Perhaps one of the places most clearly identified in culture with congregational vitality is in the area of worship. After all, for most people, worship is the first experience of a church, and what is experienced in that service will likely be a factor in determining whether to go deeper in developing a relationship with that church, or to move on to somewhere else (and in some extreme cases, may even turn folks off church entirely). In many tangible ways worship comes front and center for most churches, from the proportion of staff salaries spent on supporting worship to the differences in attendance at worship versus other activities. And yet, for all of the importance of worship to the ongoing ministry of a congregation, many congregations function from week to week on inertia rather than any sense of engagement. I know this, for I have served some of these churches and have been guilty of planning by inertia as well.
From a pastor’s perspective, it’s easy to see how we fall into the trap of going through the motions and being only semi-engaged in the task of worship planning. In seminary we are taught that we should be spending all sorts of time on sermon writing, but after just a short time in the parish we discover that fire fighting (putting out all the various “fires” that erupt during the week) begins to consume most of our time and if we are going to have any personal and family time at all, something has to give. It’s not that we aren’t thinking about the sermon throughout the week, but to intentionally sit down to research and put something on paper often gets moved to the margins. And for those of us who have a fairly rigid, traditional order of worship, it becomes easy to fall into to filling in the blanks rather than spending time thinking through where God is directing us in this service. For most of us, worship and preaching is a 50 week a year responsibility which seems never ending, and one has to develop a particular rhythm and routine if one wants to survive. Even my friends involved in doing wonderfully creative services recognize the need to fall into a structure knowing that they simply can’t sustain the energy needed to be wildly creative every Sunday. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as one can find places of engagement in that process and avoid rote planning. But it’s hard, especially when one spends lots of time an energy in pulling together something special only to see it met with blank stares on Sunday morning.
It’s those blank stares from Sunday to Sunday that seem to be the best source of recognizing whether a congregation is worshipping through inertia or habit rather than any sense of engagement, and that may be the hardest thing to overcome. While a lot of energy is spent talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the pastor and the worship team in facilitating quality worship, what we fail to recognize is that worship is a two-way street in which the audience/congregation is to be engaged as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the reason that a congregation isn’t engaged in worship is that the worship team isn’t providing a good experience, but in fact more often than not congregations cease to be engaged simply because they don’t know that they are supposed to be engaged! In many churches, people come not because they expect anything significant will happen, but because they have developed the habit of coming, getting up each Sunday and coming to church out of inertia rather than engagement. Once at church they sit there, sometimes enjoying the music and even learning some small thing in the sermon, but without any belief that what they are engaged in has spiritual, personal, and communal significance. Worship is something we attend rather than something we do or participate in, and our presence or lack of presence isn’t especially a big deal.
Worship becomes engaging, it seems to me, when every person present – from the pastor to the musicians to the smallest child sitting in the back row – believes that our gathering has a purpose and that God will indeed be present in our midst. It has nothing to do with style and very little to do with content, but rather involves a sense of expectation that what we are doing is important stuff which requires the full engagement and participation of everyone present, and even the prayers and thoughts of those who aren’t. Engaged worshippers attend not out of duty, but with a desire to see God at work in the gathering of the Body of Christ. Engaged worshippers expect the Holy Spirit to blow through the room, and are open to the possibility that strange and wonderful things will happen when the Spirit shows up.
A couple of summers ago I had a Sunday off and decided to visit the worship of a new church plant down the road which was growing like gangbusters. The congregation met in a school gym, and was setup like every other school gym I’ve attended. It was a contemporary service and while it was done well, it wasn’t anything particularly special. And yet the energy in the room was palpable because almost everyone in the room expected God to be present and something to happen. Leaders and congregation alike were participants in the worship of God, and that created something special in it’s own right. Without that energy, worship quickly becomes dull and lifeless.
There are all sorts of factors that can lead to the creation of positive energy and expectation in worship, but in the end it comes down to a shared belief in God’s active work through what we are doing. If we don’t have that, then no artificial energy generator (the pastor’s dynamism, room size and setup, lots of candles, etc.) can fully transform worship by inertia to engaged worship.