As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been out on the worship conference circuit this summer, raising awareness for our new Worship Arts specialization, that can be taken as part of our Master of Arts in Ministry degree, or along with the Master of Divinity. Two weeks ago I was at the National Worship Leader Conference in Dallas, the fifth and last of the “tour,” representing the seminary and teaching workshops on “Worship As Spiritual Formation” and “The Worship Leader as Pastor.” Having now shared these talks multiple times in various venues throughout 2015, I’m about ready to retire them, at least in their present form. But before I do, I thought I might share one of them here. So, without further ado, and for the sake of brevity, here are the first 5 of my “10 Theses” on Worship as Spiritual Formation – I’ll share the other 5 next time. (Note: this is also pertinent right now because Colleen Derr and I are teaching Congregational Spiritual Formation together to our Marion onsite cohort, and I can’t talk about “CSF” without talking a whole lot about worship.)
My first year as a full time faculty member at Wesley Seminary has been exciting, in no small part because we are still constantly tweaking, refining, innovating and collaborating to be the best seminary that we can be for our students. I’ve also learned that, in an innovative environment like Wesley Seminary, one must be careful what one says in committee meetings, because a random idea just might become reality (and create a bunch of additional work!).
In late 2014, our (outgoing – *sniffle*) Dean Ken Schenck, our Director of Admissions Aaron Wilkinson, and I had a “meeting after the meeting” where we discussed our current Master of Arts in Ministry specializations. At that time, we offered Leadership (Bob Whitesel’s area); Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Colleen Derr’s area), and Church Planting and Multiplication, Church Revitalization, and were in the process of rolling out one in Pastoral Care.
So, the newbie professor (me), says, “Okay, so what would it take to have a specialization in worship?” “Four worship classes,” says Ken. Aaron’s eyes lit up as he asked, “What would the four classes be?” So we hit the whiteboard for a few minutes, Aaron left to do some market research, and long-story-short, by March I was writing course proposals, Aaron was putting together a marketing plan, and by May, it was all getting the green light from the appropriate committees. (Click here for more info about the Worship Arts specialization.)
Part of the marketing plan involves sending “yours-truly” to five major worship conferences this summer and early fall: three National Worship Leader Conferences (in Kansas, California and Texas) and two Experience conferences (in Texas and Orlando – apparently there are a lot of Christians, and a lot of mega-churches, in Texas!). I’m teaching some workshops and hanging out at our booth to tell people about the new program, which is already gaining applicants, and (all being well) will launch in January 2016 with our first cohort! (Operators are standing by.)
I’ve been leading worship in local churches for more than 20 years (yes, unfortunately I am old enough for that to be true), and was a full-time worship pastor for almost 7 years before coming to Wesley Seminary. I am blessed to know a lot of worship leaders. Many of them went into their ministry roles thinking they were taking a “music job” (church musicians have a bad habit of referring to it as a “gig”), only to realize the job of a worship pastor is about 30% music and about 70% pastor.
So we’ve designed this program primarily with the active worship leader in mind, who is musically equipped and already doing the job, but wishes to enhance her ministry with additional theological, biblical and pastoral training. Hence, the degree is an MA in Ministry, with a specialization in Worship Arts: 36-hour degree (1/3 of that is worship-related) that can be completed online in 2 years, without stepping away from an existing ministry role.
As I’ve been out talking to people at the first two of these five conferences, this new program seems (as I imagined it would) to address a very real need, both for individual worship leaders and for the Church. Worship is changing, because the Church is changing… because the culture is changing. Here are a few things I’m noticing as I look at the Church today, and how it is encapsulated at these worship conferences I’ve been attending lately:
1. We’re ready for a break from “the big show.”
Highlights at both conferences I’ve attended have been stripped down acoustic sets, in some cases by artists who are known as big, loud rock bands. At the NWLC in Kansas City, headlining band Jesus Culture did a set with just two acoustic guitars and their voices. They returned after a plenary talk by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech and ended by leading the 1200 or so of us in singing “Shout to the Lord” – a major “throwback” as modern worship goes!
At the Dallas Experience Conference, the most talked-about session was an “in-the-round” night of acoustic worship, led by members of the conference steering committee, most of whom are relatively unknown local church worship leaders. (Well, they did have CCM legend Al Denson playing piano!) No fancy lighting, no hazers, no projectors – in fact, we were given no lyrics at all! We just sang familiar worship songs, old and new, for a solid 90 minutes.
Say it with me, friends: “Less is more.” Don’t mistake impressive for excellent. Excellence doesn’t require virtuosic talent or expensive technology. (And for a $60 concert ticket, I can usually get way better than anything a church can pull off.) There may be a place in some contexts for the big production, but: A) that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the standard for every church; and B) even if it is the norm in a given context, there’s value in occasionally stepping away from it, and stripping it down to the basics every once in awhile. God is glorified in our weakness, so it’s okay to allow our flawed humanity to come through in our worship services.
2. We’re ready for more substance, theology, and (gasp!) tradition.
As evidence, here are some of the workshop titles on offer at the conferences I’ve attended: “Liturgy in Modern Worship”… “Making the Past Present”… “Reimagining the Psalms for Gathered Worship”… “Worship as Spiritual Formation” (that last one is mine). Yes, there are also sessions on sound design and environmental projection and how to help your guitar players get along with your keyboard players… but, to my pleasant surprise, workshops delving into scripture, theology, liturgy and discipleship were also presented to packed rooms, some standing-room-only.
Of course, this is not unrelated to the previous point. Our culture is inundated with advertising, which forms us into consumers. I think we’re (younger people, especially) just tired of constantly being sold the next latest, greatest thing. The church can either try (and usually fail) to compete in that game… or we can provide an alternative to it, and relief from it. In a culture of disembodied, technologically-mediated experiences, Christian worship provides authentic, embodied presence. In a culture of change and impermanence, the Church provides something anchored, something that lasts: not traditional-ism, which is the dead faith of the living, but tradition, which is the living faith of those who have gone on before us. We need worship that forms us not as consumers but as Christians.
3. We’re all in the same boat.
The nice thing about attending ministry conferences is that, as you begin to talk to others, you realize you’re not alone. Everybody’s dealing with the same struggles, from how to control our stage volume to how to reach our communities. It’s even nice to be in the big plenary sessions with the big-name artists and realize that they make mistakes, and their guitarists play the occasional wrong note, and their lyric projectionist is sometimes slow with the slide changes, too!
It’s possible, of course, to see all the technology, and hear the headlining artists, and get all pumped full of big ideas, and then realize you (as I!) have to go back to your small church and lead with just a guitar (and no fancy moving lights!)… and get discouraged. But I leave excited that Kingdom work is going on everywhere, in all kinds of places, in all kinds of styles, to reach all kinds of people. There is no perfect church, and no one church is capable of reaching everyone. In our diversity, and amidst our common struggles with people, budgets, technology, apathy, egos, and faulty mic cables, God is making the Kingdom present among us in the here and now. That is good news (gospel), indeed.
At some point – I know not when – religion became a dirty word. And this attitude doesn’t just come from critics outside the church. I’ve heard many Christians make this distinction as well: “It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship.” Or “I’m spiritual, but not religious” – religion often serving as a cipher for rituals, moral codes, spiritual disciplines, and the like.
A couple years ago, this attitude was brought to its clearest – or at least loudest – articulation by Jefferson Bethke in his spoken-word video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video had 1.2 million hits within its first 24 hours online (that’s an average of 14 views per second); 11 million hits the first week; and has been viewed nearly 30 million times in the three years since it was uploaded. (That’s off-the-charts virality, especially for a piece of Christian pop culture.) Continue reading
My family’s transition to Marion, Indiana last summer afforded me an unprecedented opportunity. You see, I’m a Nazarene pastor’s kid who’s married to a Wesleyan pastor’s kid, and because God apparently has a sense of humor, my three kids are all pastor’s kids too. But all of this means that I’ve never been able to participate in one of American Christianity’s favorite pastimes: church-hopping.
I love the church. I am both a teacher and a student of the church and her worship. Every time I visit a new church I learn something. So I relish every opportunity to experience the inside of a new church building, participate in a new worship service, sit under the preaching of a new pastor, and hopefully make some new friends. I’ve visited lots of churches throughout my life, but only occasionally – a Sunday here and a Sunday there – and I always had a home church to return to. So it was strange and exciting to wake up each Sunday morning this fall and say to my wife, “well…where should we go to church today?”
Some might call it “church-shopping.” I’d rather think of it as “visiting,” since we decided early on to settle in at the local Nazarene church (a predictable choice, I’m told) after we made the rounds. Besides, that’s what we usually call folks who show up at our churches for the first time: visitors. (Although “guests” seems to be trending now.) But I knew that once we got involved at a local church, our chances to visit other churches in the area would be limited, so we decided to just “visit around” for awhile.
From August to December, we worshipped in more than a dozen different churches ranging in size from 50 to 1200, representing several denominations (Wesleyan, Methodist and Nazarene), most of which we only visited the one time. In the process, here’s what I discovered:
1. First Impressions matter – Unless we vigilantly guard against it, it is easy for churches to begin to operate as if regular attenders are their only focus. Evidence of a church’s internal or external focus appears in everything from greeters to information centers to signage to building maintenance. For a visitor, it’s easy to sense when a church is clearly not prepared to receive guests. This can make an already-anxious and uncomfortable person feel even more out-of-place.
We have three young children, so kids check-in procedures were a big part of our visitor experiences. It was obvious that some of these had not been designed with first-time visitors in mind. In some cases, the greeters at the front doors didn’t know where to direct us, or the signage was poor or misleading. In all but a few cases, the whole process took entirely too long – in one case, we arrived 10 minutes early, but by the time we were seated in the sanctuary, we were 12 minutes late. And some of the largest churches we visited had the most glaring issues! (Some smaller churches didn’t have a check-in or security process whatsoever, which is another problem – whatever your size, please create some type of security procedure for dropping off and picking up kids.)
Think through your “hospitality process” (that’s what it should be) from the perspective of a first-time guest. Train your greeters with a laser focus on visitors. Make your kids check-in process as streamlined as possible. Your need to get a family’s information is not more important than their need to have a smooth and easy journey between their car and the sanctuary. Everything they experience prior to the worship service sends a message (Andy Stanley calls it “the message before the message”), and sometimes those messages can make it harder or even impossible to hear the Good News they came to hear.
2. Congregations matter – this one has to do with the whole culture of the church, so it can’t be easily addressed in a committee meeting; but in all our church-hopping, it was undeniable that the “vibe” we got from the congregation made a huge difference in our experience. Some congregations were enthusiastic in worship, while others seemed disengaged and half-hearted. Some congregations were friendly and welcoming (without being weird or “pouncing” on us) while others seemed oblivious to our presence. Some you could just tell were really authentic and passionate about their faith (and their church), while others kind of left you to wonder why they bothered showing up. Which would you guess made us think, these are people I want to be around?
One other thing: for us, overly homogenous churches were a turn-off. Yes, it’s important to be able to connect with people at church who are at a similar place in life, or share common interests, but I don’t want to go to church with a bunch of people who are just like me (what a terrifying thought!). We were blessed to visit a few generationally and/or racially diverse churches, although they were the exception. I understand that having a specific focus or “target” audience can be part of an outreach or church growth strategy, but diverse churches better reflect what I believe Heaven will be like. It’s neat to get a glimpse of that in the here-and-now.
3. Pastors matter – this one hurts, but I have to say it: in a few cases our experience was absolutely made or broken by the pastor. And not just by the quality of the preaching, although that was certainly in the mix. At one church, the lead pastor was standing at the door alongside the greeter; he welcomed us, led us back to the children’s area to check our kids in, and then back to the sanctuary. At another church, an associate pastor did the same thing. This speaks volumes to a first time guest about the values and priorities of the church. On the other hand, at one church, the senior pastor noticed us in the lobby after the service, but just walked right past us without so much as a smile. I understand how drained pastors can be after preaching multiple services, but Sunday morning is game time until you drive off the property. You may not be up for a lengthy conversation, but a brief introduction and “thanks for coming today” may be more than enough to make someone feel welcome.
Granted, we’re pretty “churchy” folks. Try as I might, it’s unrealistic to think I can truly experience church through the eyes of an unchurched person, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Now that I’ve shared three things I think really matter, let me mention two elements that struck me as being far less significant than I might have expected.
1. Buildings – we visited some fantastic, slick, shiny new buildings, and some little, cruddy, poorly maintained buildings. But I don’t think there was a single one that we wouldn’t have gone back to because of anything to do with the building, nor one that we would have returned to solely because the building was so cool. Spaces do matter; maintain your buildings; be clean, safe, and intentional in your environments. But it turns out the cliché is true: the church really isn’t the building, it’s the people!
2. Music / “Style” – we experienced congregational worship that ran the gamut from ancient hymns to the latest modern worship songs, accompanied by everything from large, professional-quality worship teams, to churches that sang along to CD tracks. My wife and I are musicians and worship leaders, so you’d think this would be a big deal to us. But it just wasn’t. Much more important was the energy of the congregation as they engaged in worship. Show me a congregation doing what they can do with all the excellence they can muster – who is “owning” their worship with authenticity and passion – and THAT’S something attractive to anyone, churched or unchurched.
Those involved in full-time ministry – like many of our Wesley Seminary students – aren’t given many chances to be a first-time visitor. I hope you can learn vicariously through my church-hopping experience. While it was enriching, I’m glad it’s over. My family and I are ready for the community, the relationships, the support and the opportunities to serve that accompany commitment to the local church.
In closing, let me encourage not just pastors but all Christians to take every opportunity you might have to experience church as a visitor. Maybe it’s venturing out when you’re away on vacation, or just making an intentional decision once or twice a year (any more than that and your pastor might get mad at me!) to visit another church in your city. If more pastors in the pulpits and parishioners in the pews knew what it feels like to be a visitor, and would be mindful of those who may darken our doors for the first time, I believe it would radically transform and revitalize our churches.
For 7 years prior to joining the faculty of Wesley Seminary, I gave oversight to music and technology in a church whose worship “style” is decisively “contemporary.” Congregational singing is accompanied by a guitar-driven “praise band” (drums, bass, guitars, piano/keyboard) and augmented by a choir and praise team (3-4 vocalists on individual mics; 25-30 in the choir). At the front of the sanctuary hang two large screens onto which are projected lyrics, scripture readings, videos (for announcements and illustrations), images and graphics intended to reinforce the sermon theme or other elements of the service. The majority of the congregational songs have been published within the past decade, and we add new songs regularly (about one per month).
Although many in the congregation may not realize it, our services also incorporated many aspects of traditional or historic Christian worship. As a staff, we identified some “essential elements” of worship that we felt were important enough that they should be included in every service: call to worship, welcome (including a few key announcements) and invocation, passing the peace (“take a minute to greet one another”), congregational singing (the so-called “worship set”), the sermon (including scripture reading) leading into a time of response that includes prayer a communion (every week), the benediction and dismissal. We would “mix up” the order from time to time, purportedly to keep things from feeling “stale” or becoming too rote and “ritualistic” (a big “no-no” in contemporary churches, of course), but the basic elements outlined in Acts 2 were always present: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.
I love this church. As their worship pastor, I felt very fulfilled nearly all of the time in the ministry to which God had called me for that time and place. It was a joy to lead my congregation and work with the musicians, technicians and other creative folks that were entrusted to my leadership. And yet if I’m honest, I would confess that I was often left with a nagging feeling that something was not quite right.
It’s not that the service wasn’t good enough – we usually hit pretty close to the mark we set for ourselves. To the contrary, it’s almost like, by putting on such a great show, by “performing” so well, perhaps we implied that maybe, when we were really “on,” we did get it right. Like we may well have worshiped our great God with every bit of the quality and passion and fervor He deserves (why thank you very much). Like…you know…God’s pretty awesome, and, well, frankly, we’re pretty awesome at worshiping Him. Like maybe the focus was more on ourselves – our skill, ingenuity, creativity – than on our Creator…
The responsibility to plan worship every week can be overwhelming – to choose every word that a congregation will corporately say or sing in the service. Of course many churches don’t create or write their service each week – they have a fairly scripted service or “liturgy.” While there are variations in hymns and readings and prayers, these churches are not required to create their worship from scratch every week. Their worship has been handed down through generations; it is a gift, not something they are entirely in charge of but something of which they are “stewards.”
Perhaps by the very use of liturgical texts in worship, the Church acknowledges her inability or even incompetence to worship God rightly if left to her own devices. In his monumental book Symbol and Sacrament, Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes:
The fact that there is a [liturgical] text signifies that at the outset we are not competent to carry out such an action. In sum, it is not natural for us to render thanks to God in a Christian manner. To carry out the Eucharist requires that the Church first gain this competence. It is precisely the text that allows the ecclesial subject to gain this competence. This text thus makes the assembly follow an itinerary which, by means of certain “transformations,” has for its goal the assembly’s conversion: it is not God but we ourselves who are changed by the Eucharistic prayer. (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 269)
It might take reading that quote a few times before its truth begins to detonate. It leaves me wondering: is it possible that we think we don’t need a liturgy because we have so much confidence in ourselves? Do we fall into the trap of thinking we are capable of worshiping God rightly on our own?
Now, before you write me off for pronouncing that all evangelicals need a prescribed liturgy, let me clarify. I am well aware that scripted liturgies seem foreign to many Protestant evangelical traditions today (my own Church of the Nazarene included). But worship “by the book” is certainly a part of the Protestant heritage of Luther, Calvin and Wesley. Perhaps this is part of our birthright that could be reclaimed and repurposed for the renewal of worship today. In fact, take a look at most old hymnals (before we started singing “off the wall” with projectors and screens) and often you will find creeds, prayers and responsive readings in addition to hymns. With the shift in technologies, from book to screen, perhaps something that was once considered valuable has been lost.
Perhaps, without thwarting our freedom of expression in worship, we could glimpse, not a “better” “style” of worship, but the witness of a people who looked beyond themselves for a test of what it means to worship God faithfully. A people who believed that forms and rituals they didn’t come up with on their own, and words that had stood the test of time, had a value worth preserving. I’m suggesting that looking beyond ourselves and the fleeting winds and whims of our culture may be one way to ensure that our worship is worthy of the awesome, timeless God we worship. Perhaps a little “tradition” may keep us not only faithful, but humble as well.