2007-10-24-willow_bigscreen_floorWe 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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”
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

20 replies

  1. Dan,

    The trend for the last few decades has been toward “experiential” worship – whatever that means. (I think it means about as many things as “Contemporary” worship means.) I must say that I appreciate well-done experiential worship over traditonal worship in places where traditional has become rote and routine. I have been at churches who worship in very traditonal ways, with well-thought out liturgies and creeds and confessions and very theologically tight sermons.

    And, I prayed that a brick would fall on my head and crush me so that I could get out of that service because there was no Spirit, no life, no energy. Everything was theologically sound and well-planned, but there was no life, no energy, no pneuma.

    I have also been to “contemporary/experiental” worship servcie like you described – all about the listener, not about God, very poor (especially sacramental) theology and no sense of community.

    Perhaps there is a place where we can worship both in Spirit and in (theological) truth?

    • greetings in Christ-grace & peace, Jeff…

      I think I understand what you are stating. Please correct me if I am in error.

      Worship is about being in God and with God…what makes worship what it is, is God-presence and church-response…in a kind of synergy (if you will) where God-presence is not only a reality but the very thing that is being celebrated.

      So, in a way, what is at the heart of the issue…knowing and trusting that God is a God-presence and there is not a time or place where and when God is not with us…is what we bring to worship as our response to that God-presence (as united in grace that frees us to worship…enables us to worship…empowers us to worship…and unites us to worship…that we may all be in worship).

      In reply, if you will, it is difficult for me to understand or comprehend a gathering where there is lack of “life, energy, pneuma” with or without good/orthodox doxology/liturgy and intention. but then, i do not think that is what you are suggesting.

      rather, i think what you are noting is the charismata (i.e., God-giftedness—for worship and service) in leadership and the liturgy (as work of the people) as being either non-sufficent in what is “right, and meet, and the bounden duty” of leader and/or congregation or in a non-expressive mode for what would be in sync with your norm or expectation?

      is that correct, or am I reading your post in error?

      in my own experience, both in corporate worship, daily devotional times and engaging with other people times, there are “flat” moments, often long endured “flat” times.

      still, God was present and acting as God is and so does.

      i am not so sure that worship in “Spirit” always looks like, feels like, sounds like, is experienced like, mountaintop moments of energistic emotional/spiritual “high”.

      could it be that the Spirit was ministering in that time of worship in ways that we to be found in something that might have been missed because of what our expectations might be and how we so easily become the critic in the pew rather than a united part of the body in worship?

      i cannot speak for you or your experience. but what I write here is what I know to be often true about myself.

      please feel free to reply. it will be good to have shared in dialog and discussion.



    • Yes, it can and does happen. What I am lamenting is not the whole state of worship, but some trends that seem to be gaining purchase throughout the system. There is still very good worship, and very good opportunties to be in worship. Another trend I note as a positive is that more and more worship seems to be happening outside of formal structures of sanctuary, clock and calendar. One of the best worship experiences I have been privileged to participate in was in a laundry room in a tenament in the south Bronx. Seldom have I been with a group of people more grateful to God. I think part of the conversation needs to be how much worship is internal and how much depends on externals. I feel another post coming on…

  2. Thanks to all of you for sharing and teaching. I am reasonably sure I speak for others who can say we learn much and expand our thinking through this blog. I want to especially thank Taylor Burton Edwards for his explanation of sacrifice. I am in the middle of reading “Saving Paradise” by Brock & Parker. I haven’t had much time for reflection, but when I do, I know I will have greater understanding of how we best connect with God and the reign of God.

  3. Dan,

    I would say that Dean, Safiyah and I at GBOD are watching what’s going on with worship around the connection. Some of it is appalling, anthropocentric, and even egocentric, much as you have described. Some of it is also a breath of fresh air. As you know from your sojourn among us, calling bad practices out is often not considered acceptable behavior where we sit– but you are certainly free now to keep on keeping on with that!

    Ed Phillips (now at Candler) has written an article or two and presented several papers documenting the comments of 19th and early 20th century bishops about the worship they encountered in Methodist and EUB/UB/EA congregations in their travels “back then.” Their laments are strikingly similar to what you have said above in a number of ways. They, too, lamented the widely variable orders of worship from congregation to congregation. They, too, lamented that creeds were not being said, and that sometimes it seemed the choir was the center of all attention, not the scriptures, and maybe even not God. They, too, noted with some horror that preaching often seemed to have little to do with the texts read, if any texts were read, or that prayers by the preacher were being turned into another “extended sermon.”

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

    Here’s what the data we have from the 2005-2007 Music and Worship Study as well as data from more recent surveys that have asked about worship style indicate. The prevalence of “contemporary” worship is not as high among United Methodists as it is some other denominations and non-denominational groups. Indeed, “contemporary” becomes identified as the predominant “style” of worship only beginning with a THIRD service. “Traditional” (however churches define that) remains solidly the predominant form, with “blended” (however congregations define that) a somewhat distant second.

    That bit of perspective is perhaps important to keep in play. Yes, there are “contemporary” services out there, and their number is at least thought to be growing– just not terribly quickly from what we can see. That’s neither good nor bad, necessarily– depending on context at least. If the whole people of that worshiping community can praise God best with guitars, zydeco, steel drums or a capella chant, that’s great. The key to be sought is indigeneity grounded in our connectedness to Christ and the whole church, not adherence to artificial (and often highly marketed) stylistic “norms.” The relatively “slow uptake” of contemporary services among United Methodists (compared to others) seems to suggest that we, as a people, don’t necessarily worship best in that mode by and large at this point.

    The real issues you raise DO remain important for the majority of our congregations to consider. Are we offering God the best gifts we have in our local congregations with the best resources of our traditions (United Methodist, historical Christian, and cultural) when we worship, or are we allowing the stylistic preferences of the pastor or “church growth gurus” to call the shots? Is worship fully the “work of the people” (the meaning of the word, “liturgy”) or is it the work primarily of the “folks up front?” Is it truly the WORK of the people, offered to God, or is conceived as work FOR the people (congregation as consumers) by other people who “know best” what the congregation “needs” or “wants”?

    Until we Methodists trade in our hybrid Anglican/Free Church worship tradition for a prayer book tradition solely, “wacky worship” we shall probably always have with us. The good news I continue to see is that we do have many dedicated pastors and laity– of a wide variety of ages, cultures, and perspectives– who are and remain committed to helping their congregations worship the best they can based on the gifts they have with respect for, if not lockstep following of, our graciously generous United Methodist ritual. May their tribe increase!

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • Hoyt Hickman touches on something that Taylor’s comment raises for me.

      Hickman talks about the difference between worship as “offering” to God and worship as something done with God. Is God a spectator or an active participant in what we do?

      Does Taylor – or anyone else – think this distinction is important in the way we think about worship?

      • John,

        I do, but I don’t see it as a distinction, but rather as different movements within the whole.

        When I write about this more fully (as in the Worship Guideline for this quadrennium, for example), I speak of worship as happening more as interactive assemblies “with God” and even “in God” (in the sense of a connection with the perichoresis of the Trinity– though I don’t use those $64 terms in that publication!).

        When pressed for the most compact “definition” of worship I can come up with, I describe it in one word: sacrifice. When I use that word I always have to unpack it. People bring all sorts of ideas to it that reflect misappropriations or radical misinterpretations of its technical meaning.

        I mean by it what pretty much most religions have meant by it– and what the word itself means, etymologically. Sacrifice means “making holy.” It does not mean killing things. It also does not mean hurting oneself. The “point” of sacrifice, biblically and in most other cultures, was not the point at which the animal was killed, or its blood spilled, or the grain was either harvested or milled into flour, or even the point at which it was mixed with oil and placed on the altar– which was an outdoor grill, not a slaughtering place, primarily. It was the point in which the smoke of what was offered there, with great love and care, rose to heaven, often corresponding with a libation offering of wine to assist the process of smoke and flame rising up. The point of the sacrifice was to create that “sweet smelling” smoke that all could enjoy in the moment, and then, in most sacrifices, share the results of what had been prepared on the grill after it had been so offered to God.

        This wasn’t a cookout. That would just make it a meal. It was a sacrifice– which meant these items were being offered in conscious desire for and awareness of the presence of the Holy One. And that in turn meant that since this was a meal with the Holy One, there were things WE as the assembly with the Holy One needed to do as well. We needed to praise God. We needed to confess our sin and be reconciled so we could even offer the sacrifice in the first place (and so ritual acts of confession and peacemaking). And we need to exercise our full priesthood– the call to all of us to intercede for the world, joining Christ’s own intercession in heaven.

        In short, sacrifice is not just one action– it is rather the whole of the divine/human interactive drama that worship enacts.

        Tethered to sacrifice in this sense, worship keeps its coherence as a public ritual action. Untethered, it tends to wander into all sorts of merely anthropocentric and potentially egocentric directions (getting blessed, learning something, trying to convince people to follow Jesus or join the church, etc), which, worthy though they may be, are not, in the end, what worship is for.

    • I thank you for this thoughtful and comprehensive response. I want to especially highlight two things that you point out. Almost every “trend” is actually part of a cycle, not a linear event. I have been surprised by the same kinds of observations being made, not only in the 19th and 20th centuries, but clear back to Nicene times. In every generation there is a spectrum stretching from the ridiculous to the sublime. If there is any true difference to the current swing of the cycle I would say it lies in the technology and communication potential. What once was a rare and often hidden aberration is now broadcast to “the ends of the earth.” It may only feel more prevalent because it is ubiquitous.

      Second, though I offered a passing nod to the sentiment, the observations about the state of worship doesn’t apply only to contemporary worship. That is where the changes might appear most dramatic, but there are as many changes going on in traditional worship as any alternative styles. In fact, much of what is called “traditional” is the natural evolution of “boomer sprawl” into leadership. It bears very little resemblance to “mom and dad’s worship,” even though it follows the same order and uses some of the same labels.

      I would love to know where the sublime side of worship is. Out of my 1,100+ visits to churches during the Vital Signs and Seeker research, I only found about 90 churches where worship had a deep integrity (i.e., leaders had very clear purposes and spiritual objectives in leading worship, worshippers had a clear and shared understanding of what worship was and was for, and what the elements of worship meant, there was a very high level of participation in worship, worship was highly interactive and fluid, not bound by the clock, very integrated around theme, focus, meaning, etc). Worship in these setting was like finely woven cloth or a beautiful symphony — and it was not dependent on style or the charm and charisma of the preacher. I have exprienced excellent “contemporary/alternative” worship, though not nearly as often as “traditional,” and I have yet to experience good “blended” worship. (Resulting in my personal definition of blended worship — “worship where everyone has to sit through things they hate in order to get to something they like.”) For me, at least, styles, instruments, technology, and personality have far less to do with a meaningful worship experience than authenticity and focus. People who truly love God helping others love God in Spirit and truth, where the foundation is adoration, gratitude, and praise? That works for me almost every time.

      • Dan,

        I do not dispute your findings. I’d call them consistent with what I see as well as far as ‘finished products” are concerned.

        What I also see is a much higher percentage of pastors and laity who want things to be much, much better than they are and are trying to make that happen.

        Part of my job is to help more of those folks help more of their congregations get there. This is and has to be a long-haul effort. It is and will be a “longer haul” for United Methodists because we do not have systems that are willing or able to tell folks authoritatively to stop doing bad things and stop listening to false gurus. “Moral suasion” is the only real “force” we have allowed ourselves for this reformation, and that has to be accomplished more by wooing than by directing– unless, that is, we were to develop somewhere in our system a resolve and a teaching body that would give us the capacity to do more and expect more immediate results.

        In theory– indeed, de jure!– we have in place just such a structures. Article XXII of the Articles of Religion is among our doctrinal standards. It is very clear that anyone who willingly breaks the ritual duly established by this church ought to be publicly rebuked in such a manner that others should fear to do the like. This is the very definition of “chargeable offense.” That “others may fear to do the like” indicates that the punishment expected would be severe– as indeed, in its original context in England, it would have been, including both “defrocking” and in some instances, public flogging or worse (since this would have been a violation of both religious and civil authority there!). Yet, with the exception of performing ceremonies celebrating the commitments of homosexual couples to one another, I have seen no effort by anyone anywhere in the UMC, at least in the US, to charge someone for breaking the ritual– even when those violations are quite blatant.

        So we do have that tool. But we refuse to use it. Whether that is for better or for worse is not mine to decide. What is mine to do, and indeed by our vows, all deacons and elders (and bishops) to do, IS to encourage our clergy and congregations by all means possible toward the best practices of worship they can offer consistent with and grounded in our teaching.

        We can, and I will, keep wooing.

  4. Coming from a theatre performer and teacher turned pastor:

    In communication, inflection, tone, diction, timing, etc are all important aspects of relaying an idea from one person to another. These are good things and rehearsing them helps one to master communication skills.

    Rehearsing contrived emotion is not cool, though.

  5. I only have one point of disagreement with you here, Dan. No matter what the worship style, please don’t refer to solos, anthems and the like as “special music.” That implies that congregational singing is something less. I gather from the rest of your blog that you would agree that congregational singing is central to worship, but word choice can unintentionally say otherwise. That is a battle I have been fighting since before the contemporary worship revolution.

    Otherwise I think your words should cause all of us to pause and reflect, no matter what worship style we claim to be leading.

    • Cindy, this is a case of word meanings changing.

      “Special” used to – way back when – mean different from the ordinary or a particular case. It did not have the idea of superior attached to it.

      So, way back when, calling it special music was just a description. You are correct, though; the meaning of the word has changed. Or maybe just the value we place on the “out of the ordinary” has changed.

      Off the point of Dan’s post, but I’m a word nerd.

    • Word choice IS important. In our services the “anthem,” “special music,” choir focused offering is done within a section of the service that we call “The Liturgy of the Word.” Since this is a section devoted to the sharing of and listening to of God’s word (the function of proclamation and listening) we call the musical performance piece “The Word in Song” in an attempt to help folks recognize that this is as much a place of proclamation as the sermon.

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