Clapping during services, offering special prayers for healing, sharing personal testimony, and embracing fellow worshipers aren’t practices usually ascribed to Reform Judaism, but these activities are gaining favor at some liberal synagogues, according to Peter Knobel, chairman of the liturgy committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. And that’s just the beginning. “Men and women are rediscovering traditional worship dress, and persons wearing prayer shawls are wrapping them around the people next to them during the priestly blessing,” says Knobel. “In some ways this is creating tension within the cool, rational, intellectual religion of classical Reform Judaism.”

Christian congregations report similar tension—even turmoil—as their leaders tinker with tradition and initiate changes in long-standing worship practices. Some groups are swapping hymnals for overhead projectors in an effort to free hands for a high-touch kind of worship. Others are returning to their roots, eschewing the stripped-down “warehouse approach” to church, and reintroducing banished icons and symbols from the past. Pianos, once the instrument of choice for “low” church services, now are supplementing mighty pipe organs in arrangements of music that vary from sacred masterworks to foot-stomping choruses.

“Never before have congregations been reforming worship in so many directions at the same time,” notes John Witvliet of Calvin Institute of Worship. As diverse as the experiments and the settings are, they often evoke a common response. “People feel an uneasy pressure,” says Witvliet. “They know change is happening and they’re confused by it.”

Eavesdropping on Trends
To solicit guidance on the kinds of resources that will ease pressure and reduce confusion within congregations, the Alban Institute invited 13 experts—Knobel and Witvliet among them—to join in a private “conversation” about changing worship styles. “We want to eavesdrop on your reflections,” explained James P. Wind, president of the Institute and host of the informal gathering. Because participants in the discussion represented a range of faiths, geographic locations, and professional experiences, Wind asked them first to identify the trends in American religion that they are encountering in their various ministries. Among the observations they shared were:

  • Lay people are gaining acceptance as primary worship leaders.
  • Some clergy feel threatened by the expanding role of lay leaders.
  • Congregations are moving toward an ecstatic, joyful form of worship that invites involvement and provides catharsis.
  • People are seeking authentic community in a fragmented world that seems consumed by technology.
  • Tampering with tradition is simultaneously unsettling and exciting.
  • Congregational leadership needs a high degree of tolerance to survive the “messiness” of worship experimentation.
  • A new “visual” generation is emerging that likes color, movement, and religious symbols as part of the worship experience.

“Congregations have been restructuring worship with the needs of the unchurched in mind,” said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. As an example, he cited research conducted several years ago by a church in the Midwest to determine how best to reach persons who did not attend religious services. The study indicated that unchurched persons wanted three things in a worship setting: anonymity, passivity, and the absence of religious symbols. With those findings in mind, many churches created neutral worship spaces devoid of stained-glass art and multiple crosses, and designed services that attracted newcomers by entertaining them, singing to them, speaking at them, and expecting nothing from them. This approach worked well until the next round of change occurred. First, society evolved into a more visual culture that reacted positively to icons and symbols; and second, worship spectators made the transition to worship participants.

“What we’re discovering now is that the unchurched are walking into worship services and saying, ‘Something is wrong here; this doesn’t look like a church,’” said Mouw. No longer passive, “many of these people want to get involved in the community even before they become believers. They want to participate; they want to sing; they want to be part of the group.”

Back To Our Future?
Some congregations have tried to accommodate the visual needs of contemporary worshipers by using overhead projectors and computer programs that present lyrics in color and distill sermons to bullet points. The results are mixed. Heads are up and hands are free to respond to the music and the message, but communication still is based in text, even though the technology can support art, animation, and photos. “I find it ironic to visit evangelical congregations and see worship leaders projecting words, not images, on a screen,” said author and speaker Sally Morgenthaler. “The text may be in shades of pink and teal, but that’s not enough for those people, mostly under age 35, who want icons and symbols.”

Equally unsettling are some efforts to blend the old with the new—in an attempt to please both camps—by updating classical church music with modern lyrics. “Taking unknown, little-used German chorale melodies off the shelf and wedding them to 20th century texts is not a solution for the dilemma of which music should prevail,” observed John Ferguson, a member of the music faculty at St. Olaf College. “Neither is wedding a text to a tune when text and tune are not compatible. One encounters cases where text goes on but music stops, producing awkward or even silly shifts of meaning. Such things make it difficult for the people to sing with understanding, let alone spirit.”

Rather than attempt to plan a single worship experience that is all things to all people, some congregations are scheduling simultaneous or sequential services tailored to the preferences of the participants. This practice solves some problems and creates others. “Does this make for community or does it break up community?” asked Knobel. “Who gets to use what resources? For example, our synagogue has three Saturday morning services, each of a different character. Which service should the clergy attend?” In practice, some of the services take place totally under the direction of lay leaders. “This can be freeing because it means that worship becomes independent of clergy,” noted Knobel. “On the other hand, some older people aren’t comfortable with that idea. Their thinking is, you can’t have a worship service if you don’t have a rabbi.”

Needed: Tolerance, Flexibility
Multiple services are common in the Roman Catholic Church, where worship disputes don’t center on who leads the services—priests conduct all masses—but on how well those leaders meet the worship needs of culturally diverse congregations. In a large city, “we could have six services going on at the same time in six languages, and none might be in English,” said Janet Walton, professor of worship at Union Theological Seminary. Dealing with this kind of diversity requires special pastoral skills, a challenge for seminary faculty members who prepare students for ministry. Trying to honor the worship traditions of several cultures often involves making decisions on issues as controversial as what role women should fill, and as nitty-gritty as what kind of organ is appropriate—a Hammond or a pipe organ? “We deal with these issues every single day in every single class,” said Walton. “When we talk about tradition, we’re talking about what’s been missing in the tradition, what is past and what is present. There are very few models of integrated churches.”

e likely fallout of most worship experimentation is an exhilarating “messiness,” observed Tom Long, faculty member at the Candler School of Theology. Describing the experiment as “formative and exciting,” he predicted that church leaders will need to develop tolerance as their congregations accept some changes and reject others in their worship laboratories. The congregations, too, need tolerance as their worship leaders take risks, divert from their familiar practices and, on occasion, make mistakes. For example, not all musicians, trained in European classical music, are going to succeed in their early attempts to lead programs that vary from African American spirituals to contemporary choruses.

“It’s a little like learning another language,” said Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., of Calvin College. “A whole lot depends on your willingness not only to be wrong but to look a little foolish. It also depends on the ability of the people whose language you are speaking to find your mistakes endearing. If they are people of good will, they will be charmed by your mistakes.”

Faith of Our Fathers
When will it end—all this meddling with worship practices? Experts agree that the short answer is: It won’t. Ongoing changes in worship styles not only seem likely, but may be cyclical as well.

“I fall somewhere in the middle of the boomer generation,” said Anton Armstrong, faculty member at St. Olaf College. “Our generation didn’t want to do what our parents did; we wanted to be different. Then we got to a point where we asked, ‘But what do we pass on to our children? What is our legacy? What symbols are left? What do we have to legitimize who we are and how we worship? How do we find a common voice? How do we regain those things that make us a community and bind us together?’ We’ve gotten rid of so much stuff, and now we’re trying to regain it. We’ve learned that tradition can stifle, but it also can stabilize. How often, by the time we reach our 40s and 50s, do we start sounding like our parents? We may scare ourselves, but we find wisdom in it.”