Advice to Churches, Part 1: Worship

I hear the idea all the time. The reason why churches ramp up the production values of worship to rival a great theatre or concert is because “that’s what young people want.” Laying aside the question if this really is “what young people want,” think about what this statement says about worship. It’s true value is in being a lure, to entice people to enter our doors and be impressed enough they will believe our message. Worship becomes little more than a hook for a sales pitch.

At the same time, worship should not be a sedative. This is the idea I hear from congregations which have been waning for years. These are churches whose memberships are, for the most part, greying. Because of changes in society, the loss of friends and family members through the inevitable attrition of human mortality, and the memory of a more robust past churches like this live in a state of uncertainty and fear. “When people come here they want something familiar,” the explanation goes. “They want something that’s steady, because the world is changing so fast around them.”

The desire to cater both to a thirst for excitement and the calming influence of the familiar share the same basic root. They are based on what people want. I would contend that neither path holds any sort of future. Greying churches will face the inevitable truth there aren’t enough members to keep an institution open, and “young people” churches will face the inevitable reality tastes change. The end of both paths is the same, these institutions with end up with neither membership numbers nor funds to continue functioning. Catering to preference is a dead end.

Now, in our bi-polar culture, a statement like this is often met with resistance. When our own preference is critiqued we then to arrive at the quick assumption the critic’s real intent is to prop up their own preference at our expense 1. When this assumption is applied to worship styles the rejoinders are often, “You just want to force us to do what you’ve always done!” and “Stop telling us we’ve been doing it wrong all these years!” This is a no-win situation 2.

Instead of pursuing preference, then, I encourage churches to pursue a deep theology around the act of worship. Churches need to be asking, “What is it that happens when we gather in worship?” And, as we ponder this question, we should be looking both to Scripture and our wider history to explore how worship has been both communicated and experienced. There is one Biblical and historical concept surrounding worship which I find of particular relevance, worship conveys a mystery – that is, a mystical reality. This theology of worship asserts that the act of worship has an intrinsic value in and of itself, it attaches worshippers to the great acts of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. In fact, a mystical theology of worship asserts a worshipping community is transported into the throne room of Heaven and surrounded by every saint 3 in Heaven and on Earth. In the hymn The Church’s One Foundation this idea is referenced as “…mystic sweet communion, with those whose rest is won.” In worship we become part of the story in a mystical way, so we can be formed into a present extension of Jesus’ great deeds in our wider world. The whole act of worship, every element, is supposed to help transform us into the hands and feet of Christ.

If this is the case then basing our worship decisions on catering to styles is not only a dead end, it misses the very point of the act. Worship should have moments of celebration, and it should make us feel uncomfortable. Worship should fill us with visions of God’s glory, and it should leave us unsettled. Worship should tell the familiar “old old story,” and it should be experienced as something alien. It can use any style at all, because in the end style is of little consequence. But Worship must never be treated as something we have tamed to do our bidding. The realities this act both represents and invites us to experience are far to powerful to be controlled.

  1. Which is why we can never do anything on a societal level about contentious issues. 
  2. I find it interesting the progressive critique of worship, that churches spend far too much time and resources on an event with only serves themselves, suffers from the same “the purpose of worship is to cater to people” error. 
  3. That is, those who have answered God’s call. Not the more formal sense of the word. 

6 thoughts on “Advice to Churches, Part 1: Worship

  1. Wes – I wonder if you had a chance to read my brother Lee Kricher’s book “For a New Generation”? This is exactly the subject he’s tackled. His church is in Pittsburgh, called “Amplify Church”, and his attendance is booming.

    1. It’s on my shelf in the queue!

  2. Excellent write-up, and spot on. It’s what drew me to liturgical traditions. The deep theological significance of the ritual was a thing unto itself. It didn’t require my attendance in order to be real.

  3. Nice, especially your thoughts in the last paragraph. Know what I miss in my Sundays? Silence. Even during communion there is music. I miss the silent times that allow for a whisper.

    1. I adore silence. I used to feel bad that I found it difficult to embrace “prayer circles,” because by the second speaker I just want everyone to stop imposing themselves on me. Then I went to a silent retreat and afterward heard from many of my friends that they found it almost impossible to keep silent, while for me it was “Monday.” I’m just wired different than them, and it’s good to find times where I’m able to follow that call to silence.

    2. Yes… every preference can’t be met in church or anywhere.

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