Thinking 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.