Q: What do you get when you are asked to take part in an event for which you are remarkably unprepared?
A: Butterflies in your stomach.
Q: What do you get when you realize that the majority of participants in that event are as unprepared as you?
A: The false assurance of safety in numbers.
Q: What do you get when the leadership of that same event begins to realize what’s going on?
A: Frustrated and disheartened leadership.
Q: What do you get when that leadership becomes so disenchanted that they start to forget why the event is happening in the first place?
A: Worship this coming Lord’s Day in the majority of Protestant churches.
Christian worship is in trouble. Books, CDs, journals, conferences, events, and Internet resources are promoting innovative ways to ensure exemplary corporate worship. But pick a church, attend Lord’s Day worship, and more than likely you will discover that authentic Christian worship is in real trouble.
This is not to say people won’t be meeting at the church down the street into the foreseeable future. They will. But ask what they are doing when they meet and how important worship is to them, and you begin to see the problem. Ask what they plan to be doing in their worship one year, one decade, or one generation from now, and the problem is magnified.
We are worship leaders. How much do we care what the people in our congregations think they are doing in worship? How much do we care how they will be worshiping one year, one decade, or one generation after we are gone? How are we preparing the church we lead today to be a worshiping church in the future? Here are ten of our greatest challenges.
Challenge 10: Worship Style
“Something’s not right—let’s do something different.”
Addressed first because of its long-term insignificance is the challenge of worship style. Skirmishes between pew-bound groupies cheering for bands versus choirs are only emblematic of larger and more serious problems. In the vast majority of congregations, style should be the last issue worship leaders address. By the end of this article, worship style may seem a moot point.
- What issues of worship is “style” masking in your congregation?
Challenge 9: Penta-generational Congregations
“What do you mean, ‘post’modern?”
People are living longer and the world is changing faster than ever before. An average congregation may have five different generations of people representing at least five differing worldviews attempting to worship together. The magnitude of this challenge can be seen in “Through Prism of Tragedy Generations Are Defined” by William Strauss and Neil Howe (Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 23, 2002). Why are we surprised when worship that works for one segment of the congregation alienates another?
- How many generations/worldviews can you identify in your congregation?
Challenge 8: Cultural Expectations
“I thought you were supposed to wear black!”
When secular people notice the church at all, they often have stereotypes. From the dust that flies out of the Bible in the newest Oxy-clean commercial to the enchanted world of Father Tim’s Mitford in Jan Karon’s novels, caricatures of the church permeate the culture (and these are just the friendly ones!). As early as 1995, Douglas Webster wrote, “Cultural forces shape our identity; arts and education for mainline Protestants and the marketplace for evangelicalism. We have become secularized by the culture we are trying to reach with the gospel” (“Evangelizing the Church,” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm, eds., InterVarsity Press, p. 195).
- What elements in your worship could be seen as a caricature of authentic praise?
Challenge 7: Competing Religions
“Anything special happening at church this week?”
Sunday worship competes with pan-thematic television, a leisurely brunch, or the self-imposed demands of golfers and soccer moms. These cultural “religions” influence the minds and hearts of the people we face each Sunday. In his contribution to Worship by the Book, Kent Hughes wrote, “The congenital twins of pragmatism and anthropocentrism have vastly influenced 20th century worship. . . . Corporate worship has taken the form of something done for an audience as opposed to something done by a congregation” (“Free Church Worship: The Challenge of Freedom,” p. 148).
The greatest danger of the entertainment mentality may not be liturgical capitulation, however. More insidious is the mind-drift that now equates competing events with worship. The choice is no longer between church (where I should be) and another event (where I really have to be). For many modern people, there is little reason to be in Christian worship at all beyond its immediate value to amuse or possibly inform.
- Are your people coming to be worshipers or to watch an event?
Up to this point, worship leaders might try to rationalize a victim mentality. The first four challenges come directly out of the culture in which we are called to do ministry. They reflect the demise of Christendom and the new quadrilateral of secularism, consumerism, pragmatism, and humanism. But institutional complicity in devaluing worship enters now.
Challenge 6: The Demise of Music
“How much do we have to sing this week?”
In a recent article in Modern Reformation (Nov.-Dec. 2002) Gene Veith wrote, “Pop culture has a way of driving out both the high culture of serious artistic creation and the folk culture of authentic human communities” (“Lift Up Your Voice: Church Music and Contemporary Culture”). Nowhere is this more evident than in the church. In our worship, we are expecting people to sing without teaching them how to sing. Our worship is in trouble, and we who know the craft of music have no one to blame but ourselves. But we can change this.
Music education in most public schools is nonexistent, and participation in many community choruses is a shadow of what it once was.
So what? Nothing but the lack of ingenuity and vision for ministry on the part of church musicians is stopping the church from being the place where musical training flourishes—again. Instead, we have at least three generations of people whose idea of congregational singing is a low drone buried by the organ or the band. Judeo-Christian worship is built around singing. At the moment, music—the folk music of the “church folk”—is rapidly disappearing.
- How are you helping people learn to love to sing?
Challenge 5: Loss of Poetic Voice
“Trees don’t clap their hands—that’s just silly!”
In a landmark book on emerging culture, Stanley Greens wrote, “We cannot simply collapse [biblical] truth into the categories of rational certainty that typify modernity. Rather, in understanding and articulating the Christian faith, we must make room for the concept of ‘mystery’—not as an irrational complement to the rational, but as a reminder that the fundamental reality of God transcends human rationality” (A Primer on Postmodernism, Eerdmans, 1996). Ezra Pound once said, “Poetry is news that lasts.” Our world is increasingly devoid of an awareness of anything that cannot be captured by exact language or visual special effects. In worship, we are asking people to use imagery they do not understand to deepen their relationship with the Intangible. Our worship is in trouble, but we who teach the poetry can change this.
We may be starting to see an interesting reversal in this trend in the popularity of the work of Kevin Twit and others who are recapturing the majestic hymn-poems of the past three centuries and recasting them with cutting edge musical interpretation (see RW 66, p. 44). Music may be leading us back to the joy of poetic language!
- How are you teaching people to praise the indescribable?
Challenge 4: Loss of Corporate Memory
“What’s the big deal about worship?”
One of the greatest challenges we face as worshiping Christians is remembering why we are Christians and why we are worshiping. In his article “You Have Been Brought Near: Reflections in the Aid of Theological Exegesis” Russell Reno wrote, “Only as we are formed by the common life of the church, her ancient teachings, her ceaseless prayer, and her patterns of self-discipline and mutual service, can we read [Scripture] rightly” (Touchstone, July-Aug. 2002). Our worship is in trouble because we have lost our sense of place in the body of Christ. But we who are the theologians can change this.
How many people in your congregation remember that their gathering is not just a local event, or even some modest portion of a vaguely ecumenical experience? The worship of God’s people, whenever it happens, connects them to the worship of other people in every time and place from before the time Abram built the altar at Shechem.
- How are you helping people join their worship to the worship of The Church?
Challenge 3: Loss of Biblical Identity
“What does Abram have to do with me?”
Christian worship tells a story. Psalms call us to rejoice or lament. Biblical characters come to life through anthems, choruses, and readings. The great teachings of the Bible, cast and presented in appropriate liturgy, can embrace us, encourage us, or convict us, if we see the language, characters, and images as part of our story. Our worship is in trouble because many people see biblical teachings and stories as simple moralization from another place and time. But we who are preachers and teachers can change this.
- How are you helping people see contemporary relevance in the truth of Scripture?
Challenge 2: Loss of Biblical Literacy
“Where the heck is Shechem?”
A study done within the last five years determined that over 75 percent of active members in my denomination had their only contact with Scripture during Lord’s Day worship. Astute preachers know this. Many worship leaders have yet to figure it out. Our worship is in trouble because much of our musical and liturgical language includes biblical images and illusions people do not remember (if they ever knew them at all). Biblical language without citation or explanation can be a foreign language to most modern worshipers. But we who teach the Bible can change this.
- How are you helping people learn and love to “own” Scripture?
Challenge 1: Embarrassment of the Gospel
“Can we still say we are Christians?”
No thinking Christian has avoided struggling with contemporary challenges to the unique claims of Jesus Christ. But Jesus is either who he claims to be or he is not—there is no middle ground. Authentic Christian worship cannot happen apart from the acclamation that Jesus is Lord! Many of the people we lead in worship are not prepared to endorse that exclusive claim. Our worship is in big trouble.
Until pastors, elders, deacons, parents, grandparents, and children are discipled and encouraged to a level of conviction in faith that can only come from a redeemed heart, no amount of liturgical tinkering, musical tweaking, or stylistic transformation will be of ultimate value. The greatest challenge to authentic Christian worship seems to be a crumbling foundation of authentic Christian faith. Happily, we know a Savior whose love can shore up that foundation.
Under certain favorable conditions, imitations of authentic worship can flourish for a time through an environment of learned repetition or local tradition, sustained by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to profession of faith and spiritual growth. But corporate worship unsustained by covenantal faith will eventually become dull, shallow, culture-driven, and easily distracted. Sound familiar?
Address these ten challenges in reverse order, and a path of discipling ministry centered around authentic Christ-centered worship emerges. Individuals mature in their faith. Congregations become transformed communities, glorifying and proclaiming God with vibrant joy. May it soon be so.