How Do We Think About Congregational Worship?
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
It’s starting to happen. Churches are filling up with worshipers, and singing is back. Even with the surge in summer travel, fulfilling the pent-up longing for vacations of the American public, even with the Delta variant causing case numbers to creep upward, Sundays are starting to feel more like they were before the pandemic.
But some habits are hard to break. Many Christians got comfortable with sitting on their couches in their pj’s watching a service on YouTube—watching a service of a different church, a more famous or fun or interesting church, perhaps. The temptation to do “church-on-demand” isn’t going away because streaming isn’t going to go away. Besides, streaming services is a way to help meet people where they are, from hotels to homes, from senior care facilities to rural communities. The problem is not with the platform; it’s with our perception of the purpose of gathering together.
Why do we need to gather together as the church?
There are many ways to answer this question, from a theology of the church as the new temple to the sociology and psychology of co-presence and group singing.
But I want to start by outlining the different underlying paradigms for congregational worship out of which we as church leaders operate. We have consciously or subconsciously conditioned our congregations to approach the worship service in a particular way. And these different ways of approaching a church service have root systems in different church traditions or movements. All three paradigms can be found in the New Testament church and justified theologically. Yet when one is privileged over the others, the music becomes dissonant, like bending one note of a chord too far on the neck of a guitar.
Mission, Formation and Encounter
First, there is the mission paradigm. In this view, the goal of a church service is to reach the lost. This paradigm has its roots in the Great Awakenings in the US. The frontier revivals turned hearts back to the Lord so effectively that churches began to mimic the structure of its services. Liturgical scholar Melanie Ross notes that churches—particularly those without traditional denominational moorings—began to shift from the “fourfold shape” of “gathering, word, table, sending” to the threefold order of “songs, sermon, altar call.”
The impulse to be mission-oriented is right. The church exists in the world for the sake of the world. The Spirit of God empowers the people of God to continue the mission of God. Yet when it is over-emphasized, the services become a sales pitch and church a showroom floor. The staff become performers, and the congregants become the salesforce. The temptation arises to justify ungodly or simply foolish means for godly ends. (We can all think of examples of this).
The second paradigm is that of formation. According to this model, the church service is meant to make disciples. Proponents of this view can be found in the Reformed traditions, from Anglicans to Presbyterians to Baptists. Think of Robert Webber or Marva Dawn or Tim Keller or James K.A. Smith. Each in different yet overlapping ways have persuasively argued that worship should have a narrative shape, re-enacting the drama of salvation in order to serve as a kind of counter-formation to the pressures in the world. Worship is resistance to the formative secular liturgies of consumerism, individualism, and more. For many who ascribe to this model, sermons are paramount and the pulpit is central. For others, the service looks like adherence to historic liturgies, or it has an intentionally crafted shape.
This too is good and right and true. But taken too far, Sundays become pure catechism, aimed at the believer or insider only. The services are laden with jargon and technical terms, and the staff become teachers and facilitators. The congregants are merely students. And the temptation is to believe that formation is automatic—that if we could only get the service and its liturgy and preaching right, then we would have disciples. Sadly, things are not so simple.
The third and final paradigm is that of encounter. The idea here is that we gather as the church to meet with God. In one sense, this is very much a sacramental view of worship—believers come to church to receive the Eucharist for it is the body and blood of Christ. It is the thing that cannot be done online or via Zoom. But in Protestant traditions—especially the “low church” ones—the encounter paradigm of church derives from Pentecostal-Charismatic root systems. Lester Ruth and Swee-Hong Lim have done extensive work on the prevalence of Psalm 22:3 (“God is enthroned on the praises of His people”) in teaching and preaching in the Latter Rain movement and all its subsequent streams. In renewal movements that emphasize the gifts and activity of the Holy Spirit, worship—and specifically worship music—is at the center. The pulpit or the altar table is literally moved or overshadowed by the band. But the band is not there to put on a concert but to facilitate an encounter with the living God.
Here again, we can see the link between sung worship and the experience of God’s presence in the Bible—from Paul and Silas in prison to the admonishments to the Ephesians and Colossians to sing as part of being filled with the Spirit and with the Word of Christ. Yet when encounter becomes the only paradigm, services are designed to be an immersive experience, with the staff serving as producers and designers. Congregants are encouraged to be consumers and radical individualists who are there for a “Jesus-and-me” experience. The temptation—and Lord, help us, because we see this all around us—is to manipulate or fabricate an experience with God.
A Generative Tension
All three paradigms are biblical and theologically grounded. So how do we hold them in the right kind of tension, like a guitar string stretched to the right pitch?
The answer begins by recognizing that all three paradigms are only possible by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who empowers our mission; it is the Spirit who forms us into the image of Christ; and it is the Spirit who communicates the presence of God to us in worship.
Once we recognize that, then we can remind ourselves that as with many other things in the life of the Spirit, discernment is required. The goal here is not an even split, or “balance” between the three. Spiritual discernment means gathering with your team and prayerfully thinking together about the setting of each service. Should a weekend service skew toward encounter, while a midweek class or course tilts toward formation? Or maybe the discernment is about the season of the church. There are times—such as Easter and Christmas—when we may want to shape our services with the unchurched in mind. Finally, because discernment happens communally, it’s worth considering the staff. Each person probably gravitates toward one of these paradigms because of spiritual gifting and personality. Do you have the right mix of people to offer differing perspectives on a particular decision?
As we call our people back to worship together, this can be a perfect time to reflect on what we think we’re calling them to. Are we asking them to help us reach the lost in a church service? Are we inviting them to be formed as disciples in worship? Are we calling them to an encounter with the risen Christ? Hopefully, as we discern these decisions together in prayer and with the Spirit’s help, we find all three in a dynamic and generative tension.
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