We're Struggling with Worship...: Questions from a worship coordinator

In this pair of articles, we looked over the shoulders of a worship coordinator and a worship consultant as they together planned a congregational worship seminar in 1992. After the seminar, Edith Bajema agreed to share with RW the materials she had prepared for it, including this letter. We were impressed with her letter, and asked Dave Beelen to write his response for RW so that other congregations could also "attend" the seminar and perhaps gain insights into similar questions they are asking.

TO: Dave Beelen
FROM: Edi Bajema
RE: Worship seminar at Oakdale Park CRC

Thank you for agreeing to come and lead our seminar about worship at Oak-dale Park. We're looking forward to meeting with you. I promised you some background material on our congregation—our makeup and our needs. Hope this is helpful!

Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church has been in the neighborhood for a long time and has seen it change from all-Dutch to its present neighbors— very similar to yours [primarily non-Dutch, non-CRC—mostly black and other minorities]. Over ten years ago, when the church asked Pastor Bill to come and serve, we were an older, dying congregation that had little to do with our neighborhood.

As a result of Bill's leadership, Oakdale rethought its vision and mission. We made a commitment to reach out—not only to help but also to invite in. We did this through visitation, programs for kids, a food pantry a single parents' group, and so on.

But we struggled with worship, trying to create a setting in which non-Dutch, non-middle class, non-CRC people would feel at home—while still maintaining a "home" for those who felt most comfortable with traditional Reformed worship. Gradually, our worship became more informal, and we used more "praise and worship" kinds of songs.

Because of these changes, a number of older people left, finding change too painful. Many other older people remain, loyal to the commitment for outreach but still uneasy over the new worship style that continues to feel uncomfortable, too far from "the way we've always done it." In particular, they do not like drama (they see it as entertainment), do not like learning new songs, and are afraid that change means losing a sense of reverence and awe.

That discomfort on the part of some of our members, coupled with our discovery that we were still not attracting many neighborhood people, convinced us that we still hadn't found the right direction for our worship. So two to three years ago we began an 11:00 Gospel Celebration service (our first service, more traditional, begins at 9:30; Sunday school meets at 11:00 during the gospel worship). Mary Lee Bouma, a seminarian, coordinates Gospel Celebration as a neighborhood ministry working to get neighborhood (primarily black) ownership and leadership of that worshiping fellowship. She has begun neighborhood Bible studies, organizes calling teams, and encourages a small gospel choir in their leadership for the 11:00 service. Attendance at this second service remains at around 30-50 people, about half of which are long-time Oakdale members.

An unforeseen result of this second service is that people in the 9:30 service feel a loss of vision and identity. If the 11:00 service is for the community what is our vision for the 9:30 service? What is our identity and commitment as a congregation? With a growing lack of vision for worship, personal preferences and tastes come to the fore, giving more potential for division. (Part of this concern with vision is much broader than worship, but our worship certainly reflects it.)

Currently our 9:30 worship begins with about three hymns or praise songs, moves to congregational prayer and the offering, then on to another song, the sermon, a final song, and the benediction and doxology. Interspersed in the service are choir songs, solos, occasional drama, readers' theater, children's messages, and responsive reading. The Law and the Apostles' Creed are read sporadically. Not much different from other CRC's, except perhaps for the drama. Communion is celebrated once a month.

We have two excellent organists and six or seven willing and accomplished pianists. Our musical group, Proclaim, plays monthly and prefers praise-and-worship music; the four vocalists in the group are accompanied by drums, bass guitar, keyboard, and acoustic guitar. We also have a small orchestra (a violin, flute, clarinet, bass fiddle, sax, trombones, trumpets) and one or two excellent trumpeters. We have a children's choir and an adult choir. The orchestra and choirs each perform about twice a month. The gospel choir (4-5 members) sings in the 11:00 service.

So we have good preaching and good music. But there remains a hunger, sometimes even when we don't know what we're hungry for. As worship coordinators, we have sensed that this is a hunger for two things: first, for a unifying, Spirit-filled vision for ministry (who we are and what God is calling us to do) that is expressed in worship. Second, and perhaps more deep and more critical, we hunger for an awareness of God's presence in worship.

I put this in my own words, but others, too, have expressed this: a hunger to know God's healing presence at work among us in worship, to adore with all our spirits and hearts the God who created and leads us, to see the gifts of the Spirit at work in our worship through many different members, to create a habitation of praise in which our God descends and is with us.

There is a hunger at Oakdale for honest worship. Not safe, comfortable worship, but honest worship. Worship that causes us to raise our hands in praise or to kneel in awe, without apologies to our neighbors. Worship that allows the sweetness and gentleness of God to move among us and bind us together, despite our differences. Worship that brings healing, that challenges and changes us.

This is a work of God's Spirit, not of human manipulation. So we pray for it. But we also find that our musicians and worship leaders don't all have the same understanding of worship—and that even if we did, we wouldn't necessarily know how to lead the congregation in it. We need to know how to create a team ministry that can lead the congregation in biblical worship.

The role of the church council, especially the elders, is crucial here as well. Currently there is little contact between council or elders and worship planners/leaders. The elders have little or no perceived leadership in worship or prayer. This, too, we are hoping to work on.

To summarize, we are concerned about these things:

  • making a transition from old to new, with as little alienation as possible of older people
  • finding or reaffirming our vision as a church, and wedding that to the way we worship
  • teaching musicians the technical aspects of leading in worship, especially in flowing from song to song, moving from the "outer court" to the "Holy of Holies"
  • involving our many young children more in worship
  • encouraging the gifts of the Spirit in worship (including art, drama, and dance)
  • bringing unity among people of many different ages, tastes, personalities, and backgrounds
  • forming a specific, commissioned and committed worship/music ministry
  • increasing and improving communication between council/elders and worship planners, with elders involved in vision and prayer

We're looking forward to the worship seminar, and the opportunity to addess these issues together.

Edith Bajema

Edith Bajema is a freelance writer and editor and a member of Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.