by P. Alice Rogers

Most people who participate in congregational worship services can describe a service they experienced in which they connected with God in a profound way.  When I have asked people to describe such a service, I have heard stories similar to these:

  • The sanctuary was very dark with candles producing the only light.  We listened to Scripture readings, spent time in silent prayer and ended the service by partaking of Holy Communion while kneeling at the altar rail.
  • The music was lively—people were clapping and swaying and singing their hearts out.  The preacher preached a powerful sermon, and she did not use a single note!  People were moved to tears and laughter all in the same service.
  • Oh, we sang the great hymns of the church accompanied by a magnificent pipe organ. The preacher preached one of the most well-crafted sermons I have ever heard on the Magnificat. The gothic architecture lifted my very soul heavenward.
  • I entered the sanctuary and saw ladders, paint cans, saw horses, and dozens of other tools arranged in the chancel area. The youth had just returned from a mission trip, and they told incredible stories about their week of service. They taught us songs they had sung while they worked, we took up a special collection for missions, and we closed with the entire congregation walking out to the front lawn as a symbol of taking our Christian witness to the world.  Now that was a worship service.

People can speak of services that moved them deeply in which they experienced the presence of God in profound ways, and they can also describe services where they felt completely out of place and devoid of any experience of God.

  • It was the most BORING service I ever attended. All they did was sit in the dark and read Scripture.  There were these long periods of silence where I almost fell completely asleep.
  • It was the NOISIEST service I ever attended. I didn’t want to stand during every single song, and I certainly didn’t want to clap.  I don’t think the preacher had prepared her sermon at all.  She didn’t even stand behind the pulpit, and she didn’t have any notes. I was embarrassed for the people around me who were so emotional.
  • The service was held in this cavernous, cold building that must have cost a fortune to build.  That money could have been used to feed the poor. We sang old, tired hymns, but I couldn’t hear anyone singing because the organ music was deafening. The preacher just stood behind the pulpit and read.  What is a magnificat anyway? 
  • I think that the chancel area is sacred and should never have objects that are not approved. I was horrified to walk in to find paint cans and saw horses and ladders cluttering up the chancel. I expected to have a worship service, not hear youth talk about their vacation. When the congregation got up to walk to the front lawn, I walked to the parking lot and got in my car.

Not everyone experiences the Holy in the same way. Some people experience God through contemplative practices.  They yearn for space to listen to God without the clutter of noise.  Others experience God more powerfully through their emotions.  They long to sing songs that move them from within, to hear sermons and prayers that “come straight from the heart,” to “feel” the Holy Spirit through the passion and emotion of others. And there are others who experience God more fully through the intellect.  They find a deep connection with God through the theology expressed in the great hymns of the church, through a well-crafted sermon delivered by someone well-trained in exegesis and delivery. Still others find that deep connection through helping people and making a “real” difference in the world. They are most connected to God when they participate in or hear of others’ participation in hands on ministry.

All of the ways people experience God are real and valid. There is no right way or wrong way to experience God.  In fact, many people may say that while they identify more strongly with one of the particular scenarios depicted above than the others, that does not mean they do not appreciate various types of worship. They simply are more comfortable with certain styles of worship. So what makes this experience so different for different people, and why does it matter to those of us who lead worship?

Much research has been conducted as to why people are different in their behavior, in their personality, in the way they relate to the world.  But the most helpful research I found in understanding the spiritual identity of people who gather to worship was conducted by Dr. Corinne Ware, an Episcopal priest who serves as Assistant Professor of Ascetical Theology at Seminary of the Southwest.  Her research, which grew out of a typology articulated by the late Urban T. Holmes, and is related in her book Discover Your Spiritual Type, presents four types of spiritual identity, which when matched with the scenarios above are: mystic, feeling, thinking, and visionary.1  These categories could also be labeled: contemplative, charismatic, intellectual, and crusader.  But they are not just categories. They represent the spiritual identities of real people who gather to worship each Sunday.

While many congregations manifest a dominant corporate spiritual type, I am convinced that on any given Sunday, in most congregations, there are people gathered in the pews who represent all four spiritual types.  They come week after week expectant and hopeful they will experience God in profound ways, that they will connect to God in a way that brings them strength, hope, and peace. As worship leaders, we have the unique and awesome task of designing worship to help that happen. But this task, this opportunity, requires sensitivity, intentionality, and creativity.

First, the task of designing worship that is inclusive of all of the spiritual types requires sensitivity—a sensitivity to our own dominant spiritual type and sensitivity to the spiritual types of others.  As worship leaders, we cannot assume that our dominant way of experiencing God is the best and most effective way for every member of our congregation. Conflict and frustration often arise when a “contemplative” pastor prepares highly contemplative services every single Sunday for a congregation that also has thinking, feeling and visionary types.  The contemplatives of the congregation leave each week feeling spiritually renewed and refreshed, while the others depart frustrated and empty.  The same is true if a “thinking” pastor has the feeling, contemplative, and visionary members of the congregation read long prayers and litanies each week and writes every sermon as if it were an exegesis to be delivered in a classroom.  It is imperative that we know and understand our own dominant spiritual type in such a way that we do not unconsciously and exclusively force it upon others.

A good exercise to develop such sensitivity is to attend a worship service at a church where you have never been.  As you experience that worship service, look for the ways in which it allows space for all of the spiritual types to connect with God. Of course, the service might not have been designed with conscious attention to the spiritual types, but look at it from that point of view. How were the different types engaged? Was anyone left out?   What parts of the service could have focused on a particular spiritual type?  Developing a sensitivity to the variety of ways people experience God will enhance our ability to design effective worship.

Second, if we believe we are called to help all people experience God through worship, then we must be intentional in our planning of each and every service.  While there may be other activities throughout the week where individuals have the opportunity to nurture their spiritual identity, such as Bible studies for the thinkers, prayer groups for the contemplatives, or mission activities for the visionaries, the time of corporate worship is the one time of the week when the congregation as a whole gathers.  It is the primary time when the body of Christ comes together with their variety of gifts to worship the living God.  The preparation for this sacred time should be approached with great intentionality.

That intentionality can be generated by choosing persons who represent each spiritual type for a worship planning team that will design weekly worship together. They will need to be knowledgeable and sensitive to all spiritual types as well, but they will be able to contribute to the design of worship out of their particular spiritual identity. They also will be valuable to the ongoing evaluation of worship as it is experienced each week.

Intentionality also requires constant and ongoing research for resources available for worship design.  The internet provides a plethora of worship resources and a planning team can help a very busy pastor search and sort through that information.

A third requirement for designing worship that embraces all of the spiritual types requires working creatively within the basic structures of Word and table and the church year.  These structures allow us to design services that are true to the order of worship but with a variety of experiences. For instance, the season of Lent tends towards a spirit of contemplation and also provides a time for focusing on the missional aspect of Christian service.  Many congregations choose a mission emphasis during the season of Lent, therefore the design for the gathering time during that season might be very contemplative and the going forth very visionary.  The hymns and prayers chosen for those Sundays in Lent might be chosen with more sensitivity to the thinking and feeling types.

The high celebrations of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, and Christ the King allow for a triumphant focus that speaks not only to our hearts and moves our emotions, but allows us to celebrate the theology of the great hymns and traditions in creative ways.  During these high celebrations, the basic order of worship continues to provide room for intentionally connecting with all of the spiritual types.

A good exercise in creativity is to take a particular Sunday in the church year, such as Baptism of our Lord, and to design three or four services that mix up the experience of the spiritual types.

Such an exercise opens us up to the variety of ways we can creatively design a service for all of the spiritual types without falling into the dangerous practice of assuming only prayer is for contemplatives, or the hearing of the Word is only for thinking types, or the gathering is only for feeling types.  Redundancy will kill creativity!

It is a great and wonderful gift to be called by God to officiate worship, and it is an awesome task to facilitate the experience of others in connecting with God.  The research provided by Corinne Ware on spiritual types gives us a foundation from which to be sensitive, intentional, and creative in our worship planning such that all persons may experience God in profound ways


1. Ware, Corinne. Discover Your Spiritual Type: A Guide to Individual and Congregational Growth. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 1995.

Questions for Reflection

  • What is your preferred style of worship? When have you felt the most connected to God in a worship service? Which of Corinne Ware’s spiritual types do you most relate to?
  • How can your congregation appeal to many different worship preferences? As a worship leader, how can you create a worship style that is both personal to you and effective for the congregation?
  • Where could you go to experience worship in a new way so as to expand your worship horizons?
  • Every congregation has people that prefer each worship style mentioned in the article. Who could you ask to be a part of a worship planning committee so as to include all kinds of worship?

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1

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