“I wish worship here could be more spiritual,” she said.
The woman clearly had an opinion about worship at her home church. She knew something felt different when she worshiped occasionally at another church across town, and she wished it could feel that way at the church to which she had belonged and had friends for many years.
But all she could say was that worship was more “spiritual” at the other church.
This was not feedback the pastor could use.
Our congregants, especially those who have been part of the same church for decades and have limited experience with other worship traditions, often lack the perspective and vocabulary to evaluate worship effectively. This might not seem to be a problem, and you may be thinking, “Why would I invite people to check out other churches or to play the comparison game among churches in our area?”
But for three groups of people in your congregation, some field trips and worship education can be invaluable tools both for the individuals’ faith development and the health of your worshiping community. Use the downloadable sheets at the end of this article to help your people ask the right questions when it comes to evaluating worship.
People responsible for helping plan worship (a worship committee, altar guild, musicians, etc.) need more tools in their tool belt than just what has been done before in your particular setting. This mainly applies to laypeople who have limited experience with other congregations, but ministry professionals can also fall into a rut if they are not routinely experiencing worship in other contexts. Robert Winstead emphasizes that worship committees should strive to be the resident “liturgical experts” in the congregation by educating themselves on their own tradition and researching, testing, and innovating with different traditions and practices. (Read Winstead’s “A Better Worship Committee” on Ministry Matters.)
When trying to revitalize worship or start a new service, thoughtful observation of other churches' service is an essential part of the brainstorming process. Trying out and learning from other congregations’ worship doesn’t mean blindly imitating their practices, giving up your own style, or compromising on your theology. Rather, it is a way to get inspired, jumpstart creative thinking, and add to your (hopefully) ever-growing mental file cabinet of ideas on which to draw.
The Young or Young-in-Faith
Youth preparing for confirmation and adults who are new to your faith tradition or seeking to deepen their understanding of their faith need exposure to other styles and practices of worship in order to better understand their own tradition. It is easy to go through the motions of worship without understanding why we do things the way we do. It is easy to take our own tradition so for granted that we forget or discount the ways God speaks to other people.
Part of confirmation or membership preparation classes should be education about how our tradition fits into the “big picture” of religious traditions, both within Christianity and the whole scope of world religions. (Adam Hamilton’s Christianity’s Family Tree and Christianity and World Religions are good studies for these lessons.) Theology and history are central, of course, but there is also a lot to be learned from various traditions’ worship practices, which reflect a combination of theology, cultural context, and stylistic preferences.
Plan field trips to churches of other denominations and perhaps also a synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, or temple. Even apart from theological differences, worship in other traditions may introduce you to practices you find meaningful (drinking from a common cup rather than passing a plate, for example, or kneeling on the floor rather than sitting in pews).
Some people just like to complain, whether they have all the information or not, but sometimes expressions of discontent are based on valid issues that the person is simply unable to express in a clear or helpful way. Asking the right questions about worship can help someone identify and articulate what they are really feeling.
The woman who wanted worship to be more “spiritual,” for example, wanted worship in her small, traditional, country church to elicit the same emotions in her that the large, contemporary, new church plant did. Without the ability to examine the differences in the worship space, the music, the preaching, etc., she was left with a vague complaint that she laid on the pastor’s shoulders. With more understanding of worship traditions and styles, she might have been able to say, “I feel more connected to God when we sing upbeat praise songs. Could we try that here?” or, “I like reading the scripture on the screen while it’s being read aloud. Maybe I should open my Bible and read along while it’s being read here.”
Educating people about worship and exposing them to different traditions can help individuals better understand their own tradition, theology, and preferences; help them develop a deeper relationship with God by engaging in spiritual practices that are most meaningful to them; and enhance worship for the whole community by contributing ideas and giving constructive feedback on the congregation’s worship.