(I will be intentionally vague about the identity of the churches I’m profiling, in order to protect the guilty…)
In 2010 I had the opportunity to worship at two different churches while I was on vacation. As a side note, since I serve one congregation and preach every week, I relish the chance to worship in other contexts as a “regular” Christian–to worship without any responsibility for planning or execution.
The downside of visiting other congregations is that I can’t help but critique the worship services; inevitably, I end up reviewing the services as a way of gleaning lessons in worship planning and leadership for myself. And since my experiences at these two particular churches were noteworthy, I thought I would share my critiques with everyone.
Church Number 1: The first service I visited promised to be a “traditional” Episcopal Book of Common Prayer service. I was attracted to this because of the predictability of the service and guaranteed Communion. About 15 of us gathered in their sanctuary, and the service began. For some disappointing reason, despite the hymns being listed in the worship bulletin, we sang exactly zero songs or hymns. There wasn’t even a pianist in the place!
And, as expected, I appreciated the predictability of the service and receiving Communion (something I rarely get to do). But what I didn’t appreciate was the mood, set by the priest, in the room. It’s probably a toxic byproduct of the seeker-sensitive church movement, but the priest was totally nonchalant about what he was doing. Although he was wearing an alb (which would give the clue that he was doing something more significant than, say, going shopping), he acted as though what he was doing was the most casual thing in the world–like going shopping. Perhaps he should’ve been wearing sweat pants instead. He conducted the whole service from the aisle and preached from a music stand. Even while he was celebrating the Lord’s Supper (a supposed holy moment), he almost seemed to be apologizing for having to do that “churchy” thing that might turn everyone off.
An often-cited study demonstrated that up to 93% of our communication is non-verbal (38% voice quality, 55% body cues) and only 7% relies on the actual words we speak. And if that is true, the priest was shouting a singular message: Nonchalance–that is, “What I am doing is not all that important, transcendent, or holy; I’m just a regular guy and don’t want to offend you with my overt religiosity. I’m actually trying to be more like Rick Warren, but I have to wear this little costume. My apologies to all.” Sure, he didn’t actually say those words, but the other 93% of his cues told me his true feelings loudly and clearly.
But what if people are not hungry for just another casual encounter with worldliness? What if people are craving a brush with holiness, to be transported from the gray hum-drum of this world and to sit in the heavenly realms with Christ (Ephesians 2:6)?
No wonder churches like this are declining: If you don’t take your own message or liturgy seriously, then who will?
Church Number 2: The second service I visited promised to be a “contemporary” Presbyterian service. And I use the term
“contemporary” only if it refers to singing bad music that no one knows, listening to mediocre preaching, and participating in a confusing mish-mash of random liturgical actions in the space of an hour.
Once again, the dominant non-verbal message that came wafting toward me was nonchalance. Or maybe inspiration competing with nonchalance: “We want to raise our hands in the air, but we don’t want to come off as too religious and spook you from our church.” It seemed that the pastor and music leaders were trying so hard to be seeker-sensitive and to buck their own religious tradition that they radiated a conflicting message and a conflicted identity.
The pastor preached (It was a lectionary-based sermon in a “contemporary” service, no less! How’s that for conflicted?) from a music stand next to the Lord’s Table, which was covered with a variety of items (like a candle, a wad of fabric, and a cornucopia) that symbolized something-or-other. And although he had a clever interpretation for the text, it was drowned out by his nonchalant body posture and actions (hands in pocket, jingling change and keys, etc.). In fact, I spent a good deal of time fixating on his Regis-Philbin-style monochrome shirt-and-tie combo that barely covered his generous spare tire.
No wonder this church is experiencing decline and upheaval: If you don’t know who you are and don’t know what you’re saying, then people won’t connect with you.
Conclusions: This all may come off as a little harsh, but I say it in judgment of my own tendencies, too–as a way of correcting my many flaws and clarifying my theology of worship that informs the 93% of what people hear and see every Sunday in my church. So here are my takeaways as preacher and worship leader:
- I must think about and clarify the message I am communicating–through my dress, my actions, my facial expressions, my position in the sanctuary, the sanctuary itself–in addition to the words I speak on Sunday morning. May I always communicate reverence for God, respect for the task of worshiping, compassion for people, and passion for Jesus, but never nonchalance, narcissism, or apology for what I’m doing.
- While some seekers (and believers, too!) may crave a casual worship environment, I must not fall into the trap and believe that all people are searching for the same thing. I value (and I think most people in my church are in a similar spot) reverent worship of the triune God, respect for our particular tradition, and a transcendent encounter with the living God through worship in community with other believers. That is what I want my 93% to be filled with.
- Although I will try to improve myself, I will not apologize for not being someone else. And although I will continue to refine and reform our church’s worship practices, I will not apologize that we are not another church. My congregation and I have found ourselves in a particular spot in the Church universal; so we will enjoy it and celebrate our corner of Christendom. And we pray that Jesus will be glorified in what we do.