Evaluating worship in between

November 8th, 2021
Available from MinistryMatters

Advent 2021 begins another Christian year, after a season of pandemic Pentecost that typically gathered in person a third of our expected participants in weekend worship. Some leaders think that weekend worship gathering in a sanctuary will never be the same again, that our theology of worship (and sacrament) and our liturgical practices must be redefined into a new construct, especially adapted by technology. Other leaders advise to slow down with the predictions and the overhaul of liturgy, for we can recall long periods of pestilence, wars, and natural disaster, which did not result in an abrupt or hybrid shift transforming liturgical theologies and practices.

The following excerpt is drawn from a book for worship leaders, containing 52 exercises (one per week)  for evaluating worship in your congregation. A Worship Evaluation Questionaire from the book is also available for download at the end of the article. Use the exercises in the book to guide this season of evaluating what to sustain or change in worship.

Missing the In-Between

Having unified worship in a culture of generational and technological differences requires biblical understanding, prayer, sensitivity, discernment, and sacrifice. Fusing congregants immersed in a postmodern world with those still longing for the comforts and familiarity of a modern world usually increases the divide. One generation wants to continue having “do you remember” conversations while the other longs for “can you imagine” conversations. Conflict seems inevitable as both worlds attempt to find worship common ground.

Since the membership of most congregations includes a cross-section of individuals from both worlds, which world do we choose when planning and implementing worship?

The longing for what was of one generation and the hope for what could be of another generation may be causing both to miss worship in the in-between. Sometimes we are so focused on the past or the future that we miss the present.

Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep identified and examined patterns of transition and renewal within communal systems. In his study, van Gennep referred to this season of social transition as the rites of passage. As a living organism, a community of faith passes through developmental transitions as a natural progression of the life of that congregation and as a reflection of the surrounding culture.1

Victor Turner continued van Gennep’s study by refining an understanding of the rites of passage as a time of separation from what was known to a transitional or liminal stage that would ultimately lead to a reaggregation or reincorporation.2 The word liminal originated from the Latin word limins, meaning threshold.3

In his book on worship transformation, Timothy Carson wrote, “Liminal reality is that space and time that has broken with prevailing structure, whatever that may be. Precisely because it is positioned between the structures of life, it holds latent power for future transformation.”4

Liminality is the place where we find ourselves in our present culture of worship. Ironically, it can be a time of unity in our shared uncertainty. One of the shared struggles of this stage is determining how to balance the desires of some for complete abandonment of previous worship practices with the desires of others to hold on to those foundational touchstones. In-between is not wasted time. It’s not just preparation. It is not throwaway time. And it’s not a warm-up for what is to come. Liminality reminds us that the worship journey is as important as the worship destination.

My family loves to vacation in the mountains of Colorado in the summer. One of those summers several years ago, we made plans ahead to climb one of the fifty-three mountain fourteeners. In the mountaineering vernacular, a fourteener is a mountain peak with an elevation of at least fourteen thousand feet. Climbing at that altitude for flatlanders is a pretty daunting task. Our ultimate goal was to reach the summit. But what I hadn’t realized is how meaningful the trip up to the summit would be.

We passed fields of snow even though it was the middle of July. We came upon an old abandoned mineshaft. We traversed narrow trails through the trees but then stepped out to the open expanse above the tree line around twelve thousand feet. We also passed other climbers coming down from the summit who offered encouragement while we continued to suck air. The journey was difficult, but reaching the summit wouldn’t have been nearly as fulfilling if we hadn’t gone through it together as a family.

Balancing generational and cultural worship predilections will be realized when a congregation understands how to embrace transformation as formative rather than rejecting it because of hesitancy to change. Although that liminal stage can be a time of uncertainty, it can also be a time of hope, expectation, and even unity. While we are trying to figure it out, we are trying to figure it out together.

Turner referred to a special camaraderie that can often develop among those sharing a liminal stage as communitas.5 The spirit expressed in this Latin noun is the harmony within a community based on its common purpose, not necessarily on its common practices. Encouraging a spirit of communitas enables those who are sharing a liminal stage to develop a community of the in-between. This relationship “creates a community of anti-structure whose bond continues even after the liminal period is concluded.”6

Ultimately, worship reaggregation is indeed necessary for a healthy balance. But it may take much longer if both worlds don’t figure out how to get along in that in-between. If we can’t figure out how to get along on the journey, then how can we expect to get along once we arrive?


• How can we encourage more “can you imagine” conversations while still respecting those “do you remember” conversations?

• Are there any recent examples of us being so focused on the end result that we missed worship in the in-between?

• Does our Sunday worship encourage an attitude of communitas? Is that organic or planned?

• How can we make sure our congregation always feels like they are part of figuring things out together?


1. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), referenced in Timothy L. Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power: Pastoral Interpretation and Method,” Journal of Pastoral Theology 7 (Summer 1997): 99.

2. Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power,” 100.

3. Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power,” 100.

4. Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003), 60.

5. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Aldine, 1969), as referenced in Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power,” 101.

6. Carson, “Liminal Reality and Transformational Power,” 101.

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