One of the most illuminating parts of my job as director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship involves reading worship conference evaluation forms. The most instructive comments explain what questions congregational leaders want addressed at future conferences. Significantly, most of them concern the mechanics, strategy, or style of worship:

  • Should we add a service in a new style?
  • What do we do if we don’t have a priest or pastor available?
  • What is the value of the lectionary?
  • How do we do cross-cultural music?
  • What different models are there for “blended worship”?
  • How should we structure our worship planning team?
  • What are the best Internet resources for worship?
  • What can we do to make worship less boring?

Eight Trends
These questions arise out of the sometimes bewildering world of liturgical change in which we live. Recent changes in worship practices are so complex that it takes several categories simply to cover the most pervasive of them. The most significant movements include these eight:

1. The Liturgical Movement. This ecumenical resurgence of early church practices hs resulted in new denominational worship books (the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, the Methodist Book of Worship); a revitalization of lectionary preaching; more frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/Mass, with greater participation; a resurgence in celebrating the Christian year; the use of eucharistic prayers based on historic models; a desire for full, conscious, and active participation of all the faithful; and a revised catechumenate for welcoming new members into congregational life.

2. The Church Growth Movement. Public worship is seen as a primary means of evangelism. This movement has brought about practices intended to make worship more accessible to seekers, such as musical forms adapted from popular culture, informal sermons, drama presentations based on scenes from daily life, and services targeted to a particular market niche.

3. The Hymn Renaissance. An ecumenical revival of hymn-writing has resulted in a bevy of new hymnals, hymnal supplements, single-aurthor hymn collections, and hymn-writing workshops. To the surprise of many, thousands of new texts and hymns (in more or less traditional forms) have been produced in the last generation. Many of these new texts reflect deep concern about inclusivity in the church.

4. Cross-cultural sharing of Resources. This ecumenical concern manifests itself on two levels. At the denominational level, it is reflected in denominational hymnals featuring music in several languages and from several cultural and ethnic backgrounds. At the congregational level, even ethnically homogenous congregations have attempted to become liturgically and musically multilingual, convinced that this will enhance their sense of worshiping as part of the universal body of Christ.

5. The Charismatic Movement. The influence of this late-60s movement continues through the publishing companies it has spawned. Congregations in many Christian traditions have derived from it a whole new paradigm for worship—one that features a praise team modeled after a soft-rock band, praise and worship choruses, and a temple worship paradigm that structures worship around a movement from the “outer courts” of exuberant praise to the “holy of holies” of songs of “intimacy with god.”

6. Children in Worship. In some congregations a generation or two ago, children were to be “seen and not heard.” Today, some congregations are pursuing intergenerational worship models, with children functioning as ushers and Scripture readers and the children’s choir taking a significant role in liturgical leadership. Others are pursuing a more segregated model, with services targeted to generationally defined groups. In such churches, children, youth, and parents might all go to different locations in the church building when they arrive for worship.

7. Technology. The influence of technology on worship is not new; inventions such as the pipe organ and incandescent lighting resulted in significant liturgical change. Today, the most noteworthy innovations involve presentational technology. Liturgical PowerPoint presentations might include visual imagery, song texts, and movie clips.

8. Liturgical Eclecticism. In some circles a generation ago, “eclectic” was a bad word, as worship leaders strove for services that were stylistically unified. Now many congregations strive for a mix of musical and rhetorical styles. Terms like “blended worship,” “fusion worship,” and “liturgical menus” suggest attempts to reflect diversity within congregations.

Each of these trends, and many others, are mediated through economic structures that have changed a great deal in the past generation. Congregations no longer limit their search for worship resources to denominational catalogues, looking instead to sophisticated market-driven publishing companies, Internet chat rooms, and nondenominational megachurches. Or they may simply produce their own resources, perhaps through intensive planning sessions by a group of laypeople.

These changing patterns often lead to vexing disputes. While worship preference is now a central topic in interviews for pastors, it has at the same time been declared off-limits for discussion at many family reunions. Nationwide, there is an almost complete division between leaders of “traditional” and “contemporary” worship; they read different magazines, attend different conferences, listen to different recordings, and buy resources from different distributors. I am both grateful and dismayed to hear comments about conferences such as, “this is the only place I know where both our contemporary and traditional service leaders can come together.” The long-term implications of this split will trouble the church for some time.

Congregational Uniqueness
Most congregations are influenced by several, though probably not all, of the current liturgical movements. As denominational identity has weakened for most congregations, each congregation has assimilated these broad patterns of change in unique ways. One congregation might introduce lectionary preaching, a GenX service, and songs by Ruth Duck and Brian Wren while another incorporates the catechumenate, a children’s worship program, and songs accompanied by African conga drums. As much as ever, each congregation maintains a unique identity around its practice of worship.

Changes in worship signify different things in different settings. In one congregation, a new GenX service might arise out of genuine spiritual renewal and a desire for deeper worship. In another, it might signal a desire for a less demanding form of worship. In one congregation, the use of a South African freedom song might be motivated by a sense of solidarity with the marginalized. In another, the same song might be chosen simply because it is exotic.

Results can vary as well. One congregation’s addition of a praise team and PowerPoint presentational software might lead to greater lay participation in worship and services that are pastorally, theologically, and spiritually richer. Another’s identical innovation might lead to less engagement, less congregational participation, and reduced theological and spiritual content.

Worship’s Meaning and Purpose
These observations suggest that that there is much more to talk about than the style of worship. Behind the strategies and practices of a given congregation lie a complex web of motivations and goals. Fortunately, several of the confere
nce evaluation forms I review raise questions that probe this important topic:

  • What can we do to provide better hospitality in our congregation?
  • What can we do in our worship to communicate our love and concern for the world?
  • What practices will form our congregation more richly in the contours of the Christian faith?
  • What can we do to help worshipers attend to God, not just to the style of music or the rhetoric of the sermon?
  • What in worship will most effectively communicate the joy and hope of the gospel message?

These questions drive beyond mechanics to probe the meaning and purpose of worship. They highlight the virtues that should mark all worship, regardless of its style. True, these questions lead to questions of strategy. But these are the primary questions.

Many congregations are discovering that while they have obsessed about stylistic identity in worship, they have failed to cultivate conversations about its deeper meaning. Style has taken precedence over content. These congregations are discovering the need for a winsome, well-grounded, and well-articulated vision for the purpose of worship.

To be effective, this vision must be owned and expressed by several groups within the congregation. First, genuinely pastoral conversations about worship should occur among preachers, musicians, artists, liturgists, and all who lead in worship. In the world of worship conferences, by far the most urgent and passionate comments come from musicians who feel disenfranchised from the process of worship planning and who long for meaningful conversations with pastors. Comments by pastors frustrated by the attitude or spcific practices of musicians number a close second. This lack of communication must be replaced by collaboration—and about deeper issues than simply what song to sing after the sermon next week.

Second, these conversations need to extend into the heart of the congregation. One congregation recently made the mistake of asking, in a survey, what kind of music its members preferred for worship. The results revealed a congregation deeply divided, as worshipers expressed preferences for hymns, praise choruses, Christian contemporary music by a band, classical anthems sung by a choir, folk music, and even no music at all. The survey hardened the divisions within the congregation and stymied worship leaders. The climate improved only after an adult education session contested the taste-oriented language of the survey itself. The presenter challenged the congregation to ask not “what music do you like,” but rahter “what music helps you pray most honestly and deeply in worship.” As one member later testified, “Part of our problem was that we had been dealing with worship so superficially. We needed to learn how to talk about worship in deeper pastoral, spiritual, and theological ways.”

The Pastoral Leader
All of these conflicts can make life difficult for the pastoral leaders who are responsible for planning and leading worship. Congregations seeking new leaders may apply an implicit litmus test for stylistic preferences. And the questions, “Why is our pastor or musician (or other leader) so reluctant to change?” and “Why does our pastor or musician change so much, so quickly?” might be asked by disgruntled members of the same congregation at the same time.

Negotiating the mines on the worship war battlefields is no easy task. But part of the strategy must include moving the conversation beyond style. One of the worship leader’s primary tasks is to link questions about style to conversations about meaning. Without this, congregations will either fall into sleepy repetition or head into deep conflict.

While the most frequent questions on those evaluation forms may be about strategy and style, the most urgent ones are about pastoral leaders:

  • How do we find, keep, and train competent worship leaders?
  • What kind of ongoing training is helpful?
  • How can our leaders learn to identify our underlying spiritual needs?

These questions get to the heart of what is needed in congregations today—not so much another songbook, a new prayerbook, a fancier sound system, or better worship space, but discerning, nurturing leaders with the instincts to connect specific strategies and practices with a rich spiritual vision of worship and the imagination and persistence to enable congregations to practice them.