Theology of Worship?

A few year’s ago, I attended worship at a hot, new, up-and-coming congregation situated in a strip mall, eschewing anything smacking of “traditional” church (at least in The United Methodist system).  We sang a lot of ‘contemporary’ tunes, saw a ‘post-modern’ dramatic interpretation of scripture (in mime and ‘liturgical’ dance) and heard a very funny ‘message’ that neglected to mention God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.  The only prayer offered during the service instructed us to “Leave here and be the change you want to see,” at the very end, before the band broke into a hard-rock anthem guaranteed to blast people out the doors.  I had a chance to talk with the pastor and worship leader over lunch, and I asked the question, “So, what is your theology of worship?”  The pastor scrunched up his brow and said, “What do you mean by that?”  I explained, “what are the underlying beliefs and motivations about God and the worship of God that shape and inform what you offer as leaders?”  The worship leader chimed in, “We don’t really think that way.  Worship is about giving people a memorable experience.”  The pastor added, “Our theology of worship is engage, inspire, entertain, and excite.”

This is just one example that illustrates a widespread condition in The United Methodist Church — a common lack of understanding of why we worship, not on the part of the congregation, but on the part of our worship leadership.  In 2002, almost 4,000 churches took part in a survey as part of the study resulting in the book, Vital Signs.  In response to the question about “theology of worship,” 31% of respondents (27% of pastors) “did not understand the question; 17% (20% of pastors) articulated an answer that indicated a confused understanding of the question, resulting in approximately 50% who gave an answer that left some question as to their rationale for worship.  Among the answers from those 50%:

  • “to make people feel better about themselves and the world”
  • “to teach people the Bible and how to live their lives”
  • “our worship isn’t really about theology”
  • “to reach new people with the gospel of Jesus Christ”
  • “we give people a quality experience that makes them proud to be Christian”
  • “we focus more on faith than theology”
  •  “get people on their feet, make them excited about God, and make them”
  • “worship is a port in the storm — a safe place away from the world”
  • “a time to figure out what God is all about and what He wants”
  • “it’s like the filling station — people come to get refueled to cope with the week to come”
  • “it’s what churches do on Sunday morning”

This is not meant to be cynical (much), or even overly critical.  Below I will share some of the more solid, thoughtful answers that give hope.  The point I am making here is that “the unexamined church is not worth attending.”  If we lack a clear theology of worship, we lack a solid foundation upon which to build a community of worshiping Christians — and worship is where we make outward and visible the deepest values and expressions of our hearts.

One of the questions we asked worship leaders was, “What are the expectations around which you design worship?”  (What are you hoping a person will experience who worships with you? is another way of putting it.)  In the majority of cases, the expectations focused on the delivery and performance of worship leaders rather than the experience of the worshiper.  The desire of worship leaders  is that people will hear a good sermon, will hear good music, will feel welcome, will feel comfortable, and will want to come back (the top five answers).  It isn’t until we get to the eleventh most popular answer that we find, “experience the presence of God/Holy Spirit.”  The fifteenth most popular answer is “have the opportunity to praise God,” and number seventeen is “a chance to rededicate their life to Christ.”  In the vast majority of the United Methodist Churches in the sample, worship is fundamentally about us, and only secondarily about God.

Many church/worship leaders offer thoughtful and provocative answers to the theology question.  Among them are some seeds for thought, seeking fertile soil in which to take root:

Every week, we want worshipers to experience four things — we want them to have an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to God, we want them to better understand God’s will for the lives of God’s people, and we want to challenge them to make a commitment to God, and we want to give them a chance to make that commitment.

Worship is about God.  We don’t use worship to attract new believers; we create meaningful experiences for those who already believe — to honor and praise God.  We build faith through relationships in non-worship settings, then provide times for those who are growing in their faith to worship in meaningful ways.

Our focus is on the Lord.  We gather to worship the Lord.  It’s not for education and it’s not about missions and programs, and it isn’t social time.  We focus on God.  We can do the other stuff in other settings, but worship time is the Lord’s time.

What makes the sanctuary a ‘holy space?’  We want the people who come into our church to experience the presence of the risen Christ and the power of the living God.  If people don’t experience God, then we’re probably getting in the way.  We try to remove anything and everything that takes anything away from a focus on God.

Everything we do, we do with the hope that it will help people pay attention to God.  Our songs and choir help people sing praises to God.  Our scripture reading is done reflectively and contemplatively, to allow people to think about God.  Our prayer times are open to everyone, and we never hurry them.  Our sermons illuminate the scriptures — they are very interesting and sometimes entertaining, but we never allow the information and delivery to replace the real meaning.  We want people to come here to be with God. 

There are some common elements in the responses of worship leaders who give a lot of serious thought to worship.  Among them are:

  • worship is fundamentally about God, then about our relationship with God, and then about us
  • people need an opportunity to offer thanksgiving, praise, and adoration and that is the main purpose of worship
  • it is important to identify specific things for worshippers to receive,  experience, and act upon (and ways to measure how well these things are happening)
  • worship is not a means to an end (as a tool for evangelism, or missions, or education, or stewardship, or fund raising, or making announcements, etc.), but an end in itself — an integrated experience of the community of faith with and for God
  • worship has a purpose and direction, and doesn’t just happen because “that’s what churches do on Sunday”

I am not advocating a particular theology that all United Methodist congregations should subscribe to.  I am reporting that the congregations experiencing the most vital, vibrant, transformational and meaningful worship (as reported by the worshipers, not the worship leaders) are those where the leaders can articulate a clear, precise, deeply spiritual, and widely shared answer to the question “what are the underlying beliefs and motivations about God and the worship of God that shape and inform what you offer as leaders?” 

The other key learning from our survey of United Methodist churches — one that is rather disturbing to me personally — is that 3-out-of-5 (62%) regular worship participants are perfectly satisfied with a “good show.”  United Methodists especially like “great music,” “entertaining sermons,” “children’s choirs/participation,” “comfortable pews,” “easy parking,” and “beautiful windows,” as important elements of worship, regardless of content, subject matter, or message.  These people — regular participants all — don’t really know whether there is a theology to worship or not.  They have little opinion about the substance of their experience, only an opinion about whether they “liked it” or not.  One of my favorite hobbies on my travels is to briefly interview congregants immediately following a worship service.  I regularly ask people what they liked best about the service they just attended.  (“Music” is far and away the number one answer.  “Seeing friends” is number two.  “Being in church” is number three.  Number four is the “sermon/message.”)  The other question I most frequently ask is, “What did you hear about God, and your relationship to God, during worship this morning?”  One-in-five people give me a clear, thoughtful answer.  About a third offer a simple, “God loves us” type of answer, regardless of whether anything of the sort was said in worship.  Another third will honestly say that they don’t remember.  (Within moments of the end of the service…)  What is most troubling is the growing number of people who think for a moment, look puzzled, then say, “You know?  I don’t remember hearing that much about God in the service.”  Certainly, this is a minority response, but the fact that people say it at all is a challenge to our current status quo.

Let me say again, where church and worship leaders think deeply, clearly and intentionally about the role of worship in the life of the community of faith, it is a much more meaningful and potentially transformative experience than in congregations where it is taken for granted or just performed as a matter of course.  It’s worth thinking about — seriously.

47 replies

  1. I think this is among the most vital info for me.

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  2. Thank you for your post. I have struggled much over the idea that worship just isn’t about us. I believe it’s a struggle we have with many parts of our lives. If we claim to be Christians, then we claim to try to live as Christ lived meaning “life (worship especially) isn’t about me it’s about God.” Thank you for being a presence on my journey.

  3. Without theological reflection, our corporate worship is an exercise in trying to figure out what people want and trying to make it palatable to them. It becomes a consumerist focus. In reality, if worship isn’t focused on Christ, it cannot be Christian. Instead of finely tuned performances, we’ve got to teach people to engage their minds and hearts in responding to God’s revelation to us.

    Thank you for all these good thoughts. Blessings.

  4. I think “worship” services should cause people to think deeply about what Christ has done for us on the cross, how unworthy we are, and cause us to offer our lives to him. The songs we sing is an outpouring of this desire, in exalting him for his mighty act of salvation and his grace extended to us sinners.

    It must never be a case of us watching a worship leader engrossed in his own worship experience and making us feel guilty we are not as hyped up or emotional as he/her.

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