The Festival-Envy Syndrome: Four Contexts of Worship

I remember unsettling conversations in the fellowship hall after worship. A middle-aged woman once said to me, “We returned home from Bethel Christian camp last night and the worship there was so inspiring! My husband and I were deeply blessed. I must confess it was difficult to worship here again this morning.” Another time a teen had this to say: “We got back late last night from a week-long SERVE project. It was a blast! We all felt so close to each other and I grew so much in my walk with God. I wish it could be that way all the time.”

Unsettling, but almost every worship leader I know (including me) has felt this festival envy too, particularly after returning home from a worship conference! Worship is intensely experiential, and there are times when a number of factors converge to create an especially deep and moving worship experience. Worship is intended to be experiential, but this intent is heightened in our day because we live in a culture that craves profound experiences. In our time, worship can be treated as if it belongs in the same category as bungee-jumping and skydiving: it provides a “rush,” an adrenalin/emotional high that functions as the criterion that determines it was successful.

But perceiving worship as experiential consumerism makes us feel uneasy. On one hand, powerful emotion often deepens our experience of worship. The book of Psalms, a wonderful worship resource, overflows with emotional intensity, and the festivals and dedications that are commanded and described in Scripture clearly celebrate “spiritual highs.” But on the other hand, placing worship in the same category as bungee-jumping and using the intensity of the experience as a criterion for success doesn’t sound right. We sense that we’ve crossed the line into lumping apples together with oranges. How might we sort out this uneasiness?

The primary means I’ve used to sort out this unease is to recognize that Scripture describes four contexts of worship: the festival, the congregation, the extended family, and solitude. Each of these four contexts contains its own core identifying characteristics, and this core guides the expectations worshipers bring to it. Allowing each context to flourish within its own parameters without imposing the expectations of one upon another goes a long way toward sorting out these difficulties.

Festival Worship

A festival is an event that is irregular/sporadic, gathering together worshipers who have often traveled a great distance and who are (for the most part) strangers to one another. A worship festival is usually part of a larger event such as a convention, retreat, service/mission project, or conference, and is usually led by highly trained professional worship leaders. People come to the festival event in a very focused frame of mind: eager and expectant. They have planned to come for months; their pumps are primed. Because they are a gathering of strangers, they come with very little relational baggage. Sharing a common focus and expectancy, they bond quickly, feeling an almost instant intimacy of sorts. This bonding is made easier by the fact that many festival events reflect some age segregation: teens attend youth conventions, the 25-60 age group dominates at a worship conference, and seniors continue to attend summer Bible camps. Those who lead such events are often skilled in touching human lives deeply and in cultivating a sense of community. Often these leaders are known to the participants only by reputation, so that seeing them “in the flesh” adds more freshness, vitality, and expectancy to the event. Add up all of the above, and it’s not surprising that people return home from festival events touched and inspired. And that they feel somewhat let down by their home worship experiences.

Congregational Worship

Congregational worship, in contrast, is usually a weekly occurrence. Worshipers of all ages gather in a wide variety of focused and unfocused, expectant and unexpectant mindsets. On our left sits an old friend whom we love dearly, while behind us on the right we find the young man with whom we argued so vehemently at last week’s committee meeting. We find ourselves predicting with great accuracy several of the standard phrases used by the worship leader and the preacher. These contrasts with festival worship strike us at first blush as hopeless.

But they are not! If the festival is like an annual banquet, the weekly worship is more like the regular dinner hour. Each has its indispensable place. The dinner hour is more predictable, but its regularity is crucial for proper nourishment. The deepest bonds within the body of Christ are not found in instant intimacy but rather grow through years of faithfulness, shared experiences, and even conflict. I will never forget an Easter morning when we rose to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Directly around me were four families who had experienced a recent death, and it hit me that I knew exactly what all of these folks were thinking as we sang. They were not close friends, but I had worshiped with them for many years, and I was too choked up to sing. Whereas the central defining characteristic of the festival is inspiration, the central defining characteristic of congregational worship is a faithfulness that calls the body together week after week through all the messiness of life.

Extended Family Worship

The third context—the extended family—is the most difficult to define. It refers to groups of from two to forty believers gathered for a common purpose that includes (but is rarely limited to) worship. After an intense evening meeting, the elders conclude with a lengthy time of prayer, and so become an extended family at worship. A Bible study meets in the home for singing, Scripture lessons, and prayer, and so becomes an extended family at worship. A landscaping crew in our town begins each work day with a half hour of devotions, and so becomes an extended family at worship. Family devotions play a very important role in this context. As adults, children, and teens worship in the nuclear family setting, they are strengthened in immeasurable ways. While family devotions are often a daily occurrence (perhaps at mealtimes), many extended family settings may occur daily, weekly, monthly, or in one-time-only events. In smaller congregations the line between the context of congregation and extended family becomes extremely blurred, but most of the time there is a clear distinction between the two.

The central distinguishing feature of extended family worship is its ability to deepen interpersonal relationships. It’s easy to get lost in a 250-member congregation on Sunday morning, but no one is overlooked in the extended family setting. These settings allow us to become transparent and vulnerable. In that transparency we come to see more clearly both the presence of God’s grace and of pain and brokenness in each one’s life. When permission to be vulnerable is given in these settings, community is built and the worship becomes a vehicle for placing all of the activities of this particular extended family group inside the gracious presence of God. I recall once directing our church choir as we were rehearsing a chorus from Handel’s Messiah one December. While we sang, an alto in the second row began weeping silently, and we knew why: her brother had died at an early age just three weeks before and the music had allowed her grief to come to the surface. As we continued to sing, hands next to her held her while other eyes around the room moistened in compassion for her grief and their own now-remembered griefs. We were a choir in rehearsal, but there we also became an extended family at worship.

Worship can be treated as if it belongs in the same category as bungee-jumping and skydiving:  it provides a “rush,” an adrenalin/emotional high that functions as the criterion that determines it was successful.

Worship in Solitude

Finally, there is a place for worshiping in solitude. Praying alone in one’s inner chamber, taking late-night walks under a star-studded sky, quietly reading the Scriptures, writing out prayers in a daily journal, singing while driving down the highway, hiking up a mountainside are just a few of the many ways to worship in solitude. Blaise Pascal once dared to write, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” The central feature of worship in solitude is, to quote the title of a wonderful devotional book, making “space for God.” Life is busy-fying, and our worship life requires opportunities to unbusy-fy. In solitude and silence we are able to listen for the presence of God, listen to the sounds of our own spirits, step outside of the symphony (or cacophony?) of our routines, and discern more clearly the shape of their melodies, harmonies, and textures. One of the noisiest poems in the psalter concludes with the command “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10) and in so doing has inspired millions who have worshiped in solitude ever since to make space for him.


Seeing the whole of our worship life in terms of these four contexts has several implications for dealing with festival-envy syndrome (and context confusion in general):

1. Each one of the four contexts has a legitimate, unique, and necessary contribution to make.

The central distinguishing feature of each context is not exclusive to that context: extended family activities require faithfulness, congregational worship provides inspiration, and festivals make space for God. However, each context is able to provide one gift to its participants in the strongest, most focused, consistent manner in ways that the others cannot. Each one of the four belongs in the worship life of the Christian community; each is irreplaceable and irreducible.

2. Each context is intended to strengthen one’s worship in the other three.

Festival-envy syndrome points to a competition between these contexts. We see this competition occur in other ways as well: a believer will say, “I don’t worship in church on Sundays; I go for a walk in the forest.” Another will say, “My real congregation is my prayer group. I feel like a faceless number in the congregation on Sunday.” Misunderstanding the chemistry between the four contexts allows such competition to flourish.

Instead, each context strengthens the participant to worship more fully in the other three. The transparency within the extended family reminds us that all with whom we worship on Sunday morning are fellow children of God who bring their brokenness to God’s grace, though it may not be obvious to us in that context. Our times of solitude free us for greater transparency in extended family settings. The inspiration we receive at festivals nourishes us with hope and energy to continue the journey faithfully in the other three contexts back at home. These four contexts are completely interwoven and mutually reinforcing.

3. Worshipers tend to be the least focused and the least prepared to worship in the congregational context.

One irony that flows from this discussion of four worship contexts is that the congregational setting clocks the most person-hours per week, but it is also susceptible to come out the worst when people practice context confusion. Worshipers frequently hope to receive festival-like inspiration, family-like intimacy, and solitude-like space through their Sunday worship. This hope is maintained by the fact that congregational worship does provide some of these benefits in varying degrees some of the time.

How does one respond to the festival envy comments heard in the fellowship hall after Sunday worship? I tend to take a deep breath, say something short and sweet, and then go home to ponder questions like these:

  • In what ways does our congregation educate members concerning the places of these four contexts in their lives?
  • In what ways does congregational worship celebrate the gifts of the other three contexts, weaving them into its weekly tapestry to acknowledge their complementary gifts?
  • How are we as a congregational worship team encouraging one another to faithfulness in leading God’s people into his presence from week to week?

Finally, I remind myself that we’ll never obliterate context confusion before Jesus returns, but we can certainly continue in hope, pointing to the one who weaves all our worship together.


Worship and Our Emotions

Another major issue in festival-envy syndrome involves sorting out the confusing but important place of emotions in worship. Leading believers to mature in worshiping with their emotions is one of the greatest challenges that worship leaders face. I try to follow these basic guidelines:

  1. Be inconspicuously real. Leading worship in a way that is emotionally honest but does not draw attention to oneself creates space for emotional freedom and issues an invitation to the worshipers to express their own emotions in worship.
  2. Avoid any hint of emotional manipulation. Let’s face it, it’s rampant in North American Christianity; many worshipers enjoy it even though it’s demeaning. Making space for the emotions is very different from manipulating the emotions.
  3. Avoid any hint of emotional legalism. Phrases that indicate what worshipers ought to feel during worship do not respect the fact that each individual’s emotions are wired very differently and one size does not fit all. Such “oughts” only serve to create hurtful distinctions between “more spiritual” and “less spiritual” worshipers.
  4. Provide opportunities for emotional maturation. A common assumption in our culture is that emotions “just happen”; therefore they cannot mature. The Christian knows that sanctification—maturing in Christ—covers every aspect of our being, including our emotions. For example, worship is often immature in the area of lament; leading worshipers to lament well provides an opportunity for emotional maturation.


Reformed Worship 71 © March 2004, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.