We live in a Wiki world. A collaborative, evolving, and highly interactive way of creating and recreating reality. Facts and opinions merge to create a new kind of “flexible” truth. Wikipedia has transformed the way we think about information and the authority of the written word. Knowledge is built over time drawing from a wide variety of sources and perspectives. I would make the observation that the same kind of revolution is occurring within the realm of Christian worship — forms are merged and mashed-up, old traditions and history are rewritten and revised, multiple perspectives and opinions shape reality, and orthodoxy is bound by membranes rather than walls. Having researched worship trends and practices across the denomination, I note six shifts that are fundamentally changing our understanding of worship.
- Order of worship — why do we do what we do in our services of worship? What are the key components of Christian worship? For centuries, religious leaders struggled to make sure that worship had integrity. Orders of worship developed to ensure that worshippers would be prepared, a time of confession and pardon would open people through God’s mercy to receive the word and be fully present in prayer. Proclamation focused on the Word of God in scripture and illumination through preaching and testimony. Celebration of the sacraments and response to God through multiple means of offering and personal commitments were central. Affirmations of our faith through creeds, responsive Psalter, and recitations of historic and biblical prayers and statements, helped shape and define the community. Blessing and praise were foundational values. These elements were designed around deep theological and traditional roots. More and more, elements are included and excluded thematically, arbitrarily, aesthetically or for “flow”, not for theological reason. The trends in mainline United Methodist churches, especially in our more “contemporary” settings are to discard such practices as the passing of the peace (now just a greeting time), responsive readings, creeds, prayers of confession (to dark and bleak), and to “modernize” ancient or traditional practices. Sacraments are streamlined and sometimes perfunctory. I have been in churches where no scriptures are read — I have visited three different churches in the past few years where sermons were preached based on information pulled from the Internet or from children’s books, and no reference at all was made to the Bible. It is not uncommon to find some church services which are nothing more than warm-up songs, a brief prayer, a skit or special performance, a faith-based monologue, and a sending forth.
- Focus — worship in many places is all about us. Starting from the human condition, the elements of worship are all means to an end to speak a word of comfort, guidance, or grace to broken people. Certainly, this should be a part of what we do, but worship traditionally hasn’t been about us, it is about God. We are beneficiaries of good worship, but it isn’t therapy or self-help time. When we did our research about what pastors hope people will experience in worship, it is important to note that “leave feeling good about themselves,” was a much more frequent response than “leave with a deeper understanding of God,” “leaving with a deeper relationship with God,” “leaving having had an experience of God,” and/or “leaving with a clearer sense of God’s will.” I visited a church recently where worship was framed as “we’re here to have a good time and learn about Jesus!” There may be more to it than that…
- Time — “worship for busy people” boasts one UM congregation — it offers three 30-minute services a week (1 song, 1 prayer, 1 scripture, a 7-minute message, a blessing, drop your offering in the box by the door on the way out…) or a 15 minute Internet option (worship in your p.j.s at home with the morning cup a’coffee!) There is a desire to make worship “quick and painless” that may work at odds with what worship is all about. Other forces drive this as well. I saw an ad for “44-Minute Worship Design” aimed at churches wanting to do television ministry. With paid advertising, television allows 44 minutes of program time each hour. Worship for television is an exacting science when done well (don’t think local cable access, which is often quite painful to watch. Think slick network broadcast). My only brief brush with this was educational. I was handed a card that read: “EVERYTHING written! Do NOT deviate from script. DO NOT AD LIB. Watch the director at all times and DO WHAT SHE TELLS YOU! Stay relaxed.” (Yeah. Right.) For year’s the joke has been that if worship exceeds an hour, people will get up and leave; now we’re shaving bits off the hour. If God can’t get done what we need in the time we allow, then it must be God’s fault.
- Music — what is the purpose of music in worship? Historically, music serves one crucial purpose — to allow all people to praise God. Songs of praise and worship were soul songs shared by a community as an affirmation of faith, a witness to God and Christ, and a heartfelt offering of love, gratitude, and devotion. In pre-literate and illiterate societies, choirs were given the important function of teaching and leading the congregation in singing. The heart of spiritual singing was the sacred focus of the lyrics and the easy accessibility of the music. Granted, some traditional hymns are pretty unsingable with melodies to set teeth on edge, but they are the exception not the rule. The contemporary Christian music industry has radically changed “sacred” music in our culture and our adoption of the “praise band” in worship is radically changing music in the church. I visit a lot of churches. I go to a lot of “alternative” worship services. I would estimate that only one-in-twenty (5%) teach people new music. I would estimate that in only 1-in10 (10%) do the song leaders “lead.” In the vast majority of cases, singers are performing — adding little flourishes that the congregation doesn’t know and can’t follow, singing words or phrases that aren’t projected on the screens, or letting the band cut loose with some special riffs that leave the congregation confused. I marvel at the number of people who stand and sway or clap but don’t sing. Talking to them later, even long time members and regular attenders explain that they simply don’t know the words, or that they can’t follow the song the way the band performs it. And don’t get me started on the frustrated American Idol wannabes who glom onto a microphone with the idea that there rendition of the song will elevate your spirit to the seventh heaven. Don’t let these people “lead” worship and singing. That’s what showers and hairbrushes are for — act this way at home, not in church. And I am not letting “traditional” worship off the hook here, either. The worship of the community of faith is not the place for choir concerts, organ recitals, club jazz, etc. Worship music is part of the “liturgy” — “the work of the people.” Singing in the church is for the benefit of all who worship God to raise their voices in praise. It shouldn’t be done forpeople. (And don’t get all bent out of shape. I think it is perfectly fine to offer special music as a part of worship. Choir anthems, special songs, solos/duets, handbells, etc., can all add to the worshiping experience and transport people’s hearts and spirits. Grand, great, spectacular, fantastic. But special music should be special, not routine. If people feel it is their ministry to perform sacred music for others, give them opportunities to do so — just don’t take worship time away from the whole community of faith to do it.)
- it is also interesting to note the growing inclusion of secular songs and videos — many with no apparent religious or spiritual theme. It is interesting to sit down before worship listening to Coldplay, U2, and Matchbox 20, then sing “One Love” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” as “hymns”
- Message — I intentionally did not use the term “preaching” here. The concept of “proclaiming the good news” is getting fuzzy. The quest for creativity, innovation, novelty, and emotional impact is displacing substance. Preaching is more about form than function. What is said isn’t as important as how it is said. I note the growing number of pastors who “rehearse” their sermons rather than practice them. I stood in the rear of an empty sanctuary watching worship leaders rehearse, working on their “spontaneous” ad libs and jokes till they got them just right, practicing a “goof” so that it looked real, and testing inflection and tone to use around key points. The woman leading prayers tried out two or three places to weep, asking others to help her figure out when to start crying for maximum emotional impact. The message was to be based on a “dramatic enactment” of the parable of the Prodigal Son, but with a twist — the main characters were three women, all employing broad, stereotypic Jewish New Yorker speech and mannerisms. The tech crew, building PowerPoint slides for the service asked, “Which version of the Bible do you want?” The pastor called back, “Doesn’t matter.” At the service the next day, there was no reading of scripture, just the retelling of the Prodigal Daughter in sketch comedy form. And comedy is king in the church today. I think a number of our young pastors are frustrated stand-up comics looking for an audience. Don’t get me wrong. Humor is a powerful and appropriate tool — but it is not the point. When people leave worship talking about how funny the pastor is, but they don’t remember the point of what he/she said, there is a problem.
- Community — a congregation is necessary for authentic Christian worship, and the preacher and worship leaders are a part of the congregation. I absolutely hate sitting in a sanctuary where the message is a canned, pre-recorded, or satellite uplinked broadcast on a big screen. This isn’t worship to me, but delivery of a product. It makes the personality of the preacher way too important, and shifts the focus off of God. Worship should be a deeply integrated, interactive experience. All people should engage at the deepest level — with God, and with one another. When worship is done for the congregation, community becomes meaningless. When worship is done by the congregation, community is crucial. Television, and now the Internet, miss this point. Worship is not just an experience between an individual and their buddy Jesus. It should never be a one-way experience. Worship cannot be broadcast. The near demise of personal testimony, shared prayer, passing of the peace (not just saying good morning), corporate creeds and affirmations all move worship away from the gathered community toward the select group up front. Standing and clapping doesn’t count. Worship needs to engage body, mind, soul, and spirit of all the assembled congregation. I attended a seminar not too long ago on worship “technique” where I was advised to refer to those in worship as “the audience” since “congregation” is an archaic “churchy” word.
Okay, my feelings about these things are obvious. I’m not crazy about some of the shifts, but hey — I could be wrong. Good or bad, worship is changing. We are morphing and mashing-up worship just like we’re doing with everything else. The question I raise is this: does it matter? Is there anyone out there across our connection exploring these changes, the impact they’re having, and what we are gaining and losing through this current evolution? When I talk with worship leaders, they mostly don’t see any problem. They don’t even understand why I am raising the questions. As one young gun told me, “If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be doing it. We have a very successful formula, and we’re going to keep doing it.” One more place where ends justify means… or do they?