Near Miss Worship

funny-church-signNo one sets out to offer vacuous, insipid, superficial, or self-absorbed worship.  Pastors and lay leaders both dedicate themselves to creating meaningful, spiritual and authentic worship experiences.  Yet, at a gathering of 21-29 year olds who have “given up on church” that took place in 2007 , these were the top four reasons given why they didn’t like worship in The United Methodist Church.  Forty-one young people agreed to attend four different churches for a month in Atlanta, Houston, Denver, and southern California.  They filled out survey forms sharing their thoughts.  Out of 158 responses, 13 were positive, 29 were neutral, and 116 were negative.  All the participants were twenty-somethings who had left the church within the past five years, but who still consider themselves committed Christians.  Selections were made at random with the help of researchers in the four geographic areas.  (This was one part of the larger Spiritual Seeker study begun while I worked for the General Board of Discipleship).

Everything felt forced and phony.  It was superficial.  I’m not sure the preacher actually believed anything he was saying.  He seemed bored by the whole thing.  The singers were bubbly, but even that seemed plastic and fake.  We got there early and listened to the musicians warm up and all the sappy stories were all rehearsed with exactly the same inflection.  And this was the best worship service I have been to in months.

kids_sleeping_in_worshipWe talked about the word ‘vacuous’ in English.  It means ’empty’ and that is exactly what I felt after sitting through this service.  I felt this way last week, too.  You know?  I don’t think it is all the churches.  I don’t expect very much when I go to worship.  To me, it’s all just a show anyway.  I enter worship feeling empty, and I really hope something will inspire me or make me feel the Holy Spirit.  I think when I don’t get that it makes me leave feeling worse than when I got there.

Know there’s very little different between ‘inspired’ and ‘insipid?’  So, this is a near miss.  It got close to inspired once or twice.  It was insipid most of the time.  It’s why I quit.  Insipid music, insipid musicians.  This church is known for its music?  No.  I don’t believe it.  It is beyond bad.  Preacher was funny.  The ‘drama’?  Insipid.  It was ten good minutes that took an hour-and-a-half.

Oh God!  What self-absorbed needy people.  That woman who wept the prayer should be shot.  How fake.  My God!  If they had been any more sincere they would have crumbled to dust.  And screaming?  That doesn’t make something more true.  I grew up in an AME church.  I know good preaching.  THAT was NOT good preaching.  That was putting on airs.  My God!  What egos.  That was embarrassing from beginning to end.

These are four representative comments from over 100 lamentations of the state of worship in United Methodist churches — some of them fairly well known.  But the story doesn’t stop there.  It is easy to take cheap shots and criticize.  But read some of the summary comments that we gathered at the final debriefing of the study.

I never knew how much I miss worship.  This month made me miss it even more.  I would love to find a simple, honest little church where the worship was real.

Being asked to think about what I liked and disliked made me think about what I think worship should be.  I don’t like busy.  I don’t like loud.  I don’t like fake.  I don’t like phony.  What I would like is peaceful.  I would like restful.  I would like to be talked to like I have a brain.

You know?  There is a very thin line between good worship and bad worship.  When leaders get in the way of God, it is always bad.  The one church where the lady led us through the prayers and the hymns and told us about the traditions was really cool.  I would go back to that church.  It meant something to worship in that church.

In three of the churches we went to, if you got rid of the singers and the preacher it would have been a good church.  The prayers and the Bible reading and the songs we did together were really good.  It was when people up front took over that it all went to hell.

I didn’t like the churches that try so hard to be like everything else in the world.  Where it felt different, you know, where it felt holy — I think that’s good.  I think that is what worship is.  A place to be holy.

I don’t get what ministers think worship is.  Is it about them?  Is it about the congregation?  Is it about learning about God?  Is it all basic, simple stuff?  Is it supposed to connect us to God?  Nobody seems to know what we’re doing or why.  The one church where they explained the prayer and the faith affirmation and took time to talk about how the Bible was written helped me understand why I was there.  And that was the church where the whole message was about God and what it means to be called.  That was the church worth going to.

I’m jealous.  Other people had a good experience and all mine were $#!++^.  I so want to find a church where I feel close to God.  I grew up in a great church.  It was small but it was so good.  We did good things for the community and when we gathered on Sunday it was with a sense of real pride and purpose.  People felt good about their faith, so they worshipped with joy.  Everywhere I went people just looked dead, tired, or bored.  I would give anything to find a church full of committed people again.

You know, I remember the bad preachers much more than the good ones.  Good preachers are almost invisible.  The message is more powerful than the messenger.  Preachers that draw all the attention to themselves?  Not good preachers.

As I found, reread and reflected on these notes today, it struck me how many young people have good, fond memories of church, or deep desires to find a meaningful, authentic worship experience.  I have no idea what value might be found in these quotes, but for me, they offer an invitation to pause once more to think about the difference between worship that connects people to God and worship that misses the mark (…remembering that the definition of “sin” is “to miss the mark”).

11 replies

  1. One thing i noticed is an attitude of going to church to feel better, or be entertained among the comments. I think the question must be asked first “why go to church.” It is to worship, not to be improve your feelings or be entertained but to worship God. Kierkegaard said the problem with most church folks is they show up with an imaginary score card with which to grade the pastor, the choir, the other parishioners, as if they were critics attending a play or show. What we often fail to realize is we are NOT the audience at church but, again as Kierkegaard said, God is the one before whom all are standing while in worship.

    • It’s interesting. I read most of the comments to say that they don’t appreciate entertainment but are looking for something more. The things that appeal to them are meaning, understanding, connection, and depth. It is the surface and facile that turn them off.

      • So, the “seekers” (however we define this group) actually wants traditional worship but with more engagement and explanation? I guess that is another argument for “emergent” worship. But, “emergent” seems to be even more dependent on the worship leader and less able to deal with disagreements than traditional worship-based congregations are. I’m not trying to be a downer, but it seems that “emergent” is getting very over-sold.

      • The people in this experiment weren’t that sold on what passes for “emergent” these days, either. There is a disaffected segment (and a small one, but still significant) more interested with substance than style. Leaders who make worship a show will do so no matter what style, approach, or trend they apply. Authenticity, it seems, cannot be taught. Smoke, mirrors, tricks, techniques, and three-chord Christian rock can be taught, so a majority head that direction. Another concept — engagement — is crucial. When these young adults felt truly engaged, they felt more positive about the experience. The less engaged, the less fulfilled. We design so much of our worship — in white-bread middle class America — to be passive. Many worshipers are lucky to have the opportunity to stand up and clap, otherwise they are sung at, read to, prayed for, and sermonized — no more engaged than if they were watching the same spectacle on television of a computer screen.

  2. For the first time in my life I got up and left worship because I just didn’t feel like God was there. I am frustrated but also ashamed. I really miss the church of my childhood.(I am only 37!) What I missed most was the focus on developing a relationship with God within a nurturing community. I remember my life being based around the calendar at Church. I remember my Sunday School Teacher Mrs. Mellgren and her husband literally imparting in my life Christ not just through their teaching but through their listening and through their witness into my life. I remember Sam Richardson talking about Martin Luther King….he went to school with the guy!!! But all of it focused on how their personal relationship with Christ came first and then the pushed into action. And put practices and values into my life that found expression in action but the action was not my faith.

    I remember the pulpit being a place where a focus on initiating that love affair with Christ was the reason you came to Church and I wanted to respond. The preaching was practical and focused on creating a new start with Christ regardless of where you were at.

    Now…its all about social justice and that is nice but what about putting Christ and our relationship first? What about being part of a larger community of believers who broke bread together and studied together? Worship spaces that don’t feel tired and old.
    I sometimes feel like I am in a geratric ward for the dying rather than an alive and vibrant community. I am the only person in my age cohort who attends regularly and we have couple of twenty somethings who rarely do. It didn’t use to be this way. We use to have a lot of twenty somthings that hung out and grew together within the Church now there are few. I am torn as to what can be done. So many UMC’s are in this same position in my conference and the Bishop and DS’s seem to be trying steer a rudderless ship and not really wanting to own the problems and instead pawn it off on local pastors ill equipped to tackle these issues.

    Dick I think you bring up an excellent point but I don’t know if the leadership is there right now at least in the conference I am in to address the apathy amongst the young. Young people are going to church they just aren’t going to UMC churches and they are choosing not to join the rolls of the ones they attend.

    If you get over across to Minnesota you should try and get to Church of the Open Door or Speak the Word International. A lot of young adults and x’ers are driving long distances(my cousin drive over an hour to get to Speak the Word) to go to these churches and a few others bypassing our connection along the way. I would be curious as to what you notice in these contexts.

    Frustrated in Minneapolis

    • Thanks for your honesty and your witness. I wish there were simple answers and a clear path, and your insight is painfully true — young people are going to church, just not so many to UMCs. I will make time to get to Speak the Word and Church of the Open Door. I love seeing it when people get it right. I want to see more of it.

  3. Let’s be clear– “emergent” or “emerging” isn’t (or shouldn’t) be primarily thought of or marketed as a worship style. I know it has been, but that’s not what the emerging missional movement has focused on, by and large. There are “traditional,” “contemporary” and all points in all other directions styles of worship in communities and congregations that are seeking to be missional. Just need to get that out there.

    Thanks for sharing more of your research here, Dan. Always helpful, if at times painful, to hear.

    • Hey, Taylor, what do you think has caused so many people to link “emergent” to a style rather than a movement? What were/are the missteps from this phenomenon that we should pay attention to so that we don’t just keep doing this over and over? Almost every “movement” starts big, then loses steam to become just another false-start. Occasionally we get a reformation or a new denomination, but usually we just get the most recent spiritual/religious fad.

  4. Hmmm …. young people with good, fond memories of church.
    Seems to me we perhaps need to look “back” at what church was in those memories ?
    And, perhaps the “old” “traditional” “historic” — and may I offer the word “authentic” — styles of worship aren’t so bad after all ?

  5. It is painful to read Eric’s comments, because we are part of the same faith community. We are in the process of bringing together two faith communities that were quite different, so there is a lot of grief and change and displacement. In Sunday’s sermon, based on the Hebrews text, I heard that there are many pathways to God. Often we think the way that was most meaningful for us is the best (and only) way, but that isn’t true. Jesus offers us the imprint of God, being a co-creator, which is what we are called to be. We look to Jesus to see how God intends us to live. Jesus tasted death to bring life, and we are called to do the same. A teen read the scripture and two teens helped serve communion.

    We celebrated a full communion using parts of John Bell’s liturgy from Wee Book of Worship — and we prayed “put our prosperity at the service of the poor; put our fullness at the service of the empty, Lord, heal your church of every brokenness.” We prayed for people in jail, affected by natural disasters, for employment, for someone going to Iraq, for healing — all offered by the congregation during joys and concerns.

    While it’s true that there are not many in Eric’s age group, it’s also true he has recently returned to share his gifts and talents with this congregation after being involved elsewhere. Do we have enough people to engage youth, children and young adults? Are people interested in making new friendships? Are we creating bridges across our many cultures (Liberian, African-American and Caucasian)? Are we trying to create a new community and are still in the wilderness Dan so eloquently describes are required for shaping new leaders?

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