When congregations think about changing their worship service(s), they usually start by asking two questions: "What are we going to change?" and "How are we going to change it?" Those are fair and logical questions. Yet, because of their focus on the future, they do not represent the healthiest beginning point. As strange as it may sound, the first principle of healthy worship change is to begin with the past. We need to ask, "What aren't we going to change?" In other words, what don'twe want to give up? What are our nonnegotiables, those elements that make worship, "worship"?
Change is hard enough. If assurances are given early on that, regardless of style or format, all worship services will continue to be Christian and biblical—that they will be faithful to your congregation's rich worship heritage—any latent fears about services mutating into some "alien non-worship species" will be diffused from the start!
Healthy worship change is smart change. Before you even utter the word "change," unify your congregation around a biblical core of worship nonnegotiables. Here is a sample set:
At the very least, Christian worship should be
- Active vs. passive ("Worship is not something done to us or for us, but by us." —Robert Webber)
Build on that foundation with worship's "Five E's":
- Esteem God for who God is and what God has done, especially in Jesus Christ (any form of praise, honor, thanksgiving)
- Expound the Word (hymns, songs, message, Scripture readings, creeds, etc.)
- Examine our hearts and lives as a result of encountering God's presence and hearing God's Word (conviction, confession, repentance, receiving God's forgiveness, Lord's Table)
- Entreat God's aid and blessing for others, for ourselves (prayer, intercession)
- Enjoy God's presence and benefits (express delight in and love for God)
Establish Right Motivations for Change
Many a change-driven ministry leader and congregation are completely clueless as to why they're changing their worship services. Yet, once a congregation has agreed on its worship "nonnegotiables," the next question members need to ask is, "Why do we want to change?"
The fact is, there are many motivations for worship change. Most are good, but some are highly questionable, if not unbiblical. We need to be painfully honest with ourselves from the outset of the worship change process. Is our congregation driven by a desire for enhanced worship and a closer relationship with God? Or are we on some kind of "technique" trip? Is my identity as a leader wrapped up in how many people I can stuff into the pews? Examine the change rationales below and see if you can recognize yourself and/or your church:
- to develop a deeper passion for God and the honor of God
- to involve people with the Lord Jesus Christ at a more personal level
- to "sing a new song" to the Lord
- to offer up the sacrifice of creativity
- to keep worship fresh and avoid auto-pilot syndrome (the body is there, but the mind and spirit are somewhere else)
- to enlarge the circle of worship leadership and utilize more of the gifts of the worshiping body
- to meet the worship needs of those in the congregation or community not currently being served by present service forms
- to worship God in a way that is more accessible and welcoming to those who have not attended church for awhile
- to keep up with the local mega-church
- to be on the cutting edge; to be up with the trends
- to prove it can be done
- to fill more seats
- to gain a reputation in the denomination
- to please a certain group in the church
As a congregation, take some time to discuss if and why you want to change your worship service(s). You may be surprised at what you discover!
On the sometimes bumpy and perilous road to worship change, one of the most common mistakes is to base change strategies on assumptions. As leaders, we may be convinced that all church members over age sixty-five are opposed to worship change or that most of the baby boomers in our congregation would like to move to a seeker-sensitive service. Many missed opportunities or conflicts later, we discover just how wrong we were!
No reputable business would make decisions based on assumptions. Why should the church? We need to find out where people really are and base our decisions on fact, not fantasy. Well-crafted surveys of both the congregation and immediate community are a great way to gather the information we need.
To get you started, I've included two sample surveys (see box). The congregational survey could be inserted in your church bulletin or newsletter. For better response rates, I recommend hosting a popular congregational event and distributing the surveys for people to fill out before they leave. (Responses should be anonymous unless the person being surveyed chooses otherwise.)
The community survey is a door-to-door (as opposed to telephone) questionnaire and focuses on the unchurched/dechurched community within a three-mile radius of the church. Obviously, if residents indicate they already have a church home, the response is, "That's wonderful! Thank you for your time."(Note: Birthdate categories for both surveys correspond roughly to the four generational groups: generation X or baby busters, baby boomers, builders, and seniors.)
Establish a Strategy for Change
Selecting a Service for Change
For those of you with several worship services, your most pressing question will undoubtedly be, "Which service are we going to change?" Let me give you just a few operational suggestions. If you are just beginning to change your congregation's style of worship, the service that has the highest attendance should be left as is. Most often, those who desire worship change will alter their attendance patterns to get what they need. The reverse is also true. Those who do not desire change will resist any attempt at displacement. Later on in the process, the scenario may change, especially if the congregation decides to orient its "prime-time" service to reaching the unchurched community. (Note: "Prime-time" is normally Sunday, with starting schedules anywhere from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.) To begin with, however, it's best not to tamper with popularity.
If you only have only one service and 25 percent or more respondents indicate they desire major changes (see Sample Congregational Survey question 3), consider starting a new service.
Why start something new instead of just modifying the one you have? There will inevitably be some people in that original service whose creed is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Something needs to be left intact for them. When attendance at the original service dips 10-15 percent below that of the second service for a period of three months, consider moving the original service to a different time slot. Just be sure to solicit plenty of congregational feedback before making the move!
What and How Much Do We Change?
Once you decide to modify a particular service and/or to begin a new one, your congregation's leaders will be barraged with a myriad of miao-decisions. Should we keep the liturgy from the old hymnal and just substitute a few praise choruses for hymns? Should we buy that sophisticated rear-projection system that mesmerized Uncle Ed when he visited a church in Cleveland?
You're never going to make it through the maze of options unless you decide whose worship needs this particular service is designed to meet. Remember, every church has three groups of people it can serve through worship:
- present participants
- he dechurched (past participants of its own church or other churches; those who have not attended church for anywhere from six months to eight years)
- the unchurched (those who have never attended a church or who have not attended for eight years or more)
If the group you intend to serve is present participants, the answers you compiled from the congregational survey will tell you whether or not the "old hymnal" question is relevant. If the new service is meant to facilitate worship among the unchurched, asking that question is like asking whether a sixteen-year-old wants to sing, "Bicycle Built for Two"!
The bottom line is, certain types of worship services work better for certain kinds of attendees. If we have done our job and kept worship function intact, worship packaging (style) is infinitely negotiable. The specific shape we choose, and consequently how much we change, depends entirely on how we answer one little question: "Who are we inviting to come?"
Make Sure Worship Is Worship
One caution as you head down the road to worship change. If you're going to call a service "worship," you must make sure it really is worship that you're offering, no matter who is sitting in the pews. Currently, there are several service models that are designed to attract dechurched and unchurched people. Some of these models are not really worship at all, but Christian entertainment. Certainly, non-Christians can be evangelized through such programs.
However, let us never forget that worship is part of what defines us as a church. People in our culture— in your community—are longing to meet God. The marvelous thing is that, when they come into a corporate worship setting, they encounter this God inhabiting the praises of his people (Ps. 22:3). In Psalm 105:1-2 we read, "Make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts." And Psalm 40:3 says, "He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD." Clearly, Scripture intends our corporate worship to be a public, welcoming event, a living and dynamic witness to the lost.
The Four Worship Types
If you've tried to find authentic worship models that are welcoming and accessible without compromising the essence of Christian worship (the active honor of God through Jesus Christ), you are not alone. To help you in your search, I've created "Four Options for Worship Change," an assortment of uncompromising worship service models designed to serve contemporary worship needs for everyone from the present participant to the unchurched. Following are a few guidelines for using the four worship types:
- First and foremost, each type is a worthy goal in and of itself. In other words, it doesn't have to be in the process of becoming something else in order to be considered valid or "successful." Its identity and success as a model depends on two things: whose worship needs it is designed to serve and how well it is accomplishing that task.
- Having said that, a congregation may choose to look at the four worship types as a "change continuum." In that case, types are viewed as stages of consecutive growth toward a desired goal. For example, a congregation that is just beginning to change its primary worship service may decide to gradually move from type 1 to type 2. Another congregation may want to focus on the worship needs of the unchurched. Thus, it may start an entirely new service with a type 3 format and eventually move to type 4. The point is, whether a congregation wants to use the single type or continuum approach, the decision is its own to make based on the end-goal it has established.
- Your congregation and its specific calling are unique. Consequently, these types are not set in concrete. They are only meant as a general guide. You may very well decide that the best configuration for a service is a mixture of two types presented here. I know of an extremely effective church that reaches a large percentage of dechurched people from other denominations by mixing elements of type 2 with type 4. Remember, we're not dealing with the canon of Scripture here! Be creative.
- You will see the words "convergence" and "repackaged" in this menu. I am using convergence to mean the coming together of two or more worship styles. Type 1 (limited convergence) would have a greater representation of old-world styles than contemporary, whereas type 2 (balanced convergence) would have a fairly even mix. Repackaged connotes a worship service that puts traditional worship function in a contemporary (90s) wrapper. Thus, type 3 would simply be less repackaged than type 4.
- Finally, I have not listed whole services but only those attributes that have changed from the type listed previous to it. It is a given that each type will retain the core of "nonnegotiables" listed at the beginning of this article.
SAMPLE CONGREGATIONAL SURVEY
- Which worship service do you normally attend?
- Why do you attend that particular service? (Schedule, convenience, habit, childcare, type of service, established friendships)
- Is there anything you don't like about the service you attend? What specific changes would you suggest?
- In your opinion, what is a worship service meant to accomplish?
- When you think of the term "contemporary worship," what comes to mind? Describe the ideal contemporary service.
- If you were to bring your non-Christian friends, neighbors, and/or relatives to our worship service(s), what could we do to make their experience here so positive that they would want to return?
- Would you support starting a new worship service if community worship surveys indicated a need?
- When were you born? 1964-later 1945-1963 1929-1944 1915-1928
SAMPLE COMMUNITY SURVEY
- Do you currently have a church home?
- If not, how long has it been since you attended a church regularly (other than for a funeral, wedding, or holiday service)?
- What is the main reason you do not attend a church?
- If you could envision the perfect church service, what would it be like? Explain.
- formal (organ, choirs, candles, pastor in robe)
- informal (music that sounds like what's on the radio, casual dress)
- somewhere in between (mix of the above)
- If you were to consider attending a church service, what would be the most convenient day and time?
- On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being greatest), how crucial is quality child-care during a church service?
- What radio station or stations do you usually listen to?
- When were you born? 1964-later 1945-1963 1929-1944 1915-1928
FOUR OPTIONS FOR WORSHIP CHANGE
Type 1: Limited Convergence
Intended people group(s)
- present participants
- dechurched of your own congregation
- dechurched of other congregations, same denomination
- standard service structure intact
- musical accompaniment: predominantly organ/piano plus other orchestral instruments such as flute, trumpet, violin
- music leadership within the service: pastor, organist, and/or choir director
- assigned Scripture readings (pericopes)
- congregational aids: hymnal, perhaps a praise chorus collection
Significant changes from standard service
— addition of a few praise choruses
— occasionally one worship medley of hymns and praise choruses
— option: a newly composed liturgy
— occasional popular-style vocal solos/duets as special music
— occasional popular-style choral anthems (such as choral arrangements of praise/worship music or Christian contemporary; excerpts from popular choral cantatas)
— Scripture in modern translations
— responsive readings and creeds in contemporary language
— lay Scripture readers
Type 2: Balanced Convergence
Intended people group(s)
- present participants
- dechurched from your own church
- dechurched from other churches and other denominations
- minor shifts in standard service structure (such as more hymns/worship songs grouped together at the beginning)
- a few complementary groupings of worship events (such as Scripture and testimony; message, reflection and special music)
- musical accompaniment: predominantly piano; some organ; possibly small orchestral ensemble; individual orchestral instruments reinforcing melody (flute, violin, trumpet)
- music leadership within service: pastor or choir director; possibly a designated "song" leader
- congregational aids: hymnal and/or bulletin (option: all music/readings printed out)
Significant changes from type 1
— at least one worship medley
— equal number of hymns/praise choruses
— praise chorus refrains and short hymn verses replace sung portions of established liturgies
— occasional organ accompaniment added
— half of choral music in traditional choral style; half in popular style
— occasional sermon series
— sermons with increased personal application
— some silent, extemporaneous prayers vs. prescribed prayers
— thematic Scripture readings
— fewer responsive readings
— prescribed statements updated (baptism, Lord's Table, benediction, etc.)
Type 3: Moderate Repackaging
Intended people group(s)
- present participants with a medium-to-high change threshold
- dechurched from own or other churches/denominations
- major shifts in worship order (such as confession placed after sermon)
- service segmented into several large groupings of complementary worship elements
- musical accompaniment: piano and or synthesizer (plus small sound system) with acoustic guftar(s), possibly flute, trumpet, other orchestral instruments
- music leadership within service: designated worship leader aided by one or two vocalists who reinforce the melody; minimal harmony
- congregational aids: hymnal and/or projected images (overhead)
Significant changes from type 2
— all worship singing in medley form
— 60 percent praise choruses, 40 percent hymns
— worship music chosen for visitor appeal and "user-friendly" quotient as well as content
— electronic keyboard/MIDI sounds; acoustic guitar
— organ sound used on some hymns/holidays
— small vocal ensemble vs. choir
— use of microphones/sound system
— replacement of keyboard prelude and postlude with recorded contemporary Christian instrumental music
— some instrumental transitions between groupings of events ("underpinning")
— most sermons in series
— few responsive readings or printed prayers
— Apostle's Creed and Lord's Prayer used but projected for visitors
— prescribed pastoral statements replaced with extemporaneous speech
— condensed service order in bulletin
— shortened announcements
Type 4: Extensive Repackaging
Intended people group(s)
- present participants with high change threshold
- dechurched from other churches/denominations
- similar to type 3
Significant changes from type 3
- well-planned verbal/musical transitions (underpinning) between worship events
- musical accompaniment: worship band (rhythm section)
- music leadership within service: worship leader and full worship team (3-6 vocalists reinforcing melody and adding interest with 2- to 3-part harmonies)
- congregational aids: projected images using slide projector or rear projection
Additional music changes
- 30 percent hymns/70 percent praise choruses or newly composed music (ten years old or less)
- hymns repackaged in pop style (worship band accompaniment)
- worship band instrumentals as prelude/postlude
- more sophisticated sound system
- all sermons in series; short sermon outlines in bulletins
- worship songs and various kinds of prayers replace responsive readings
- skeleton service order in bulletin
- announcements projected before/after service
- 90 percent of time, Apostle's Creed, Lord's Prayer sung in praise chorus form
- short dramas, video added
- Scripture readings from Eugene Peterson's The Psalms or The Message