As part of the discussion on my earlier post on my Californian worship experience, a former colleague and Californian pastor, Todd, made some very pertinent points. He honestly spoke of the pressure to try to compete with other more consumerist models, and about some of the real cultural changes affecting the Western church. He also made some interesting connections between the worship issue and the rise in interest in church planting, which naturally is of interest to me.
I think he hit a chord (apologies!) and made a connection that I hadn’t thought of before; namely, the fact that the drop in the theological quality of much of what passes for worship could be connected to the revival in church planting and, in the rush to plant churches and learn “on the job”, many worship leaders – and even some non-denominational pastors – are going in theologically untrained, just going with the flow in terms of what works elsewhere or works outside the church, and doing so uncritically.
This coheres with my church planting research, where one of the pleas that was coming from experienced writers such as Murray and Chester and Timmis in the UK, was for greater theological reflection in church planting. They believe that not enough pre-planting questions are being asked and that the long-term effectiveness of plants is compromised by a lack of theological thinking. If that is the case, then it shouldn’t be surprising that the area where this shallowness will be seen the clearest, is in the area of corporate worship.
I suppose what frustrates me the most is that this is a problem which doesn’t take a lot of effort to fix. Many of the weaknesses which I felt were exposed last Sunday could be overcome with no shift in theological position, no extra expenditure (most of these places already have ‘worship pastors’ after all), and no sacrifice of relevance or intelligibility. It just takes a little thought and reflection.
There is no reason why churches like the one I attended who practice that particular type of “liturgy” (for that is what it is: a form, an order – even if it is a bad one) could not raise their theological game and think about what they are doing a little more. I can’t see how any church, even if they adopt the “seeker-oriented” package, would lose anything of their attractional draw, or would not become more effective by simply taking a few key steps
Pastors: don’t abdicate your responsibilities and delegate the entire ordering of the service to a musician, however talented, or a worship pastor or creative arts pastor, or whoever else is around. While many of these other staff are probably not theologically trained, you are, and the constructing and conducting of the worship service is a theological issue first, before it is a musical/artistic/creative/cultural issue.
Having said that, with the current prevalence of worship pastors and worship leaders (a gift/office that is noticeably absent in the New Testament) and the status and responsibility given to them in many churches, the need for them to be theologically trained is increasing every year. Pastor and musician should work in creative partnership not exercise two completely separate ministries that may never intersect, or only do so accidentally or by the Providence of God.
Think of the basic rhythms of worship. Approach, Encounter, Response. There is so much could be said here and there are many good books on the subject. Good liturgy can be moving and powerful, and like a good referee, the best crafted services are usually those where the structure isn’t noticed but is there nonetheless, underneath everything, holding it together.
This means that simple elements such as a call to worship, confession, intercessions, other prayers and readings, silences, can find a natural place and can be interspersed with appropriate praise, without anyone being particularly aware that “this is what we do next”. Yet they would be missed if they were absent because as a different culture of worship is developed the congregation expect to have time to confess, intercede for others, be quiet etc. (In contrast, a few weeks at my Californian church would uncover a deep predictability about what came next in spite of their “free worship” style.)
It is the fact that many of these basic elements are missing, even in some traditional denominations that is most concerning. I once had to explain to an intern, who came from a conservative reformed denomination, what “prayers of intercession” were. Having said that, she did come from a church plant which Todd has highlighted are usually the first to ditch such structures in the interests of seeker-accessibility. Yet, it could be argued that it is actually plants, with their clean slates, that have the opportunity and responsibility to preserve the biblical and historic faith in ever-creative ways.
Allow time for response. As Presbyterians I will admit we have been particularly bad at this. We claim to believe firmly in the power and centrality of the Word of God to transform lives by the Spirit of God, yet we arrange our services so that there is precious little time for the Spirit of God to do his work while the people of God are gathered together and before the buzz of coffee-time and the possibility of the seed being eaten up by passing birds. However, my Sunday experience (and that wasn’t the first-time I experienced this) would indicate that the new churches are outdoing even the Presbyterians in this area of liturgical incompetence. A little more advanced planning in terms of structure and a lot more discipline at the start, in terms of length of praise time, should allow adequate space for responsive praise prayer silence and meaningful benediction.
This is needed particularly when it comes to the lyrics. There are enough good new songs out there for a large percentage of the current canon to be ditched. Exercise some quality control. It’s back to the leadership issue again. I wonder if many worship leaders believe their job is simply to create an ambience, a mood, a vibe, rather than simply provide the accompaniment for people to come together into the presence of Almighty God?
I cannot remember who it was, so I will refrain from guessing, but I recently watched a youtube video where the main worship leader from one of the “headline” churches in the US or Australia spoke of what he looked for in writing a song. It was all about “testing out the feel” of the song. In the 6 minutes I listened to, there was nothing about the content of the actual lyrics.
I don’t believe songs have to be theologically dense, and consist of six verses in common metre. I am quite happy to sing “Jesus I love you” plenty of times so long as I am given occasional prompts as to why he is worthy of my love. Depth of devotion is not enough of an excuse for inanity, cliche, mindless repetition and bad grammar. Make sure the powerpoint slides have been proof-read too, but that is a subject for a whole blog on its own (as the slide below illustrates)!