Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller say churches can’t complain about other activities encroaching on Sundays if our worship is boring. No matter the style, Spirit-infused worship that brings people into the presence of the living God is anything but boring!
Church leaders will often blame our culture for a lack of Sunday attendance, claiming that the other activities — especially sports — crowd out the cultural priority for worship. Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, North Carolina, challenges us with a different perspective. “It’s easy to blame society’s obsession with sports for encroaching on our Sundays,” she says. “But churches need to look in the mirror. Why are sports more enticing than church?” Is it because sports are exciting, while church is boring to many people?
Boring … how can we ever let that word describe a worship service, a sermon, a piece of music? Far too often, worship becomes like painting a picture by numbers. We dutifully assemble the liturgical pieces, making sure they are the right color, but the final product seems hollow and two-dimensional. Robert Schnase, in the worship section of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, says, “Without passion, worship becomes dry, routine … and predictable, keeping the form while lacking the spirit.”
We would change that lowercase spirit to Spirit, challenging us to lead worship in a more Spirit-filled way. Mainline Protestants, wary of emotionalism, can unwittingly resist the Spirit’s movement. Yet, we also believe that the Holy Spirit resides in each of us as a guide and comforter. It is the light within that longs to be ignited.
The term “Spirit-filled” does not assume a certain style of worship. It is not an implied criticism of any particular wellspring of liturgy. We use timeworn terms like traditional vs. contemporary, high church vs. low church, liturgical vs. evangelical, but these dichotomies lead to crippling states of mind. They cause us to focus on the form of worship rather than its function. That function is to lead people into the presence of the living God. It is not the style that matters, but the Spirited energy with which it is imbued.
Yearning for something more
People need this infusion of God’s presence, because so many of us have become numb to the Divine in our midst. So much of the sacred is stripped from our lives. Our consumer culture lulls us into deeper ennui, substituting materialism for the presence of God. Years ago, Tony Campolo warned of this trend in his book Wake Up, America! Answering God’s Radical Call While Living in the Real World. He gives numerous examples of consumer goods sold with a promise of spiritual fulfillment. He cites an older commercial that showed a throng of people gathered on top of a hill. They represented all races and cultures on our planet, joining hands in a unity this world has never known. Was it a symbol of the kingdom of heaven? Was it a call for racial reconciliation? No, it was a commercial for Coca-Cola!
By linking eternal spiritual qualities to temporal products, our culture systematically obscures the presence of Spirit. Campolo put it this way:
In our TV ads, it is as though the ecstasy of spirit experienced by a Saint Teresa or a St. Francis can be reduced to the gratification coming from a particular car, and the kind of love that Christ compared to His love for His church can be expressed by buying the right kind of wristwatch ‘for that special person in your life.’ In all of this media hype, things are sold to us using the promise that our deepest emotional and psychological needs will be met by having the right consumer goods.
Every Sunday, like refugees from a secular wasteland, members and visitors at our churches come to worship with a yearning for something more. In various degrees of self-consciousness, they are aware of an organic longing to connect with the very Sources of Life.
Why worship matters
This is why worship truly matters and why worship leadership is a saving art. Our words, our prayers, our music, the flow of liturgy — all of it has eternal significance in countering the secular conditioning that surrounds us like water around fish. In worship, we reveal the oft-forgiven truth that we are spiritual beings living a physical life on this planet.
No matter what worship style we adopt, underlying principles help bring us into the presence of the living God, and best practices — remembering our purpose, understanding our context, and becoming multilingual — fuel worship that is more incarnational.
This material is excerpted and condensed from Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission (Westminister John Knox Press, 2019) by Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller. Used by permission. The book, a free downloadable study guide, and other resources are available at The PC(USA) Store.
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