Our Current Worship Crisis

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.

6 Responses to Our Current Worship Crisis

  1. T.C. Porter May 21, 2008 at 2:43 am #

    We share fervor to help the church breath new life into worship, or rather shake the contemporary syndrome. I agree that some answers lie in the past, and in this respect I would like to learn from you and others as to how we might unleash certain hidden liturgical gems.

    However, the solution is not entirely in the past, as if there was a golden age of worship, as if the church of a particular point in time had the eternal recipe. Eden is very long ways away.

    Honestly, in many ways our ecclesial past got us in this mess. At what point did the church still resemble Jesus’ biblical movement? The year one-hundred A.D.? Four hundred? Probably the former. But Jesus seemed to bemoan many of the institutional trappings that have defined the church for most of its history, certainly since Constantine’s conversion ushered in an age of populous and royalty marked by many of the same icons of the empire (pastors wearing robes, etc.).

    If you look closely you find new seedlings popping up in the fertile soil of our landscape. People are coming up with unique solutions in our unique age. No one has quite been here before. It has been a long time since Christianity was not imposed on people through law, social pressure or habit. This might be worth celebrating. Forget the numbers. Forget church ‘decline.’ Narrow is the gate indeed. So why build cathedrals for the masses? Jesus was known to speak in the synagogue, but his was a life of motion and of service, venturing out into the wild and pursuing those who would never even feel welcome into a popular social dwelling. Many churches – who may not even be recognized as such – are finding great freedom and power in living lives of motion and service, and touching the very types of people that Jesus touched. Why play any kind of music – from hymnals or PowerPoint slides, organs or electric guitars – in a closed building at all? Why not meet the lost and needy where they are – outside? Bring your guitar if you must.

    I am describing what some people call the ‘missional church’ or a certain stream of the controversial ‘emerging church.’ Whatever you call it, it is real and I believe pleasing to God. Clearly this movement defies easy definition, and whatever it is I am not calling it perfect. But it is exciting and inspiring, and most of it is happening by its very nature off the radar, in the homes of the needy far away from big buildings, television cameras and public attention.

    If you are looking for a quick primer, check out chapter 13 of Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), pp. 161-9 (for a brief summary, see my http://www.followserveunite.org/2008/05/we-are-missionalincarnational.html); see also Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), and Stetzer and David Putnam, Breaking the Missional Code (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006).

  2. Paul May 7, 2008 at 4:38 pm #

    An excellent topic indeed and well worth considering.

    I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head when you said:

    “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.”

    As a worship leader, I have found many people too uncomfortable to put themselves in these Biblical postures of worship: lifting holy hands, clapping, kneeling, bowing, dancing, making a joyful noise. Instead, they prefer to stay within their personal comfort zone, which must not be breached.

    Indeed, worship is not just the singing during a Sunday service, it’s a spiritual act as we offer our bodies, our very selves. This involves our service to God, our giving, etc. But there are some churches where, for fear of offending (or breaching the comfort zone), even offerings are not collected, and certainly no one would dare speak the “T” word (tithe) biblical though it may be.

    We in America are too used to our “rights” that we’ve become slaves to this ostensible freedom.

    I say, look at a church where people are not afraid to lift their hands, bow their knees, clap their hands, etc., and you are looking at people who are truly free. Of course those are not the sole manifestations of freedom and worship, but they are a sign.

    You mention: “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.”

    While this may indeed be the case in some churches, I would like to point out that repetition itself is not wrong. Many of the Psalms have repetitive phrases. Repetition can become less than a glorifying thing if not done with the right heart. Then it becomes a rote exercise, missing the point. I have worshipped where the young leader may not have been a theologian, but led by the Holy Spirit, helped us focus on one phrase, extolling one particular attribute of God. We repeated the phrase musically for quite a while. Now, if I grew weary and didn’t do this for the right reason, I would have found it tedious. But in the right spirit, submissive to the leading of the minister of worship, I found that practice to be absolutely transcendent. This is something I would not have understood unless I had submitted myself to something that originally would have fallen outside of my comfort zone.

    This had nothing to with the worship leader’s skill. It had everything to do with the condition of my heart and my absolute determination to give God the praise and adoration and glory, no matter what the circumstance.

    Of course, a great worship leader will not add anything negative to the aforementioned circumstances. But ultimately, though it should be well directed, our worship must come from within and not be created, driven or deterred by the skill (or lack thereof) of the speaker or worship leader.

  3. Jim Reed May 3, 2008 at 6:58 am #

    I have told our congregation many times, and in many different ways, that on Sunday morning we WILL really worship, we WILL really pray, we WILL really get into the Word of God and we WILL have real fellowship. We will do this despite the fact that it might take a little more time, a little more effort and a little more commitment.

    Why wait for a special seminar or special meeting by a famous person who happens to come to town before we can engage in real church life? Let’s do it every Sunday.

    In other words, there does not have to be a “worship crisis.”

  4. Ron Short May 2, 2008 at 6:24 pm #

    I’m one of those frustrated pastors that complains about their people coming to worship as self-centered consumers, not worshippers. I have read Webber and Chan, and they have created a hunger in me for something more than I was offered in the free-church evangelicalism and Pentecostalism of my youth. Names such as Kavanaugh and Schmemann are beginning to show up on my bookshelf. And I want to share what I am learning with my congregation.

    But here’s the rub: how do we give Americanized consumers something deeper and better in a worship service without losing them to the mega church down the street? I agree that we evangelicals don’t do corporate worship very well. But the reason, at least in my case, that I struggle to introduce my people to good worship is that they are not interested. My people want sentimental stories and jokes in the sermon, not Biblical exposition. They come to me looking for easy, quick answers to life’s problems, not wisdom. They want lively, easy to sing, repetitive music that sounds like what they hear on American Idol. And liturgy? Forget it. That stuff is dead, dusty, and booooring. For my people, worship equals singing praise songs. The camps our students attend, Christian radio stations,and Christian bookstores all reinforce this idea. It’s hard to kick against the goads.

    I believe the complaints of pastors that people our too self-centered, and your complaint that most churches are not worth attending, are connected. Most churches are not worth attending because self-centered people have demanded worship that fits their fast-food lifestyle—they want their worship to be easy to consume and instantly satisfying, just like everything else in their lives, and we have given it to them. Now, younger evangelicals are longing to go back to an “Ancient-Future” faith, and they are finding it hard to convince their churches to come along for the ride. That’s why many are giving up on the established churches and starting something new—or leaving free churches and becoming Anglican, Orthodox, or R.C. I must say that I am tempted to go myself (I can often be found on Wednesday mornings at my local Episcopal Church.)

  5. Brian Tallman May 2, 2008 at 4:52 pm #

    Of course all of this presupposes that there is a regulating principle for worship (Heb. 12:28)–The Scriptures. Consequently when the Scriptures depart from our churches we are left to our own imagination to come up with the best way to worship and any and everything is fair game. To overcome this we must think about worship, as you have rightly noted. However, for the modern evangelical “thinking” and “worship” are antithetical. Worship–which usually means music (see the above nomenclature “worship leader”)–is designed to produce feelings and goosebumps etc. We need to recover the mind. As Mark Noll presaged: There is a scandal of the evangelical mind. And the scandal is this: Evangelicals have no mind.

  6. Wendy Patrick Mazzarella April 25, 2008 at 6:59 pm #

    Regarding “Our Current Worship Crisis,” I say AMEN to the assessment of many modern services that in a nutshell, are simply not worth attending. Why is this? I agree with the reasons listed, including the loss of expository preaching and theological insight and the often very basic often vague message that results. I would like to add an additional observation: many so-called “worship services” likely derive that name from the Worship Band that plays before and after the service, not from the message. Many modern messages sound more like motivational speeches than sermons, and unfortunately, much of the motivational encouragement is not backed up with Scripture. I truly value the sermon that preaches Christ as the basis of our hope, encouragement and motivation, rather than focusing on self-help topics and perhaps citing general Scripture at the beginning and the end. Let’s actively address these issues within our individual congregations in order to renew genuine worship, and get our society back into church on Sundays!