Review: ‘Worship Ways for the People Within Your Reach’

November 20th, 2014

For a long time now, Tom Bandy has been a trusted coach and mentor to many of us who pray and work for a revitalized church. His books have lit a fire under countless congregations and have given us pastors the practical insights and transformative leadership skills we need to ignite a missional church.

In all his books, Bandy has a wonderfully direct, in-your-face, bold style of presentation. In Worship Ways, Bandy brings his gifts for provocative, opinionated, and experienced leadership to a fresh consideration of worship within the congregation. For Bandy, the purpose of the church and its ministry is mission, mission, mission. A faithful church is the church that is the body of Christ in motion, constantly reaching out to the world in the name of Christ, energetically engaging people with the gospel, and willing to do whatever is necessary to reach out to and attract people to the worship of Jesus Christ.

My prejudice is that most of the really serious theological mistakes made by the church are made in the interest of evangelism and mission. In reaching out to speak to the world in obedience to Christ, sometimes we fall facedown in the world. When that happens, we offer the world little that the world cannot attain through means other than Christ.

That is my main caveat in engaging Bandy’s thought, but it’s one that I could make about any serious attempt at mission. For too long, our church has languished in the grip of a truncated sense of worship as congregational caregiving, Christian education, or worst of all, a club meeting for the benefit of the few older adults left in our congregations. Bandy is a slap in the face, a mission-minded cattle prod to our staid, in-house perversion of Christian worship to benefit one generation.

Bandy begins by contrasting “coaching worship” (which he commends as a new way of conceiving of worship) with “educational worship” (the bane of traditional, mainline Protestants like us). Bandy advocates for worship that recognizes the spiritual needs and aspirations of new generations of Christians, worship that is not so limited to “insiders” but has a passion for reaching out to those who are not there. In a denomination shrinking as fast as ours, a church that has excluded two or three generations from our worship, Bandy’s book is badly needed.

Coaching worship is topical, taking its cues from the yearnings of contemporary people rather than from the Christian liturgical tradition or even from scripture. Bandy says, “Coaching worship is all about practical help for daily living. The topics address issues and concerns that occur and/or recur in the context of home, workplace, playground, and points in between. Clearly, the specific topics are very contextual, and worship designers discover these ‘hot topics’ through listening strategies in the neighborhood or community, conversations with social service and public education partners, and sensitivity to economic and social changes. The focus is very local . . . not global. It addresses the stresses and ambiguities that are experienced on a daily and weekly basis by a large number of people in the primary mission field” (p. 40).

The goal of the worship ways that Bandy advocates seems less about biblical fidelity or sacramental engagement than engaging people with themselves. “The goal of educational worship is to change your mind, while the goal of coaching worship [is] to alter your behavior” (p. 63). Yet the alterations being urged by Bandy don’t seem to have much biblical content. What about worship as the praise of the peculiar God who has met us in Christ and as formation of disciples of Jesus Christ? Don’t hear much of that in this book.

After a sweeping put-down of much that we have done and are doing in our tradition-oriented “educational” worship ways, Bandy says, “people are not trying to find the courage to stake their lives on Christ; but rather they are trying to find a method to shape their lifestyles around Christ. They yearn to experience Christ as a spiritual guide who can help them find their ways through the ambiguities of daily living. They seek Christ as a mentor who can be available 24/7; coach them through difficult and stressful circumstances; and help them make difficult decisions” (p. 40). These generalizations about the unchurched Bandy makes not on the basis of empirical research but rather out of his own widespread experience. Still, his characterizations are congruent with many of my own observations, particularly in the under-forty crowd. I particularly learned from his stress on hospitality (congregational hospitality leaders must be trained and intentional in welcoming people to worship), measurement (we’re all measuring something; what we measure and who we measure are the issues), and feedback and evaluation.

I admit that my pastoral leadership, as well as my writing on worship, is indicative of the problem with our worship life that Bandy in “Worship Ways” is attacking and attempting to fix. Maybe that’s why I find myself so uneasy (defensive?) with Bandy’s approach to worship. Bandy is a master at worrying about and having incisive knowledge of those whom the church is failing to reach. But he takes his generalizations about their spiritual hungers and yearnings much more seriously than he takes the substance of the faith of the church or even scripture. He moves from claims about the “existential” situation of those who are outside the reach of our staid congregations to his dictates for worship, occasionally citing a few biblical texts to bolster his claims. But there is no sense that one thing that happens in Christian worship is to make us strangers in the very culture in which we find ourselves.

How can Bandy be sure that his ways of worship are not merely pandering to the culture and thereby confirming the status quo rather than transforming anybody? He accuses traditional worship ways of being “Constantinian” in their enslavement to the dominant culture. Guilty. But in his insistence on the point of worship being personal transformation, and subjective affirmation, why is Bandy not being subservient rather than challenging the culture?

A fast-paced, challenging book that is meant to make us either change the way we worship or else defend what we’re doing as the best we can do in worship. So typical of Bandy to set such difficult choices before us so directly and passionately.

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