Vital Worship: My Thoughts, My Heresy, My Truth

visalia UMCThinking about how to put the variety of thoughts and experiences I have about what makes vital worship, into print is mind boggling to me.  I have been a pastor for almost 25 years.  In every church I have pastored we have seen growth and I have had the privilege of leading churches through several building campaigns to make room for the new folks that were coming.

It would be reasonable to think that I would understand what has been effective over these years.  By now I should know what makes for vital worship.  It would be reasonable to hope that I would just write my opinion on all of the popular issues that we talk about concerning worship and reveal what is right.

But the truth is that I have always felt that a lot of the things that Christians argue about concerning worship just don’t really make a difference in having vital worship.  We are all aware of the song wars which have always beset our faith and will continue to as long as music is alive and changing.  We have also seen the rise and occasional fall of alternate styles, settings, etc of worship.  What time worship is held, what the dress code should be, how we serve communion, if we use hymnals or projectors….all of these issues have come and gone for me in each church I have pastored.  I have never really been all that passionate about any of them.

The reason is for my lack of enthusiasm for one side or the other in these issues is that I have seen with my own eyes that they make no difference in the vitality of worship or the health of a church.  I know that this is a type of heresy and I apologize to those who might be offended.  But again, this blog is about my own experience and thoughts.

I have served 4 churches.  In those churches I have worn robes and stoles, preached in jeans and hawaiian shirts.  I have used the UMC hymnals including antiphonal readings and I have shot from the hip and made up things as they occurred to me.  I have had rock and roll music and I have had blues and old fashioned hymns.  I did these things because each church had different needs and different talents and history.

In short, I have experienced almost every type of worship that I have heard of.  None of those things ever made much of a difference as far as I could tell.  Really.  So what did make all of those churches worship service vital and healthy?   Here are the components of vital worship as far as I have been able to discern.

1. No Bad Music.  The type of music is less important than the quality of music.  Little churches with talented musicians who are allowed to play music that they are passionate about have worship that is every bit as vital as a professional band at a mega church.  Big and small churches who let their music get tired, sloppy and bad suffer immediate and long lasting damage to the spirit of the church.

I hired the choir director at my previous church with a very simple job description.  She asked what I wanted as far as musical direction etc.  I told her.  “No bad music.  If the choir is not ready to sing well or they just can’t get a song ready in time then switch to a hymn or have the pianist do a solo.  Just don’t allow bad music in the worship service.”  She said…”o.k.”  In the 9 years that we ministered together she pulled the plug on planned music only about 5 or 6 times.  She made sure that each piece of music was done as well as it could be by the people we had.  I received no complaints about the style of music…(she did very traditional anthems) or the amount of music the whole time that I was at that church.

2. Preach Jesus.  I have consistently found that anytime I wander away from preaching Jesus, and him crucified and resurrected that the church goes into a lull.  My reflections on this are pretty simple.  Its a mistake to believe that all or even most church goers are Christians.  Its a mistake to believe that Christians once they accept Christ are done with their need to grow and change in their relationship with him.

I have never believed that any social movement, political party or leader or anything else in the whole world could hold a candle to the transformative power of Jesus Christ.  I have studiously avoided letting worship services become the servant of any other god or idea.

3. Be Real:  I am a plainspoken man.  I come from a rural background and I am not interested in being popular or trying to dazzle people with my winning rhetoric.  I know that Christians sin.  I know that we refuse to forgive and many times we harden our hearts and refuse to ask for any more forgiveness from Christ.  I also know that we cannot experience Grace in fullness unless these things are talked about, confronted and confessed.

Worship is more vital in the churches where people know they are being told the truth in its gritty reality about the lives they are living.  I guess a better way to say it is “ The truth will set the worshiper free.”

4. Love People:  This might well just be a sub category of being real but it merits a space of its own.   There is no hiding for the leader who does not love people.  They know if you are on an ego trip or if you see leading worship as a kind of chore.  They know if you are blessed by their presence or if you are always ignoring those present and thinking about those who don’t attend.  During the time of worship the leader needs to give themselves to those in worship as fully as possible and rejoice in their presence.  You can love them and tell them hard things.  But you cannot hold them in disdain and do anything more than defraud them.

So these are my ideas about what has made worship vital and healthy over the course of my career.  I can honestly say that I have never set records for growth in any of those churches.  However, each one has grown and prospered and been very healthy.  My current church is a radically wonderful and healthy church.  Our worship services are vital to that health.  I’m still plugging away on all of these concepts.  I hope that some of what I have written might inspire or challenge those who read this.  I confess that I lack expertise beyond what experience has taught me.  But I also state boldly that these 4 ideas have served myself and the churches I have pastored well.

1 Steve CreelRev. Steven Creel
Visalia United Methodist Church
Visalia, CA

Worship Vitality

Back CameraYou probably won’t read this unless it’s substantive, so I’m going to be as frank as I can. Personally, I believe the question of worship vitality is the most impacting in a church’s growth and viability. It seems that this is fundamental to the task of pastoring. It’s also a daunting agenda.

Music in worship deserves to be a huge focus of our attention and it should be assumed that occasionally we will face difficult roads there. Smaller churches can face huge strain in finding and keeping great musicians who can lead worship. This takes constant plodding and the occasional breakthrough for small churches.

Even for larger congregations, managing and empowering the singing side of our common faith venture is still a huge demand. Music can grow stale and overused, songs or styles can be idol-ized, musicians can become disconnected from the overall vision for the church or for worship itself. We can let announcements or other traditions break up the flow of prayer (and even of thought sometimes!). We must continue to be listening, learning leaders in this arena, even if we’re not at all musicians. Training and sensitivity are both necessary if we are to be effective guides and shepherds of our church’s beating heart of worship.

Prayer, whether you are of the transcendental mystical mode of worship or in the most charismatic of Contemporary Worship evangelical mode, a marker of younger adults is that they come to church for a spirituality of depth and immediacy. Maybe that is the heart of every person of any age, even though we can become divorced from our own core needs. I try to build each service so that prayer is the very center, the life blood of the experience.

Preaching. What’s the rule? Almost every preacher is convinced that she or he is great at it…?! I hope we all expose ourselves to great preachers of the prophetic tradition, of the church growth movement, of the most secular of great communicators, and to the wisdoms in our biblical story as to preaching. It is ultimately an act of love given to empower God’s people. It is the most daunting task for me and consumes around ten hours of my work every week.

And finally, Welcome isn’t only what you find at the front door of a church. Language (jargon, sexism, etc.) can welcome or put off. Song choices can reflect some of the “world out there” or can demand a complete cultural shut off. Services can over-isolate newcomers (“And what’s YOUR name, visitor there in row 6”), as well as embrace them gently with kind practices such as passing the peace.

Ultimately, we are called to be leaders in the most sacred act of shared faith. May God bless us in our work, and may we devote great energy to the task of leading in vitalized worship.

EXIF_JPEG_T422Rev. Rod Brayfindley
First United Methodist Church
Redding, California

From the Beatles to Bobby Jo


At OpenCircle, a relatively new and thriving young adult ministry in the South Bay, we are not completely convinced that worship has to necessarily take place on Sunday, nor do we believe that it has to be a weekly event following a regular format of prayers and hymns that’s printed in a bulletin. In fact, there is no real set formula for the way that we do worship. The only thing that we are convinced of is that it has to be infused with the five core values that undergird our ministry: Love, Faith, Relevance, Grace and Impact.

That’s why when we launched our once a month young adult worship service in October of 2011, our first and foremost hunch was that we needed to constantly be in “experimental” and “experiential” mode. For our primary demographic reach of the 18 to 35 year olds, design and structure are not assumed. We simply try to do something interesting each time, thinking and praying about what would provide a meaningful and inspiring worship experience in real and relevant ways. What has resulted is the creation of a myriad of diverse worship themes that incorporate different musical styles and elements. And each month, the worship is different than the one before.

We have had worship led by an up and rising Christian group called “The Nehemiah Band” whose music is described as “high energy performances, a soulful blend of hip hop, worship, and rock influences, and lyrical content about Christ, Christianity, and Korean cuisine.” We have worshipped using only the music of the Beatles in a worship called “All You Need is Love”, shared in a World Communion service where the Body of Christ was rainbow colored Korean rice cakes, and even had break dancers, hula teams, street drummers, rappers and scratchers lead us in glorifying God. And in the midst of it all, we have of course also worshipped to Hillsongs and Chris Tomlin, proclaiming and singing often “How Great is Our God”.

Indeed, our God is great. As the Bible says in Ephesians, God is “able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine.” That’s why our worship varies so much from month to month. Because deep down inside, we may not be convinced of a whole bunch of things, but we are convinced that no one worship or one worship style can capture the full essence of God’s greatness. Hopefully, though, through each effort and yet another go at our worship, those who come get glimpses of that greatness.

Speaking of those who come, it’s been great to see the reach of OpenCircle widen beyond just Los Altos United Methodist Church where it originally began. In the past two years, OpenCircle has grown from just a handful of young adults to over 90, including intentional participation and collaboration with the young adults from Saint Paul UMC in Fremont, Palo Alto First UMC, San Jose First UMC, Good Samaritan UMC, and Calvary UMC. I and the pastors involved in this collaboration – Rev. Sun Hee Kim, Pastor Jonathan Tarman, and Pastor Sadie Stone – are excited about how this worship will expand to other venues and times. But for now, we continue to meet on the first Saturday of every month at Los Altos United Methodist Church, experiencing something different and something new each time, but encountering the same amazing and loving God who is great all the time.

This year, we are looking forward to worship inspired by the music of Michael Jackson, a U2-charist service, and something involving Cirque Du Soleil. It’s going to be interesting, to say the least. And coming up this next month in February, we will have an amazing contemporary Christian folk artist by the name of Bobby Jo Valentine lead us with his music and his story, reminding us of how God is “Still In Love” with us. Just in time to celebrate the month of love and romance. It’s going to be awesome.

Come and check us out sometime. We would love to have you and share in some of our experiences of Love, Faith, Relevance, Grace and Impact. In the OpenCircle…there’s always room.

For more info, check out our website: or find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@OpenCircleUMC).

Samuel Yun PreachingRev. Samuel Yun is Minister of Young Adults at Los Altos United Methodist Church and the Shepherd and Navigator for OpenCircle. You can contact him at and follow him on Twitter (@revyunique).

Attention to the Unexpected

So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all their things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47).

FUMCSantaROsaThis last year I began my fifth appointment to a new church. Something is different about my approach at the beginning of this journey. I have still been taking the time to get to know the church and the community. I am still immersing myself in our understanding of the mission of the church and our strategies and processes to accomplish that mission. I am still trying to align and focus all that we do with that mission and free leaders up to be innovative and creative in accomplishing our purpose. But what is different is that in the midst of all of this work, I’m looking for “signs and wonders.”

Somehow, in the past, I glossed over this abundant reference in the book of Acts. What I formerly saw was three main parts to becoming a movement and being vital once again.

1. The Resurrection sparks the movement
2. The Holy Spirit ignites the flame.
3. Proclaiming Jesus spreads the fire.

What I missed was the “signs and wonders” between numbers 2 and 3 above. There is little to proclaim without the authenticating “signs and wonders”.

For too many years, I fell into the trap of thinking that if only I understood more, implemented a different strategy or found the right leader, we would emerge as a movement again. While all these things are important, I’ve learned that I must, at the same time, be looking for “signs and wonders” – that is, evidence that God is working.

What is happening in our midst that can only be explained by the presence and action of God? If every accomplishment in our church can be explained by our plans, processes and efforts then, I think, vitality will continue to elude us. We must discover what God is doing and rally around that.

At our church we have a gathering we call Spirit Café. It began as one of our regular worship services. What was different about it was that it began with a meal, worship was very informal and it was on Tuesday. Initially, those who attended were church members for whom a weekday service was better than Sunday or just preferred a more informal service that included dinner.

A strong regular worshiping community evolved out of this service. Over the last six months, however, it has included a growing number of guests and visitors who have subsequently become a vital part of our congregation. Many of those people have been or are homeless. Over the years, I have been a part of food programs for the hungry that might also include a worship service. This is the first time, however, I’ve been a part of a worship service that many homeless and other community members have joined.

Many come initially because food is being served. But since the service began as a worship service that includes a meal rather than a meal that adds on a worship service, it has a very different feel to it – one of a worshiping community, rather than a service project. We have been asking ourselves, “What is God doing here?”

We are seeing “signs and wonders” for which we did not plan nor expect. We are experiencing growth in the number of regular people coming to this service from a portion of our population that we did not anticipate. Since it is a worship service we are asking ourselves different questions than we might otherwise – questions like, how do we welcome and greet people? How do we help people get connected? How do we involve them in our discipleship process? How do we create genuine Christian community? If we began this as a service project we might be asking different questions that would lead us down a different path.

God is connecting us to new people in our community through doors we did not anticipate nor plan for. We are seeking to rally around a new agenda God is setting for us and proclaim how Jesus is reshaping his community at the corner of Montgomery and Talbot. Rather than try to create movement we are trying to catch up with the movement God has already initiated.

While I highly value the need for greater understanding, competency and processes, I am sure that I often make things more complicated than needed. I miss what God is doing right before my eyes. One of the key ingredients that has always fueled the Jesus movement is “signs and wonders” – clear evidence that God is at work.

Questions for Reflection and Response:

1. What “signs and wonders” are you seeing around worship in your church?
2. Share an experience of God’s unmistakable presence in worship?
3. Do you have any unexpected guests God is sending to your worshiping community? How are you responding to God’s initiative?

blakebusick_resizeBlake Busick
Vital Signs and Wonders Project Coordinator
First United Methodist Church, Santa Rosa

Beginning of the VSW Movement

So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all their things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47).

After Peter’s first sermon, we get a snapshot of the vital signs that characterized the beginning of the Christian movement at the end of Acts 2. Worship attendance, professions of faith, small group ministry, mission outreach, connectional accountability, stewardship and giving; it is all there. In a few short verses, we see a vision for the kind of church God is calling us to be again.

Through this forum and blog posts we will give expression to these emerging signs of vitality among us. We will focus on one theme a month (e.g. worship attendance in January, professions of faith in February, etc.) where each week one of the churches in our Annual Conference will initiate a witness and conversation about what God is doing in relation to that vital sign. Your comments and contributions will expand our celebration of the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. In this way, we will learn from one another and explore resources and best practices to be adapted to our ministry contexts.

What “signs and wonders” are we seeing in relation to worship attendance? Check back next Wednesday as we inaugurate our weekly posts in relation to this first theme.

Blake Busick
Vital Signs and Wonders Project Coordinator