December 3, 2015

Hold the Cheese

Insights from My College Students About What Helps and Hinders Worship

I recently taught a class on worship and theology to an insightful group of 30 undergraduate students. They came from churches all over the stylistic spectrum, from eight denominations, twelve states and provinces, and three countries. 

As part of the course, I asked them to submit brief written reflections to these open ended questions: 

  • What things really help you engage in worship in a worshipful way?
  • What things are barriers to your participation in a deep and significant way?  

I provided no other guidance or prompting. They simply listed the 3-5 things that most helped or hindered them.

In reading their replies, I was struck by the surprising convergence of themes in their answers in spite of their diverse experiences and perspectives.

Six Common Themes

Here are the six most common themes in reverse order:

6. It is challenging to actually pray the words someone else speaks, especially in a long prayer. It helps if there is some congregational response in a prayer, or some shape to the prayer that participants can follow.

5. The use of familiar words—like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed—helps worship participation. If it’s all new every week, it’s difficult to enter into worship. Too much energy is devoted to catching up to all the novelty.

4. It helps when services have a shape or pattern that makes sense and conveys meaning, rather than a haphazard collection of songs and prayers that don’t flow together.  

3. It helps when scripture is read or presented thoughtfully as a significant aspect of worship. It hinders worship when scripture readings feel insignificant—when the readings are too short or read in a careless way.

2. It helps when the worship service allows for deep personal contemplation or engagement, especially in times of meaningful silence. 

And here was number 1:

1. It helps a lot when leaders avoid cheesy remarks, flippant comments, superficial introductions, rambling chatter, and offhand remarks—and when they lead the service without calling attention to themselves.  

Lessons from the Themes

It’s important to note that this group of students were not commenting about the same church.  It’s also true that this sampling is not statistically significant. We can’t draw conclusions from this sample about all people in this age range or about North American Christianity in general.

Yet these responses are very instructive. 

For one, they suggest that simply asking people these basic questions can generate significant insights. Look for people in your context to ask—children, youth, and older members, seekers, new believers and life-long Christians.

Don’t ask what people merely like in worship. That’s not deep enough. But do ask what things help or hinder deep engagement in worship. Inviting people to think about this may well prompt deep participation all by itself! Beyond that, you may well learn a lot about things that you could do to help people participate more deeply. 

For another, this particular list of common themes is fascinating. Addressing these will not add a dime to your church’s budget! This is a call for thoughtful worship, but not impressive worship. It’s a call to be intentional, but not a burdensome request to be obsessive in planning, rehearsing, or leading.

Their top answer especially invites us to think about our practices and priorities. The frequency and urgency of the comments about cheesy leaders was striking. These students long for authentic leaders, but not leaders who are merely projecting authenticity. (We can’t pretend to be sincere). And too much self-referential talk from leaders makes it hard for leaders to put Jesus at the center of their attention. 

As leaders, it takes practice to be warm and inviting in tone, without being flippant or superficial. It’s easy to be tempted to project an enthusiasm we may not feel under the assumption that this is what people want. And it’s very difficult to gently confront another leader whose witty jokes or meandering stories end up being a distractions. 

Some of us may immediately think of things that we or other leaders in our congregations could do to improve on this score. I am reminded of a colleague who gave up liturgical weather reports as a routine way of beginning worship (“welcome to you all on this rainy/sunny/cloudy/humid/snowy day”) and tried to discipline herself to choose a single sentence that said something about the meaning of the event (“how beautiful that we can be together today—young children and older adults, guests and long-time members” or “how grateful we are today to worship a God who is both very good and very great”). 

Most of us, however, will need help from others. Wise leaders should feel comfortable asking a trusted group of colleagues or friends “What are things in my leadership that enable or hinder worship? What would be one or two things I could do to strengthen my leadership?”

How grateful I am for my students’ candid, perceptive comments!

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