Worship has played a big role in my life. For more than sixty years I have attended church services. Often, I confess, I was no more than a spectator— sometimes fascinated, sometimes bored. But I also remember services that moved me and even changed me. In those services I felt addressed by God, and I offered my worship with all my heart.
During most of the last forty years of my life I was frequently in charge of worship services. I have mixed memories of them. I have known both agony and ecstasy, and I have lingered in the mediocre area in between. I never became an expert on the topic of worship. In fact, I am often confused about what constitutes good worship. I now wish I would have made a more thorough study of it during my years in the ministry. I admire people who have studied the biblical principles of worship, who know its history, and who are adept at putting a good service together.
Worship That Restores the Soul
Sometimes we worshipers are not clear about what constitutes a good worship experience. If ever I am touched emotionally, I thank God. But true worship does more. It moves me at a deeper level than my feelings. It touches my heart. It works a change there.
When I am overly worried about everyday problems, God's Word gives me a glimpse of the Ruler of the universe, the Shepherd of my life. And I start my Monday knowing in whom to put my trust.
When I cannot break with sinful patterns, I hear God's voice assuring me of the power of his Spirit. And I will put on the armor of faith with good confidence.
When I find it hard to accept forgiveness full and free, I meet Christ again in the bread and wine, and I go my way with a heart as light as a feather.
When I become enamored with my worldly goods and my earthly success, I hear God's voice clearly in worship: I will change you deep within and make you excited about my kingdom. And there will be a change in the way I conduct my business that week.
When I feel sad, defeated, and tired, my presence among God and his children will restore my soul. True worship moves my mind, will, emotions— indeed my heart, my whole person and life.
Do these kind of worship experiences happen in every service? No, at least not for me. I have come away from services in which nothing in particular happened to me. Mostly, I now realize, because I had not prepared myself, and I had not come with great expectations. I have experienced this kind of failure both in the pew and in the pulpit.
The Need for Change
But there are deeper reasons for the disappointing worship experience. They have to do, I think, with the type of worship patterns that we inherited from the founding generations. Two key words, it seems to me, have qualified yesteryear's services: sameness and rigidity. I realize that I oversimplify, and that I limit myself here to the negative. But I believe that the established patterns of sameness and rigidity have made it hard for many Reformed and Presbyterian denominations to meet the demands of a new era.
I don't go scot-free myself. For many years in the parish ministry I neglected to make meaningful preparations for the liturgy. The same order of worship, year in year out, was just fine with me. I would spend perhaps no more than ten minutes on selecting the songs and not much more time on preparing the "congregational" prayer. And it only occurred to me sporadically to invite gifted members to take part in the service. I cannot remember that elders ever urged me to create variety in the services.
Responsible church leaders today are cautioning us that change for change's sake is bad. I agree. But no change is worse. Church services must, in many places, become more "real," more engaging, more lively, more direct, more actual, more communally driven. I applaud changes toward those ends.
Of course, change—even good and necessary change—cannot come about without occasional mistakes. And mistakes can be embarrassing, even annoying. But without mistakes there can be no growth. I plead with our members to be patient with their liturgists. We all have to be stretched. And stretching is unpleasant.
Someone at an Iowa church get-together said to me, "I'm not much for change. I find much of it tacky and contrived. But I now realize that traditional worship patterns don't cut it anymore for me either. I am beginning to expect more from the services: I want to feel addressed. I want to have a sense of belonging. I want something to happen to me in the services."
Everywhere across the continent people have similar expectations. And people begin to feel free to spell out their expectations for worship. I thank God for this trend. We must not turn the clock back. Paul himself told us that he was more than willing to make changes dictated by cross-cultural necessities (1 Cor. 9:19-21). Our liturgical tradition might well call "nonnegotiable" some of the things Paul lists as subject to change.
A New Reality
Some people become weary of all this change talk. I know the feeling. Even Time magazine feels that way now. It devoted an issue to change in August '95. "Everybody's Hip—And That's Not Cool," Time emphatically stated.
But before we let our nostalgia for the good old days get the better of us, consider some implications. Michael Gerben has presented impressive evidence for the thesis that the past twenty years have brought more change to humankind than all the centuries before. It is our reasonable service to God to ask ourselves how we as God's people must respond to these new realities. Which of our past church practices need to be affirmed, which need to be modified, and which new ones need to be inaugurated? How do we create a more receptive climate toward growth, internally and externally?
A few weeks ago ITT announced that it is in the process of laying off 40,000 employees. More than 7,000 of them are managers. Earlier, IBM laid off 63,000 and Boeing Aircraft 28,000. "Sixty Minutes" interviewed some of these highly skilled professionals, many now unemployed for more than two years. One man said, "My unemployment insurance has run out. We now live on the proceeds of the sale of our house. When that is gone, I don't know where we can go or what will become of us. First I became a statistic; now I am not even a statistic anymore." Gallup reported that one in six Americans has a real fear of becoming homeless. Most people in that category are women.
In the meantime, however, note this cruel irony:
the day after ITT announced the layoffs, its stocks rose sharply. And that's not an isolated event. The stock market has gone way up for some years already. Many companies are making fabulous profits. The old saying, "The poor get poorer, the rich richer" is assuming a new, alarming reality. One pastor told me that his elders are making a round of family visits discussing a one-word theme: fear. "We get the impression," he said, "that fully half of our members now think in terms of survival." In contrast, another pastor commented on the wealth some of his members are accumulating. "We had a wedding here," he said, "for which the parents of the bride laid out $30,000."
We all have to be stretched. And stretching is unpleasant.
It is my hope that there is a climate in our gatherings conducive to meaningful ministry to those affected by these realities. That's why I would urge pastors and churches not to be afraid of change, change that is in good taste and well thought through. Services conducted in an atmosphere of rigid traditionalism are not good settings for a congregation to come to grips with the frightening developments in our world.
I was scheduled to lead a service in a distant church some months ago, and I anived early. I made my way to the basement, where I saw a group of women entering a room. When I asked about the purpose of their get-together, their spokeswoman told me that a mother among them was facing a difficult problem. Her teenage daughter had run away, and the mother had reason to believe that she was now in the company of drug users and criminals. "We will pray with her," said the spokeswoman. I was allowed to join them, and it was a moving experience. Later I said to the spokeswoman, "Actually this should have been part of the church service itself." She looked at me skeptically. My proposal held little promise in her judgment.
I believe strongly that worship services have to reflect the members' fears, sufferings, weaknesses, joys, and victories. And I think that we are making progress. A conservative church in the West established a center to counsel mothers who were considering an abortion. The church volunteers made a discovery. They found that most of these mothers, many unmarried, came from abusive homes. So they expanded the center to minister to battered women and abused children. More members were recruited to help. The work of the center is now regularly referred to in the church services. Several women reached by the center now attend the church services. One volunteer remarked, "It has changed the mood of our services. There is now an awareness among us that we are in the world. We now come away from church encouraged and challenged. We receive a new vision."
Much has been made of the influence of the baby boomers and the baby busters on us. And, in spite of some exaggeration, the fact remains that that influence is real. Our church services have to be marked by the quality of respect and good taste, but at the same time they need to be versatile enough to meet the needs of a generation that feels differently about life than we did even a decade ago.
Boomers and busters come with different concerns, feel deeply about different issues, and have their own peculiar tastes and needs. Needs, especially, have become incredibly diverse. How can the church rise to these new challenges? The task is complex. But we must begin with worship. We must strive for high quality church services with meaningful diversity. Members themselves must take over various parts of the service. Music and song have to become diversified. The one big choir must be augmented with small music and praise groups.
Our new hymnals already reflect tasteful diversity. We must bless and affirm past worship practices, but we should not hesitate to build further on that foundation.
Is This Worship "Real"?
Where churches give themselves permission to make meaningful changes in the worship services and beyond, we will create, I believe, a climate of freedom, reality, and directness. Individual members will feel themselves addressed and engaged. Amid all the threatening forces around them, they will experience their church as a source of strength.
During the last fifteen years I have visited most areas with clusters of Christian Reformed churches. I attended many church services. And I wondered sometimes: if I had to settle in this area, which church would I join? Here are some elements of worship that I would look for:
- Was I challenged to commit or recommit myself to the Lord in the services?
- Was there a sense of liveliness, of community, and of "sharing"?
- Was there openness to membership involvement and participation in the worship?
In other words: Was this church service real?
Visitors have an uncanny sense of determining whether a church community that they may think of joining will care about them, whether they are welcome, and whether the services will help revitalize them every Sunday. More and more Reformed people now no longer hesitate to switch to other evangelical churches because they find their own church services humdrum.
I have become convinced that churches open to change are in a better position to equip their members to relate well together, to talk together, to help each other, and to witness to their faith. Our times demand that we as members feel free to talk about our needs and problems in the company of Jesus. He once summed up his mission in just one brief sentence: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). That's quite an absolute! Not many elements in our liturgical practices could claim a higher level of absolute.
Isaiah, who saw Jesus' mission from afar, described it like this: "to preach the good news to the poor, ... to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives,... to proclaim the year of God's favor" (61:1-2). What a tradition to live, grow, and change into!