastor's murder ("Preacher Slay Witnesses Unfazed At First; Congregants Believed Shooting Was Theatrics") is similar:

Theater often punctuated the Rev. Fred Winters' sermons, so parishioners were initially unfazed when a stranger strode down First Baptist Church's main aisle as Winters preached and, with a series of bangs, made the pastor's Bible explode into a raft of confetti.

But as Winters ran from the front of the sprawling red brick church today and collapsed with a fatal gunshot wound to the chest, churchgoers realized they were witnessing something horrifyingly real....

"We thought it was part of a drama skit ... when he shot, what you saw was confetti," parishioner Linda Cunningham, one of about 150 people who attended the early morning service, said of the congregation's initial reaction. "We just sat there waiting for what comes next not realizing that he had wounded the pastor."2

The tragic loss of human life in these two incidents troubles our souls for many reasons. We see once again the devastating effects of the Fall of man on the human heart, on society, and even on the church. We see loved ones suddenly, violently taken from their families. We observe that these two incidents are part of a rising trend of violence against churches in this country. It seems that apart from God's staying hand, no church is safe from invasion anymore. And just as in the case of September 11th, we inevitably ask, "Why, Lord?" But we dare not presume to say why God chose to permit these tragic acts in these particular churches.

A Disturbing Mindset

These incidents are also deeply troubling for another reason: The initial response of people in these congregations speaks volumes - none of it good - about the thinking of many Evangelicals regarding the nature and holiness of God, the authority of the Bible, the purpose of the church, and how sinners are to approach a holy God. People in these churches actually thought that a man coming into the sanctuary and firing a gun could be a planned part of a service where God is to be worshipped. "We thought it was part of a skit."

Such a response would have been unthinkable in past generations of Evangelicals. But today, un-Biblical elements such as drama have become commonplace in many church services where people supposedly gather to worship God and to be instructed in the Christian faith. The purpose of these innovations, we are told, is to make the church attractive to the world. But "doing church" on the world's terms rather than God's made these previously unthinkable reactions to unfolding tragedies not only possible but probable. The line between entertainment and reality has not just been blurred, it has been erased. In Texas, "a lot of people started applauding." In Illinois, "we just sat there waiting for what comes next." The tragedy of entertainment in the church could have not have been more graphically demonstrated.

Radical Departure from the Biblical Standard

The church has largely forgotten that God is not to be approached as man prescribes, but as He prescribes. In the pages of Scripture, God has established a key principle that regulates His worship. It is not optional, and He has established it for our spiritual good.

A regulative principle is a doctrine stating this about a specific area of life or ministry: Only that which God has expressly instituted in Scripture is permitted, and all else is excluded. God has set forth regulative principles not only for worship, but also for other vital matters. For example, in regard to the Jewish legal system (Deuteronomy 4:2), God told Israel to add nothing to it, subtract nothing from it, and observe everything commanded in it. God also established a regulative principle of Scripture (Revelation 22:18-19): We are not to add anything to or subtract anything from the words of Holy Writ.

In matters of authority and worship, God is serious about having the first word, the last word, and the only word.

The essence of the divinely-instituted regulative principle of worship is this: Since God is the One who is being worshipped, our worship must be acceptable to God. Biblical worship is God-centered, not man-centered. God, not man, is the audience. Only that which God has expressly prescribed in Scripture is acceptable, not human invention. Just as important, that which He has not specifically prescribed is excluded.

When we apply the regulative principle of worship in the present dispensation, we must keep in mind that many of the practices of Old Testament worship were types and symbols that were fulfilled and done away with in Christ (e.g., the lamps, the vestments, the altar of incense, and the altars of sacrifice). Passages stating the regulative principle of worship and the elements of proper worship include Exodus 20:4-6, 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:29-32; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 30:6; Matthew 4:9-10, 15:9, 28:18-20; Acts 17:25; Romans 1:25, 13:14; Colossians 2:23; and Revelation 22:18-19. From these passages, we understand that the normal parts of worship for the church under the regulative principle are these:

  • Reading of the Scriptures
  • Preaching of the Word, which is central to worship
  • Singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
  • Administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper
  • Offerings
  • Prayer
  • Special occasions of thanksgiving or repentance

Applying the regulative principle of worship to the New Testament church means that we must exclude such things as incense, priestly vestments, processions, icons, images, use of an altar, and any form of sacrifice from the church's worship. It also means that we must exclude such human inventions as dance, drama, and so-called worship teams, where the focus is on man and his performance, not on God as the only legitimate object of worship.

We also find in Scripture that God repeatedly condemned those who did not worship Him according to His prescription. Early in Israel's tabernacle worship in the wilderness, God killed the priests Nadab and Abihu because they offered "strange (in the original, the force of the word is "profane" or "foreign") fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (Leviticus 10:1-2). God's Word alone determines how sinners may approach Him in worship. We must be serious about proper worship because our holy God is serious about it.

Vital Questions

Lest I be grossly misunderstood or misrepresented, let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that anyone in the churches at Fort Worth or Maryville lost his life because of un-Biblical worship. That would be an indescribably sinful presumption. My point is that Scripture-driven Christians should be heart-sick not only about the tragic loss of life, but also about the mindset behind the incredible first reaction to both tragedies - "We thought it was part of a skit."

What does this say about the state of the Evangelical mind? How do we think God is to be worshipped when His people meet, and by whose authority? Who is the audience in Biblical worship, God or man? What is our source of authority for worship - and for everything else the church is, says, and does? Is it the wisdom of this world, or the Word of God?




1. Mark Wingfield, "Student Thought Gunshots Part of a Columbine Skit," September 17, 1999; Baptist Press, Southern Baptist Convention, as viewed on 3/10/09.

2. "Preacher Slay Witnesses Unfazed At First; Congregants Believed Shooting Was Theatrics," Associated Press, March 9, 2009, as viewed on 3/10/09.


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