Christianity is a “first-person plural” religion, where communal worship, service, fellowship, and learning are indispensable for grounding and forming individual faith. The strength of Christianity in North America depends on the presence of healthy, spiritually nourishing, well-functioning congregations. Congregations are the cradle of Christian faith, the communities in which children of all ages are supported, encouraged, and formed for lives of service. Congregations are the habitat in which the practices of the Christian life can flourish.
As living organisms, congregations are by definition in a constant state of change. Whether the changes are in membership, pastoral leadership, lay leadership, the needs of the community, or the broader culture, a crucial mark of healthy congregations is their ability to deal creatively and positively with change. The fast pace of change in contemporary culture, with its bias toward, not against, change only makes the challenge of negotiating change all the more pressing for congregations.
At the center of many discussions about change in churches today is the topic of worship. This is not surprising, for worship is at the center of congregational life. To “go to church” means, for most members of congregations, to “go to worship.” In How Do We Worship? Mark Chaves begins his analysis with the simple assertion, “Worship is the most central and public activity engaged in by American religious congregations.”1 Worship styles are one of the most significant reasons that people choose to join a given congregation. Correspondingly, they are central to the identity of most congregations.
Worship is also central on a much deeper level. Worship is the locus of what several Christian traditions identify as the nourishing center of congregational life: preaching, common prayer, and the celebration of ordinances or sacraments. Significantly, what many traditions elevate to the status of “the means of grace” or even the “marks of the church” are essentially liturgical actions. Worship is central, most significantly, for theological reasons. Worship both reflects and shapes a community’s faith. It expresses a congregation’s view of God and enacts a congregation’s relationship with God and each other.
We can identify several specific factors that contribute to spiritually vital worship and thereby strengthen congregational life.
- Congregations, and the leaders that serve them, need a shared vision for worship that is grounded in more than personal aesthetic tastes. This vision must draw on the deep theological resources of Scripture, the Christian tradition, and the unique history of the congregation.
- Congregational worship should be integrated with the whole life of the congregation. It can serve as the “source and summit” from which all the practices of the Christian life flow. Worship both reflects and shapes the life of the church in education, pastoral care, community service, fellowship, justice, hospitality, and every other aspect of church life.
- The best worship practices feature not only good worship “content,” such as discerning sermons, honest prayers, creative artistic contributions, celebrative and meaningful rituals for baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They also arise out of good process, involving meaningful contributions from participants, thoughtful leadership, honest evaluation, and healthy communication among leaders.
Vital Worship, Healthy Congregations Series
The Vital Worship, Healthy Congregations Series is designed to reflect the kind of vibrant, creative energy and patient reflection that will promote worship that is both relevant and profound. It is designed to invite congregations to rediscover a common vision for worship, to sense how worship is related to all aspects of congregational life, and to imagine better ways of preparing both better “content” and better “process” related to the worship life of their own congregations.
It is important to note that strengthening congregational life through worship renewal is a delicate and challenging task precisely because of the uniqueness of each congregation. This book series is not designed to represent a single denomination, Christian tradition, or type of congregation. Nor is it designed to serve as arbiter of theological disputes about worship. Books in the series note the significance of theological claims about worship, but they may, in fact, represent quite different theological visions from each other, or from our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. That is, the series is designed to call attention to instructive examples of congregational life and to explore these examples in ways that allow readers in very different communities to compare and contrast these examples with their own practice. The models described in any given book may for some readers be instructive as examples to follow. For others, a given example may remind them of something they are already doing well, or something they will choose not to follow because of theological commitments or community history.
By promoting encounters with instructive examples from various parts of the body of Christ, we pray that these volumes will help leaders make good judgments about worship in their congregations and that, by the power of God’s Spirit, these congregations will flourish.
John D. Witvliet is the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the series editor of the Vital Worship, Healthy Congregations Series, which is published in cooperation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship._________________
1 Mark Chaves, How Do We Worship? (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 1999), 1.
Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.
BOOKS IN THE VITAL WORSHIP, HEALTHY CONGREGATIONS SERIES
When God Speaks Through You: How Faith Convictions Shape Preaching and Mission by Craig A. Satterlee
Craig Satterlee helps congregations learn to articulate their convictions about the Christian faith and share them in a nonthreatening manner. This prepares them for broader conversation about how people’s faith convictions shape both their lives and the congregation’s worship, life together, and mission.
The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together by Howard A. Vanderwell
Should we try to hold the generations together when we worship? Is it even possible? Nine writers–pastors, teachers, wor
ship planners, and others serving in specialized ministries–offer their reflections on issues congregational leaders need to address as they design their worship ministry.
Preaching Ethically offers guidelines for preaching in light of a range of factors that might tempt a preacher to misuse the pulpit. The calling to preach the gospel compels us to preach in ways that keep the gospel foremost, treat the congregation fairly, and are true to our own convictions and our personal integrity.
Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God by John Addison Dally
As a post-Christendom church reorients itself toward the mission of God, what might preaching look like? Choosing the Kingdom offers concrete suggestions for a reconception of preaching for those whose imaginations have been captured by the possibilities of a missional identity.