Great (and Not So Great) Expectations in Worship

Among my greatest disappointments, not being able to follow-through on the UM Worship Patterns project is near the top.  I have not engaged in a more interesting — and potentially helpful — project in all my time in research.  This article is a companion to Theology of Worship? and Preacher Feature and wraps up the trilogy of summaries from this brief study.

um church serviceThe central question at the heart of this work is: “What do people expect to happen in worship?”  We looked at the question from both the worship leader’s perspective as well as the person in the pew.  It touches on other significant question’s such as , “Why do we offer worship?” “Why do people come to worship?” and “What effect does worship have on people’s lives and faith development?”  Over 5,500 people participated in this project from 2000-2008 — 5,419 laity and 227 clergy from all five US jurisdictions, and representing accurate demographics across race, age, and gender.  (Note: efforts were made to reflect the social demographics of the United States, not the demographics of The United Methodist Church.  This means ours sample is younger, less female, and much more racially diverse than the average United Methodist congregation, but more accurately resembles “the real world.”)

Why People Come to Worship?

For the vast majority of United Methodists, worship is both a personal and private affair.  Though some come to church to see friends, during the worship hour 88% of worshippers are seeking something for themselves.  What they seek falls into three broad categories:

  1. comfort and encouragement
  2. guidance (and sometimes, challenge)
  3. knowledge (about God and about God’s will)

In all these cases, worship is about receiving more than giving.  Different respondents explain how worship is like “a port in the storm,” “a filling station,” “a time for rest and recovery,” “a place to better understand God,” “a safe space (sanctuary) in a crazy world,” and “time to shut out the world.”  Virtually no one in the sample, pastors included, frame their experience of worship as a “giving” experience rather than a “receiving experience.”  This tends to be both a Western and a modern conceit of worshippers.  Interestingly, there is very little difference between ages, genders, and races in this “giving/receiving” dynamic of worship.

Focus of Worship

Five very distinct foci emerge when you ask questions about the object and subject of the worship experience.  They can be described as:

  1. for us, but about God — we focus on God in worship, but the real beneficiaries are the worshippers.  We use God talk, but it really is all about us, and if worship doesn’t serve our needs and fill our hungers, we won’t bother with it or we’ll look elsewhere until we find it. (48%)
  2. for God, but about us — we focus on the human condition, the world, contemporary issues, our failings, hopes, and dreams all seeking to become God’s people and to better understand God’s will (16%)
  3. for us, about us — we focus on being good people in a complex and demanding world, using a heavy amount of self-help language, but not using a lot of “God/Jesus/Spirit” language.  Generally aimed at younger audiences, though younger audiences tend not to find these experiences that appealing. (9%)
  4. for God, about God — we focus on God and don’t clutter up the worship experience with a lot of extraneous activity (announcements, mission minutes, funding appeals, videos, performances, etc.)  Tends to be highly interactive (liturgical), simple, and grounded in prayer and scripture. (4%)
  5. worship as routine — focus and purpose is vague.  We offer worship because that is what churches do on Sunday mornings.  The elements of worship are present, but there is little clarity as to why we’re doing what we’re doing.  (23%)

worshipIt is somewhat alarming that almost 1-in-4 United Methodist congregations lack any real clarity about the purpose and objectives of worship.  The centrality of God to worship is only high for only 1-in-5 (20%) of United Methodists.  In post-worship interviews with worshippers, only 17% (1-in-6) can remember what was specifically said about God/Christ/God’s Spirit  in the worship service they just attended (this interview occurs within 10 minutes of the conclusion of worship), even when allowed to refer to their bulletin.  When the subject of the message is about popular culture, a personal story or instruction for the worshipper, the percentage of recall jumps to 57%.

Most important to United Methodists is the comfort of the familiar.  The most meaningful worship is worship that contains and offers familiar scriptures and stories, familiar hymns, familiar patterns and rituals, and easily recognizable references from popular culture.  When people feel comfortable in worship and the elements are familiar, worshippers remember and retain more from worship.  (Where worship is familiar, 37% can recount the worship experience fairly accurately, compared to 22% where worship was unfamiliar and lacked recognizable elements).

High Expectations of Low Expectations

Almost everyone (96%) in our survey could articulate very specific expectations for the worship experience.  However, a significant majority of responses were for basic, somewhat pedestrian, expectations.  Grouping the responses in seven general categories, the expectations are as follows:

  1. good music, good preaching (34%)
  2. to feel good, feel better (31%)
  3. to spend an hour (or so) doing what good Christians do (14%)
  4. to get guidance about living a “Christian life” (11%)
  5. to learn about God (7%)
  6. to be challenged in the way I live my life (6%)
  7. to give undivided attention to God to give thanks and praise (5%)

(These do not add up to 100%, because many people offered a composite/hybrid answer that didn’t fit just one category.)  More important than the actual numbers is an interesting critical divide: 75+% of United Methodist worshippers have little or no expectation of being changed by the worship experience.  Only a small minority are looking for guidance to change or a fundamental focus on God and God’s will.

We followed up on the issue of personal change with almost 100 phone interviews.  What we heard confirmed the initial finding: 87% of our interviewees reported some form of “the idea of personal change in my life because of worship,” is completely foreign to them.  However, 82% reported that a significant change in their life (generally negative) would certainly motivate them to attend worship.  This is further evidence that most people see worship as being for and about them (or for them, about God).

Teaching Worship

United Methodist church leaders do not teach people how to worship, they merely assume everyone can, will, and will understand what is happening and why.  Outside of confirmation classes and a few Sunday school groups, only 17 congregations (1.7%) actively teach worship practices — and this is on a rare, occasional basis — often once every ten years or so.  Our interviews indicate that most regular worshippers in our churches (4-out-of-5)  do not know what a doxology or benediction are (by definition, that is — they know they have them, but they don’t know why), cannot define a creed, um worshipdo not know the meaning of “liturgy,” do not understand the differences between types of prayer (confession, intercession, petition, adoration, benediction, etc.), have no clear theological understanding of “offering,” nor do they know what the words “psalter” or “epistle” mean. 

Worship in An Entitlement Culture

Worship is a “me” experience in United Methodism rather than a “we” experience.  91% report that, while it is nice to be part of a congregation (especially when it comes to music), they can worship every bit as well by themselves as they can in a group.  The church is a convenience rather than a necessity.  In an entitlement culture, people believe they have a right to things with little or no responsibility to provide them for others.  This is very true in the church.  Most worshippers in The UMC believe that attendance and financial support are optional and should be left to the discretion of the individual, but they expect that the church will provide for whatever needs they might have without condition.  People want to know that the church is offering worship services regardless of their intention to attend.  We asked regular worshippers if they had any responsibility to the other worshippers in the congregation.  74% needed us to explain what we meant, and overall 85% said ‘no,’ 9% said ‘yes,’ and 6% ‘don’t know.’  The idea of worship as a fundamentally communal act is of low importance to most Methodists — they don’t much care whether other people are in worship or not.

Where’s God in Worship?

We asked a very pointed question — one with which we ended our study — because it may be the most important and the most perplexing: “Do you expect to have an experience of the living God, the risen Christ, or the power of the Holy Spirit when you worship?”  We got four basic responses:

  1. No (72%)
  2. Have never thought about it/don’t understand what we mean (53%)
  3. Would like to (13%)
  4. Yes (11%)

(Once again, there were some multiple answers: “no, but I would like to; yes I do, but I would like to more often; I’ve never thought about it before, but no I don’t…”)  Additionally, out of 227 pastors/preachers in the survey, only 8 (!) claimed that they “expect people to experience God/Christ/Spirit” in worship.  Worship in UM churches is “about” God, and often “for” God, but seldom “with” God.  44 answered that they “hoped” people would experience the divine, but a hope and an expectation are two very different things.

This brief, truncated study, was incredibly illuminating and raised a host of questions.  We offer some of the questions we have wrestled with as conversation starters for worship leaders near and far:

  1. What is the purpose of our worship?
  2. What do we want people to experience when they worship here?
  3. What is the focus of our worship?
  4. Who is our worship about?  Who is it for?
  5. What is the role of God, Jesus, the Spirit in our worship experiences?
  6. What do we “expect” worshippers in our church will experience when they worship here?
  7. How well do we understand the motivations of our worshippers to worship?
  8. How well do we “teach” worship?
  9. What is the significance of worship in the life of a Christian disciple?
  10. How do we help people recover a communal sense of worship as the work of the people of God rather than a collection of individuals?

If you have other questions, please share them.  Almost everyone agrees that worship is crucial to the life of our congregations, but these brief research reports indicate that we have enormous room for improvement.

42 replies

  1. Dan, are these data from a larger, on-going research project? I’d like to learn more about this project. Where can I find more information about it?

    Andrew Bentley

    • Andrew, I was doing this research for the UMC at the General Board of Discipleship, but due to funding constraints the leadership decided to discontinue the project. It was felt that this kind of research isn’t really valuable to the priorities of the church at this time.

      • How could these findings not be valuable to the church at this time? But thank you Dan for what you were able to study.

      • I should be fair (should be, but am not always…) The GBOD needed to be fairly selective about where to put resources. I felt this was important work and was frustrated when decisions were made to focus on other things. It is probably better of me to say that other things took priority over this work rather than that this work wasn’t seen as valuable. I would have LOVED to be able to have followed through on my research on worship, the practice of the means of grace in United Methodism, the current state of evangelism and stewardship, and the trends in spiritual education and formation, but the resources weren’t there so we will have to wait for someone else to do the research.

  2. Where is this research available in it’s rawest form? Our Sr. Pastor is trying to locate it and hasn’t been able to thus far. Thanks, it should make us all think about what worship is truly about.

    • The research isn’t available in its rawest form. I began this project when I worked for the General Board of Discipleship, but the leadership there pulled the plug on the project saying there wasn’t money to continue it and that the project didn’t align with the mission of the church (whatever that means…) I have been working through surveys, interview notes, and follow-up conversations to put together what you find on my site. To the best of my knowledge, the GBOD has no interest in such research, and they have no one looking at these issues (since I am no longer working there).

  3. Granted that I did not read every thing, but the gist is that traditional means old and dying and declining. Contemporary means alive and growing. How sad that we have missed the richness of traditional worship. If we do it lack of passion, you bet it will be old, dying and boring. Rather than embrace the diversity of worship we often think one form is better or dare I say, more spiritual.

    I also disheartened at the lack of value seen in the commitment to study and learning and preparing of Elders in full connection. I doubt any form of clergy is the be all and end all of any Conference. We all have a part to play in the grand scheme in the in breaking of the Kingdom.

  4. Dan,

    Your “young turk” comment triggered a thought.

    Who are the other people out there who you consider to be fellow travelers (yes, I know the origin of that term)? Who do you read and respect? Who do you look to as a leader or a model?

    • John, someday I hope we can meet face to face and spend an evening over the beverage of your choice shooting the breeze. I think it would be a truly enjoyable experience.

      Fellow travelers and formative influences: first, my spiritual mentor, professor, and spiritual director was a man named Carl Andry. He was one of the most deeply integrated critical thinkers I have ever known — a true philosopher and theologian dedicated to rattling cages, discomfiting the comfortable, and challenging the status quo. I’m not sure why I liked him so much…

      Neill Q. Hamilton & Jurgen Moltmann were two teachers/authors I voraciously ‘consumed’ — particularly influential, Hamilton’s, Maturing in the Christian Life, & Moltmann’s, Theology of Hope.

      I am a great admirer of John Dominic Crossan, and I appreciate what Marcus Borg attempts to do. One of the most stimulating and provocative writers of the past decade or so (or at least, that’s when I read him) is Ken Wilber. His Marriage of Sense and Soul, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and Integral Psychology all set my mind going in new directions.

      My post-grad studies were in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, mostly in Greek, and I still love returning from time to time. it is a great reality check to the Bard’s claim that there is nothing new under the sun. I am always deeply impressed how many premodern thinkers address modern/post-modern challenges.

      I read and reread Eastern and Western philosophy, but in a very haphazard way. I, you can probably tell, love to spend time in intellectual, abstract, and conceptual pursuits. I deeply enjoy the writings of Sri Aurobindo and Pema Chodron.

      I do not have a “community” at the moment of people who like to read, play with ideas, and engage in lively debate. It is one of the reasons I have so enjoyed the blog and the chance to form an e-community. It is a wonderful outlet for my mental gyrations.

      In a slightly different vein, my two favorite musical artists are Bruce Cockburn and Elvis Costello. I cannot even explain why both (very different in style and content) speak to me as they do, but I can listen to either one endlessly and feel both grounded and stimulated.

      I respect and admire many different people for many different reasons, and most of them are almost cliches. I wish I could be a bit more like the Berrigan brothers, the Dalai Lama, and a few unknowns who have chucked all rational constraints to pursue lives of writing, service, and justice. I sometimes use my words as an excuse not to be more involved — writing about life more than living it. I look back to younger days when I pursued peace and justice issues with total vigor and commitment and I wonder where “he” went.

      So this is a bit of a peek at the man behind the curtain and where he came from. I would be interested in knowing your influences and cohorts on the path.

      • Dan, thank you for the generous reply. A beverage would be great someday.

        Carl Andry? Is that Ball State U? I grew up in Muncie.

        My influences track my different life paths. I was an English major who became a journalist who later became a Christian and now a local pastor and future seminarian. So, I’m still finding my way into the wilderness of theology.

        I waded into Christian writers through John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, who let me get my feet wet in Christian thinking without forcing me out of my agnostic and secular background. Luke Timothy Johnson’s critique of the Jesus Seminar helped me wade deeper early in my faith development. Resident Aliens spoke to my desire for a Christianity that took itself seriously enough to stand on its own two feet.

        Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was a stunner when I read it the first time. I admire several folks who admire Barth, but I’ve struggled to get too far into him myself. His commentary on Romans strikes me as less about Romans than it is about Barth’s own ideas, so I find myself arguing with him as I read. Jurgen Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life is a favorite. Right now I’m reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Walter Brueggemann is a constant source of imagination and challenge.

        Of course, being so much a rookie in things theological and Methodist, I find myself still trying to get a foundation in many areas.

        Non-religious favorites include philosopher Richard Rorty, journalists Mike Royko, Ernie Pyle, Robert Caro, and Studs Terkel, writer Anne Lamott, and poets Robert Bly and Charles Bukowski. I read Peter Drucker when I’m looking for someone smart to remind of things I already know but struggle to act on.

        My musical tastes are completely a product of pop music in my teens and twenties – late 1980s to 1990s. It is not an inspiring list, but we are who we are, I suppose.

        I’m not sure all that reveals much other than a guy who has drifted around quite a bit during my life. I share your admiration for those who pursue lives of writing and justice. If Jesus had a laptop, maybe that would have been him, too.

        I have greatly enjoyed your blog, Dan. I’m glad you find it serves a purpose for you.

      • Small world. I was born and raised in Muncie (1958-1984), Ball State grad.

        Thanks for reminding me of Rorty and Brueggeman. I have done some time studying both, and constantly find myself in awe of Brueggeman.

        The journey is great, and I for one am delighted that there is more to learn than I can possibly squeeze into one lifetime. The next book gives me a reason to get up each morning!

        Thanks for the ongoing dialogue.

  5. I am in the middle of two weeks of Local Pastor’s School. I’m trying to unwind at home tonight, but find myself churning over an incongruity in what I’m being taught and what I know is Bishop Goodpaster’s vision for the Western NC Conference and the UMC as a whole. In his book, There’s Power in the Connection, he calls for innovation and creativity, which I long for and have a passion for. What we are being taught though, is the status quo. Most of my classmates are serving “traditional” churches of aging, declining membership. I am fortunate to be serving an exciting contemporary congregation. We need work, but we are reaching and growing. I see good teaching (for the most part), but so far this first week, NOTHING about innovation or creativity in our educational programs or our WORSHIP. Adding and using technology, yes, redeveloping an alternative church model, no. Licensed Local Pastors are the lifeblood of the UMC ministry, and our (UMC) hope for the future. Educate, equip, and support us in creativity and innovation from the beginning. Give us permission to buck that fatal status quo in our traditional churches where there may be some resistance. Give us permission to engage those most resistant and support us from the district level. equipping should start in the classroom BEFORE we are appointed, not after we’re in the trenches. We need to be taught how to cultivate dynamic, thriving congregations. Teach us HOW!! Then we can teach and lead our local churches into a dynamic and exciting future in worship and service. Hopefully I’ll be able to settle down and sleep now! Thanks!

    • Preach it. And I hope you can raise some of these questions where you are. We are in an interesting time — not a unique time, because I believe these things are cyclical — where an inward focus simply isn’t tenable for long. Coming from a “the world is my parish” tradition should serve us well now. The gravitational “pull” of the church is into the world, not inside the institution. All we do to preserve the institution and protect the status quo pulls us further from our mission, rather than helping us fulfill it. Of course, I am considered a crank and offer a minority opinion here, but unless we turn our attention from our own needs to the call of God to serve the needs of the world, I think our relevancy and usefulness is pretty much at an end. I listen to people all the time — both inside and outside of our denomination — who feel we lack credibility, vision, and purpose.

      I can only offer advise from personal experience — find a cadre of people who share your frustration, share your vision, share your hope, and who can wrestle through some of this with you. When I started out, I was lucky to find about five other “young turks” who saw something different and were willing to fight for it. We all have ended up in different places far apart, but each of us is still “howling at the wind” in our own ways — crying out for a better church drawing from the vast resources of creativity, caring, innovation, and passion to transform the world. You’re not alone. I’m sorry you’re not feeling fed in training for this important ministry you do.

      • Thanks Dan,

        I’m back at Lake Junaluska after the weekend at home. We’re spending the day with Bishop Goodpaster tomorrow, so perhaps there will be a chance to voice some of my concern . . . tactfully I hope!

        I am being fed, though not in the way I had hoped. We are learning the basics, and listening to our Elders is interesting. I’m hearing some of their frustrations as well, though not always verbalized in so many words.

        Thanks for your feedback and if you like, I’ll keep you posted on my journey. I’ll certainly keep up with yours!


      • By all means, I am interested in your journey, and hope we keep the lines of communication open. God be with you and good luck!

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