Expanding the Conversation: Knitting Together Worship and Congregational Life

RW is grateful for continuing encouragement and support from CICW. This guest editorial is the third in a series during our twentieth anniversary year, following Robert Webber (RW 77) and Bert Polman (RW 78).

It is always dangerous to label one’s own era as unique. But when it comes to worship in the past twenty years, it is hard to avoid hyperbole. Although the sixteenth-century Reformation still counts as the most significant single movement in the history of Christian worship, we live in a period of nearly unprecedented change in worship practices.

This change comes in many competing forms. One congregation introduces more celebratory worship while another restores contemplative practices. Seeker-oriented churches set aside religious symbols while the “emerging church” restores them. All kinds of congregations are singing psalms, but in styles hardly recognizable from one to the next. For the past twenty years, RW has been interacting with five very distinct movements: charismatic, liturgical, ecumenical, church growth, and neo-confessional—each with its own magnetic pull.

But it is a change that is common to all five movements that stands out as unique in Christian history and is central to the mission of RW. That change is the growth of lay participants in planning and leading worship. For roughly 4,000 years prior to 1980—ever since Aaron was appointed priest in Israel—the vast majority of worship services in the vast majority of congregations were led nearly exclusively by ordained priests or pastors, most often supported by a lead musician (whether a Levite, cantor, organist, or praise team leader).

In contrast, today’s RW subscribers include not only pastors and lead musicians but also artists, praise team members, worship planners, children’s ministry specialists, dramatists, elders, deacons, and lay leaders. In many congregations, more people are involved in making decisions about more aspects of worship than in any historical period.

Assessing Change

This change has fueled remarkable creativity. Artists who used to be ignored by congregations are now designing banners, bulletin covers, computer-projected images, and paraments. Young children who used to be seen but not heard are now reciting memory verses as part of the Scripture reading and seeing their drawings appear on bulletin covers or media presentations. Junior high saxophone players and high school drummers who used to listen to congregational singing are now leaders in praise teams and instrumental ensembles.

At its best, ours is an era of participation, ownership, and collaboration. Skimming back through almost eighty issues of RW, I am deeply grateful for the thoughtful work of contributors from more than 400 congregations, many of whom are not professionally trained pastors or lead musicians.

As with any change, there are also downsides. At times our democratized approach has led us to set aside things that would be good for us in favor of things we like. At times our planning has been disconnected from pastoral leadership. At times we have been tempted to call too much attention to innovation or creativity itself, rather than the God we encounter in our worship.

And worship requires more time and effort. One exasperated musician recently remarked, “All this worship stuff takes so much work!” She used to enjoy quiet weekly practice time while preparing the Sunday offertory and four well-known hymns. Now she attends planning and evaluation meetings, studies a dozen songbooks to select thematically appropriate music, reads lead-sheets of new songs, organizes rehearsals of young instrumentalists, consults with a tech team and local artists, and arranges for copyright permissions. While this is significant work, we also need to keep an eye on the process. Endless innovation must never sap the church’s energy for service in the world.

In response to these concerns, many congregations have developed training programs for volunteers, honed planning processes both to balance constancy and innovation and to make sure that preachers and worship leaders communicate effectively. These are signs of maturity. And RW has a key role to play in that maturation process by offering resources that reflect best practices.

A Second Revolution?

There is no way to predict what the next twenty years will bring. But looking ahead, I do offer one hope and challenge. If the first twenty years of RW involved the expansion of the worship conversation from pastors and organists to all kinds of lay worship leaders and planners, I hope the next twenty years expands the audience to include people with deep concerns for other aspects of congregation life: hospitality, pastoral care, education, social justice, evangelism, prayer ministries, and church administration.

Consider the possibilities for more deeply knitting worship into the fabric of congregational life:

  • In education, imagine a musician reviewing the church school curriculum to look for excellent, age-appropriate music to complement key lessons, recording it for families to use at home, and then using those hymns and songs in worship. Imagine pastors or worship leaders offering annual education sessions on worship in church school for each age group. (Training worshipers for deeper participation is arguably the most neglected part of worship renewal work over the past generation.)
  • In pastoral care, imagine a musician considering every wedding and funeral an opportunity for specialized pastoral care, composing or selecting a simple arrangement of a song that is chosen for each event, dedicating it to the families, and—when possible—using that arrangement again in worship near the anniversary of the event. Imagine a pastor or worship team selecting a song or worship-related artwork to function in the congregation’s pastoral care ministries, perhaps as gifts given in every visit in homes, hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons.
  • In social justice ministries, imagine planning a joint worship service across ethnic and cultural lines. Or imagine every advocacy letter signed by a congregational justice committee accompanied by a hymn text or even a recording, a signal that the church’s advocacy for justice is not merely legal, but also doxological (our protest against injustice is rooted in praise).
  • In witness or evangelism ministries, imagine an after-school music program that draws members of the local community into the church. In an era when schools lack money for the arts, music and arts education may be an especially effective way for congregations to reach out to their communities.
  • In church administration, imagine a pastor or worship leader working with each committee or ministry in a congregation to select a “theme song,” exposing them to some of the most creative and provocative current hymn writers and composers, and then gathering the theme songs into a small collection for worship. This collection of ministry theme songs could function as a congregation’s expanded mission statement—one that resembles not a corporate memo but rather a collection of doxological and prophetic poetry.

When embraced throughout congregational life, this integrating approach to worship ministry radicalizes our care for the church’s healing ministries and for both the needs and ministries of individual worshipers. The point is to foster genuine collaboration, to keep worship rooted in real life, and to permeate congregational life with a spirit of worship.

Moving Forward

This approach promises to teach us a great deal. From church educators we can learn how worship forms and disciples us; from pastoral care experts we can learn how public prayer, music, art, and preaching function to comfort, challenge, and sustain us during life’s mountaintops and valleys.

This approach also promises to help large and small churches learn from each other. In small congregations, the lead pianist is often a church school teacher, prayer group coordinator, evangelism committee member, and back-up janitor. Whereas large churches benefit from specialization, small churches can be better at integration. All of us can learn from both.

Perhaps this approach will also suggest new ways of looking at traditional roles. What if congregational musicians changed their job titles from “director of liturgical music” to “stewards of music in congregational life” with a focus on promoting healthy musical practices throughout congregational life? An interesting thought.

Dangers lurk in these waters too. Integrating all these concerns could lead to a utilitarian view of worship (the idea that worship is good if it accomplishes something for another ministry). To ward that off, you’ll need to begin with a robust theology of worship, a vivid awareness that we gather in worship for nothing less than a communal meeting for holy dialogue with the triune God.

It’s true that this change could also lead to more work. But ultimately the goal is to share the work and make our existing efforts even more beneficial for the whole congregation’s ministry. Over time, collaboration divides the work and energizes workers. In busy contemporary life, we should always be looking for ways that increase synergy and decrease needless busyness.

Start Today

Will this second revolution happen? There’s no way to know what the next years will bring. But whatever happens, a body-of-Christ approach that seeks collaboration and mutual discernment will serve as a strong foundation.

And some of it can start in your congregation today. Which one of the ideas mentioned above would be most realistic and helpful for your congregation? And how could you improve it for your local context? What group, committee, staff member, or ministry group hasn’t discussed worship lately? How could their ministry both strengthen and be strengthened by worship?

In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of the body of Christ as “joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped.” May God bless us all with the humility, curiosity, and openness we’ll need to be truly “knit together.”

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.