There have been so many blogs, books, and articles, written about worship style that I could probably read one a day for the rest of my life and still not read them all! Yet, I’m writing one more… go figure! When it comes to corporate worship, I believe that the megachurch craze has hurt the church in America. Megachurches have created unrealistic expectations for both quality and style, and because Christians so often have absolutely zero creativity of their own, many, many, many, many, many smaller churches (in smaller communities) have tried to copycat megachurch music… with varying levels of
success failure. In this blog, I want to consider just one question: how do we create engaging worship services?
First, I think we need to understand the primary goal of a worship service is to “ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name” (Psalm 29:2a). The ultimate goal of worship is not to make seekers comfortable, evangelize the lost, reach a new segment of your population, or make people feel sentimental. Not one of those things is bad, in and of itself; but not one of those things is the primary goal of corporate worship. Worship is first and foremost about giving glory to God. Once we understand that, we can move into the waters of seeker sensitive, evangelistic, traditional, contemporary, charismatic, emergent, EPIC, ancient-modern, etc, etc, etc, etc, with a clear head.
If the primary goal of a worship service is for the people who are present to ascribe to God the glory due him, then I think the first question we need to ask in planning a service is, who are the people present? If your service is a youth service of primarily teens, the type of music and service flow that will engage them in ascribing glory to God may be vastly different than if you’re doing a service at a local nursing home. Or, if your congregation is mostly blue-collar working class people in a small Midwestern town, you’ll probably find that the type of service they most deeply connect with will be different than a wealthy, professional congregation in a major city like New York. Likewise, there are similar differences in charismatic vs. non-charismatic churches, ethnically-diverse vs. all-white churches, urban vs. suburban vs. rural churches, etc.
So now you’re already beginning to see the problem of copycatting what a mostly-white, highly-educated, upper-class, suburban megachurch does on Sunday morning. Their context may be very different from yours (or mine), and therefore your worship service may need to be different in order to more effectively engage your congregation in ascribing to the Lord the glory due his name.
The second question to ask in order to plan an engaging worship service is, who has God given to the church? God gives people as gifts to a local congregation (see Ephesians 4:11-12). How has God gifted your congregation? I do believe that we are called to develop the gifting within the church, but you have to start somewhere. If God hasn’t given your church any drummers, bass players, or electric guitarists, should you be trying to start a Christian rock band in your worship service? I believe God equips you to carry out his calling. If God is calling your church to start a hip-hop worship service, then God will give you hip-hop artists who want to serve your church in that way. If he hasn’t given your church those artists, then perhaps that’s not the direction he’s calling you to head.
The third question for planning an engaging service is, how can I use the artists God has given us to engage the people who are present in ascribing glory to God? This is really the heart of the issue at hand, and, it requires deep thought, many conversations, trial and error, and… prayer. Lots of prayer. If your church is in a small farm-town in rural Missouri, all white in a town that is 97% white, mostly middle-aged and over because there aren’t a ton of young families in the area; and if God has blessed you with a keyboardist and a couple of guitar players, and a teenager who’s learning to play drum set… then trying to start a hip-hop service, or put together a Christian-radio-pop service, or build an orchestra to play the hymns of Bach probably won’t work well. You’re not going to engage the people who are there, or use the artists God has given you to work with.
As you wrestle with this third question, here’s what I’ve discovered in over 20 years of worship arts ministry.
Quality + Authenticity > Style
I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter that you’re singing the newest song from Crowder’s American Prodigal album… if your band stinks. If God hasn’t given you the musicians to play Christian pop-worship with good quality, then either seek a different expression of worship or wait to pull out the Christian pop until you have developed the teen drummer to keep a steady beat. Here’s a secret: just because Elevation Church is doing it, doesn’t mean your church has to do it! Quality is critical to engaging people in worship. So, stop trying to be Willow Creek, Harvest Bible Chapel, Northpoint, or Elevation Church. Be who YOU are, worship with who God has given you, and strive for excellence. If that means you need to sing older music in order to sing it well, then by all means, sing older music well.
Quality is important. So is authenticity. It doesn’t matter that you’re singing Oceans (again) if your congregation isn’t genuinely worshiping. I’ve been in churches where the band was better than the radio version, but no one was singing! It was a performance, a show. The congregation just didn’t engage. Finding what engages the hearts of your church involves a lot of trial and error. I grew up in a Pentecostal church. Planning 35-40 minutes of “open worship” where people could “enter into the throne room of God” and “soak in the presence of the Spirit” worked great in my Pentecostal church. But, when I took a worship pastor position in a non-charismatic church, I couldn’t figure out why the 35-minute unbroken praise fell flat. It’s because the people in that church hadn’t learned to enter into or express worship in that way. The style, flow, and lyrics that they most authentically worshiped with were different than in the church where I grew up.
Unfortunately, megachurches have (imho) created an unrealistic expectation for what Christian worship services are supposed to be. The seeker-sensitive movement hijacked worship for the glory of God and turned it into a sales-pitch to convince a seeker to buy into this whole Christianity thingy. But, I think there is hope on the horizon for normal (read, not mega-) churches to consider who, where, and when they are; to consider the artists God has given them to work with; and creatively lead a congregation in authentic worship with excellence.
Whatever you plan for your worship services, remember this: God deserves our best; and God deserves our hearts. When you have excellence and authenticity, your worship services will not only ascribe glory to the Lord, but they will be engaging for unbelievers who visit your services. There are few things in this world as effective for evangelism as the sincere worship of God’s people (regardless of the style).