Our worship problems have been looming for awhile. But they aren’t looming any more. Churches in America are into a full-blown worship crisis. This is serious, because worship is the God-directed, soul-nourishing center of the Christian life. When worship is not functioning well, it’s like a deep-sea diver getting a kink in their oxygen supply line. It’s not good.
In one sense worship is the consecration to God of everything we do—not just what we do on Sunday mornings. Nevertheless, 24-7 worship needs to be anchored in regularly-scheduled worship events of the gathered Christian community. And here’s where we get our first clue that there’s a problem. David T. Olson has just published The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan), which summarizes groundbreaking research on church attendance from a database of over 200,000 North American churches. The results show that the vast majority of these hundreds of thousands of churches are not growing. Church attendance has remained flat despite a national population increase of fifty-two million people since 1990. For years we have been led to believe that a vast number of Americans find their way to church every Sunday. But then someone woke up and realized that those estimates were based on Americans’ self-reporting of their church attendance habits. Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, and in this case we’ve been guilty of inflating our piety. David Olson got the idea that it might be worthwhile to actually check the numbers of people in the pews on Sunday. That proved to be a bracing reality check. Average church attendance on any given weekend is 52 million, or just 17.5% of the population, and still oozing lower as we speak. Ouch.
So what’s the problem? Some offer a sociological explanation. They suggest the attendance fall-off started when malls began opening for Sunday shopping, and stadiums and ballparks ramped up for Sunday sports. The church just couldn’t compete.
Others allege a flaw in American character. According to this critique, we’re so into individual rights and radical democracy that we’re constitutionally incapable of the solemn reverence that true worship requires. Kneeling and submission are alien postures; everything has been totally leveled out. We could relate to a buddy God much better than a universal Lord. C. S. Lewis thought it was spiritually healthy to kneel—helps us remember we’re creatures—but American Christians dismiss him as a biased old Englishman who still respected the queen of Great Britain.
I have heard many pastors and worship leaders fulminate that the problem lies in the self-centered attitudes of those who show up for church. Instead of coming to offer their adoration and praise to God, and renew their vows of commitment to him, they are expecting to get something out of the services they attend. And that, complain many frustrated pastors, sounds downright narcissist. People weigh their church options like consumers, and demand satisfaction of their needs.
I think there’s some truth to all these explanations for the current worship crisis. But there’s another explanation and I think it may be the most significant one. Here’s the real problem. Many church services simply aren’t worth attending. And unless there’s a renewal of worship itself, things are only going to get worse.
A generation ago a new style of worship swept through the churches, replacing choirs with amplified praise bands, and expository sermons with topical messages of inspiration and challenge. The hymnbooks went into the dumpsters, and ornate pulpits were carted off in favor of platform-pacing preachers with skin-tone mikes hanging off one ear. Sincerity is now the sole standard for public prayers, which has allowed them to become painful exercises in rambling banality.
In the new, contemporary service, everybody stands for a long “package” of repetitive praise songs, led by some sincere young musician usually lacking both social maturity and theological awareness. The subsequent message, filled with stories and jokes, impressionistic rather than logical, focuses on the basics of the faith so that anyone off the street will find it all plain and clear. Meanwhile, the saints languish in various stages of arrested development, lacking the spiritual muscle to survive the challenges that real life inevitably brings.
We have a problem. No, we have a crisis. And tinkering with the music “style” isn’t going to fix a thing. Church leaders need to stop dead in their tracks, start praying fervently, and re-learn what worship is really all about. Here are some good guides to start with: Christopher Ellis’ Gathering: A Theology and Spirituality of Worship in the Free Church Tradition, Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology, and just about anything by the late Robert Webber. We have to re-learn what worship is all about. We have to sift through the wisdom of our historical theologies and practices of worship and cull what we can to forge a viable future. Only then can we teach other Christians what it means to worship. One thing for sure—worship is not something automatic or easy. It’s an acquired spiritual skill. And it’s our transcendental air-hose.