Transforming worship from third person to first person
Do we care what people are experiencing in worship?
by N. Graham Standish
What’s the most taboo topic in ministry, that one topic that neither pastors nor members like to talk about? Transforming worship. Failing to transform our worship is the main cause for our decline. Why? It’s the center of all church life. It’s the event that holds churches together. It’s where visitors gage who we are. If our worship doesn’t inspire them, we shrink. And we are shrinking.
We face a conundrum: The greatest solution to church decline is transforming our worship, yet it’s the topic we most resist. What needs to be transformed most isn’t our music as much as it’s the fact that our worship is often too “third person” and not enough “first person.” Let’s come back to this.
The musical dilemma
Worship hymns and songs are a microcosm of this conundrum because we don’t like to talk about changing music. Years ago, Bruce Smith, music director at my former church, Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and I began writing worship songs. We wrote because we were frustrated by a growing dilemma within modern Christian worship music.
What’s the dilemma? We’re generally devoted to certain kinds of worship music and pay little attention to how people experience that music. We’re sure that what we love is what God loves. So we see our music’s blessings while ignoring it’s shortcomings. For example, traditional hymns offer spiritually wonderful, rich and deep lyrics too often set to complex, baffling scores — baffling to people used to modern pop songs. Contemporary praise songs offer emotional, inspirational melodies expressing often narrow, uniform and repetitive themes. Our devotion to what we love makes us blind to whether or not others experience God through our music.
Bruce and I tried to write melodically inspiring songs that had greater spiritual depth (you can download the songs for free at ngrahamstandish.org under the “Resources” tab). We found that it’s hard to get traction for songs that don’t neatly fit traditional or contemporary categories because Christians on both sides are now resisting other kinds of music.
What if people don’t like classically-based traditional hymns or country-rooted contemporary songs? Do we care whether or not they experience God through these songs? Similarly, what if people don’t resonate with our worship in general? Do we care whether or not people are experiencing God through our worship?
Experiencing God is the key to engaging worship, but not just any kind of experience. Our song writing revealed a common theme among the songs people cherished the most. They’re overwhelmingly written in the first person. They sing about “my” and “our” yearnings and experiences of God.
Our most cherished hymns are those that get us to sing to God: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “I Surrender All”. The most enduring contemporary songs also sing to God: “Shout to the Lord,” “Awesome God,” “Come Now Is the Time to Worship,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Give Thanks”. They’re all personal, relational and experiential. “Me,” “you” and “us” are prominent pronouns. The others … not so much.
It’s about me, we and thou
Worship wise, I believe we’re too “third person” in our worship. People are seeking “first person” experiences of God. They’re just decreasingly having them in our churches. Look at the explosion of interest in books and videos on near death experiences and non-Christian and non-religious spirituality. Look at how psychology and counseling are now delving into areas that used to be reserved for religion. Why do we need church if we can experience God elsewhere?
So what do we do? At some point we can either simply accept that what we offer will never catch on again as we slowly slide into oblivion. Or we can decide to take difficult steps to transform how we worship, as fraught with danger as that is.
A first step is to honestly ask one, all-important, scary question: Do people experience God through our worship? We can’t just ask our members. We have to invite others to worship with us and honestly let us know — friends, neighbors, kids. Only once we know what people are experiencing can we then start thinking creatively about how to help them actively experience God.
Here are two ideas on generating new experiences from my own pastoral ministry:
- The old-fashioned: Send handwritten, individualized thank-you notes to each visitor, and include self-addressed, stamped postcards with these questions: 1) Where did you experience God the most in worship? 2) Where did you experience God the least? 3) What would help you experience God more in our worship? Not all answers will be helpful, but they’ll offer insights and can be used to overcome member resistance.
- The “what-do-they-do”: Create a task force to visit a number of churches that seem good at helping people experience God in worship. After each visit, have them discuss what elements of their worship might work in your church. Then have them work with your board and worship teams to slowly implement those ideas.
We can keep tinkering with our mission, ministry, structure, and the rest. But until we boldly reflect on our core event — worship — we may never be able to overcome our decline.