The year is 1931. Visualize St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles: huge Gothic arches, awe-inspiring stained glass windows, massive chandeliers imported from Europe, an organ bellowing music to the heavens, pews filled with Anglo-Saxons dressed in formal attire, the ritual straight from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer—comforting, familiar, formal.
Now visualize the same place 70 years later: the same architectural grandeur, great organ, and worshipers gathering to praise and celebrate the presence of the Holy. Only now the pews seat people from places such as Nigeria, Ghana, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Sierra Leone, Japan, India, and Belize. Nearly 50 different ethnic and cultural groups are represented, making St. James one of the most diverse congregations in the United States. The church no longer uses the 1928 liturgy but incorporates into its worship life the richness that all these cultures have brought.
Worship Is Changing
In the words of the old spiritual, the spirit is a-movin’ throughout congregations from coast to coast. We are changing the way we worship; discerning how today’s worshipers can “find their voice” in praising God; struggling to create celebrations that give new expression to ancient truths; and separating traditional cultural conceptualizations of worship from its essence, without confusing the trappings with the core.
We all have heard the horror stories of what can happen when a local congregation’s worship service is tampered with. For example, several years ago, I was working with a conflicted congregation. One of the flash points flared up around the pastor’s attempt to move the primary Sunday service from the traditional 11:00 hour to an earlier starting time of 10:30. I will never forget the words of one member as her eyes bored a hole in the minister: “Sir! I have worshiped God at 11:00 for 62 years. It is God’s hour. And it is the ONLY time I plan to ever worship him!”
This article will take a look at several very different congregations. A single thread connects all of them: each was successful in expanding the worship life of the congregation.
Missouri: A Path to Renewal
Webster Grove Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is located in a lovely, affluent, mature suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Historically, this congregation has prided itself on what it refers to as “high culture worship,” close relationships with one another, and a stellar music program. The centerpiece of church life had always been the 11:00 Sunday service. Attendance at this service reached its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, then began a slow decline in 1968. Over the next 22 years, average attendance dipped to 200.
About 10 years ago, three elements converged to put this congregation on a path of renewal:
- Anxiety over declining numbers was experienced throughout the system. As aging worshipers died, no one was taking their places.
- A new minister, Rev. Tim Carson, was selected as senior pastor. He brought an appreciation for the strengths of the congregation and a vision for building upon those strengths.
- A core group of key laypersons, under the leadership of the pastor, began exploring new possibilities, researching contemporary worship, and taking field trips to see different models of worship.
Since then, Webster Grove has experimented with worship styles and settings and, in spite of some setbacks, has managed to continually expand its worship services. Today, gatherings include
- An informal chapel service at 8:30 a.m. each Sunday, in which the congregation selects the hymns to be sung (both old familiars such as “Amazing Grace” and cutting-edge new ones introduced by younger members), followed by a scaled-down version of the former 11:00 service
- Two worship choices running simultaneously at 10:45 a.m. on Sunday:
- A contemporary service, described by the pastor as “participatory, sensory, communal, and spontaneous,” that fills the 100-capacity chapel
- A traditional service, whose rubric is “Reverently Centered on the Presence of God,” offering worshipers a full choir, a powerful organ and a traditional liturgy, all done within a beautiful worship space
- The Webster Café, Sundays at 9:30 a.m., which serves refreshments and allows people attending any of the three services to connect with one another
- A small, 30-minute contemplative service each Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in the chapel, allowing for chanting, silent time, and a place of peace in the midst of a harried world
One concern of the congregation has been that holding several worship services might fragment the community. Webster Grove Church has done an excellent job of addressing this issue. On several Sundays each year, the entire congregation gathers at 10:30 a.m. for a “come home” service. Each one of these services has a different theme (for example, “Come Home for Thanksgiving”) and its own flavor, thus exposing everyone to different styles of worship. In the course of a year, a worshiper who attends all of these services will have experienced the church’s full spectrum of worship.
Had this congregation continued to hold only its traditional Sunday service, it appears that fewer than 100 people would be participating. Now a solid 300 gather weekly to celebrate and honor God in a variety of meaningful ways.
New Jersey: Meeting New Needs
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, New Jersey, illustrates the life cycle of many urban congregations. An old, established church, it fit the pattern of a Euro-American monocultural congregation. Then Trenton experienced white flight, shifting demographics, and the abandonment of the city for the suburbs. The church became a shadow of its former self.
Rather than close its doors, members of the presbytery, the loyal remnant of the congregation, and neighborhood people adopted a vision: they would create an urban church to meet the needs of people in the parish now, not simply whine about the good old days.
Westminster’s current pastor is Rev. Karen Hernandez-Granzen—a dynamic, tradition-grounded, creative, and caring leader. She is quick to give credit to the presbytery, which designated the church a redevelopment project, and to the previous pastors, who prepared the congregation for change.
Six years ago, the Sunday service was still in a traditional Presbyterian format. Rev. Hernandez-Granzen, appreciative of reformed worship and wanting to retain its elements, first added a time for people to share their “joys and concerns.” Next she introduced a segment called “Worship and the Arts for the Child within Us,” intended for that part of each human being that wants to be creative and open to new ways of experiencing God.
Clowning, reader’s theater, liturgical dance, a reenactment of the Lord’s Supper, miming—any of these may be experienced in the new Sunday morning worship. The organist, a longtime member who early on questioned many of the changes, recently wrote the congregation’s very own doxology, entitled “Canto De Esperanza” (“Song of Hope”), a musical testimonial for the people of God in this place at this time.
Westminster has grown from a handful of loyal worshipers who refused to abandon the urban church to a worshiping community of 60, which includes not only folks with European roots but also people of Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, and Dominican origins and a contingent of African Americans. Plans for a multilingual contemporary worship service are in the works. The Westminster Church of today is best characterized as multicultural, multiracial, and multigenerational. No longer just surviving, its worship life is thriving.
North Carolina: Dynamic Change
Now let’s go south to Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, North Carolina. When I was growing up in Greensboro, my family passed this church often on the way to my great-uncle’s house. I did not find Westminster very interesting then, mostly because it was virtually invisible, set as it was below the level of the busy boulevard in a gully. Now, however, I have a different impression.
With the leadership of Rev. Bob Henderson and some visionary lay leaders, this congregation has set out to be a multistyle worship church affirming the value of both traditional and contemporary expressions of faith. For this congregation, high priority is placed on fidelity to tradition and “being authentic in doing what God is calling us to do” in a modern, changing, diverse culture.
Ten years ago, the only service was at 11:00 and was characterized by excellent music, sound reformed liturgy, and preaching. The average worship attendance was approximately 200. In a spirit of trial and error, and accepting that some start-up worship settings would fail, the congregation has tried many configurations to get to its current schedule:
- On Saturdays at 6:00 p.m., an informal contemporary service using acoustic instruments is held. The constituency is a mixed group: some previously unchurched, many from recovery communities, many under age 40, empty nesters, and people who are simply attracted to the Saturday evening time slot. Incidentally, my mother’s senior women’s Sunday school class from First Baptist Church went on a field trip to this service several months ago. These women found it warm, meaningful, and wonderful.
- A second contemporary service is offered at 9:30 a.m. each Sunday. The congregation now faces a serious problem: There is standing room only, and people are literally being turned away from this service! A third contemporary service that would run simultaneously with the 11:00 service is being considered.
- The traditional, more formal service is held at 11:00. It has a loyal constituency of about 200. Ten years ago, 200 folks worshiped each weekend. Now that number has increased five times over, and provisions are being made to make room for even more.
These are diverse congregations—ethnically, geographically, culturally, and theologically. What learnings can be gleaned from their stories?
- Each congregation had a minister who appreciated tradition, partnered with the congregation, built relationships, articulated a vision for change, was able to pace that change, added rather than subtracted, and manifested more patience than Job.
- From each of these stories emerge laypeople who can see that there are many ways to worship God. Through embracing this diversity, a rich tapestry is formed.
- In each case, the process of change involved listening to people, addressing concerns, and practicing discernment prior to making significant changes. This process was as important as the desired product. One longtime member of the Trenton church said, “We are always able to talk with the pastor. We may not always get what we want, but we always know we have been heard by her.”
- Permission was given to try different things. Obstacles were seen as opportunities, not barriers. Failure was to be learned from, not punished.
- Both traditional and contemporary styles were encouraged in the same place, and often at the same time. The absurdity of worship wars was avoided.
- A passion for worship existed in each setting. Indeed, these clergy and congregations understood that worship is the very heart of Christian community.
These three congregations are not anomalies. I think of Congregation Sh’ar Za’hav, a primarily gay and lesbian synagogue in San Francisco whose dynamic lay-developed liturgy is forged from the real-life pain, struggles, and celebrations of its members. Rabbi Camille Angel is walking beside these people of faith as more worship settings are in the process of being created.
And there is Northwoods Presbyterian Church of Houston, a congregation established 30 years ago as an alternative to the fundamentalist worship prevalent in the area. It is under the leadership of Rev. Brent Eelman, who envisioned an intimate chapel for alternative services such as Taizé, weekly communion, small weddings, and contemporary worship. The church is architecturally magnificent and has become the most used worship space on the property in the two years since it was completed.
And there is Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina—a huge congregation and a denominational flagship. Myers Park created a new setting recently, called “worship in the round,” and it is offered at the same time as a traditional early service. Already it is booming, with 250 attendees and no loss of attendance in the other services.
So many wonderful things happening, so little space to share their stories. Just remember: the spirit is indeed a-movin,’ and so are hundreds of congregations.