Worship Preferences

It was the same sacred space that I have loved since 1968, when my home church, Zion Mennonite Church, in Souderton, PA, built a new facility to accommodate our growing congregation: the large, plain wooden cross in the exact middle of the sanctuary, the morning sun brilliantly illuminating the red Holy Spirit window, the well known tracker action pipe organ that I learned to play in 11th grade. 

A week ago, on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, I sat between my brother and my father in this starkly beautiful sanctuary, acutely aware of the memories flooding my senses.  This is the place where I saw faith modeled, learned the stories of the Bible, and made a commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It is where I was given opportunities to lead, was called into professional ministry, and made good childhood friends, 4 of whom greeted me after worship.

The familiar was comforting.  At the same time, the new was exciting.  There is now a tasteful screen on the front wall, some hymns are accompanied by a band, and “sins” is used instead of “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer.  After offering 2 different services for a number of years, contemporary and traditional,Zion has gone back to one blended service.  Like many other congregations,Zion has struggled to discover a worship style which honors its tradition yet respects the different musical preferences of the congregation.

Last Sunday’s blended service worked!  I sang hymns from my childhood but also learned a few new hymns led by the band.  One hymn, “Holy, Holy Holy” was even sung acapella, highlighting the Mennonite custom of singing in 4 part harmony.  I was especially touched by the lighting of the peace candle, a new tradition emphasizing the Anabaptist concern for peace and justice.  This day we prayed for those affected by the turmoil in southern Sudan.  Pastor Hunter’s sermon on John 17 was a compelling challenge to allow God to be glorified through us.

Admittedly, my parents have struggled with changes in worship at Zion.  After having been a part of Zion for over 80 years and singing in the choir for most of those years, my father has definite tastes in music.  Yet he also understands that worship is not ultimately about him and what he likes.  Rather, in worship we give up some of our preferences so that the desires of others are included.  In that way we become the body of Christ, glorifying God together. 

Zion’s journey through the minefield of worship is typical of many Grand Rapids District churches as well.  In the past few months, as I have read our district church newsletters, I have noticed something very interesting.  Many congregations are tinkering with worship times as well as worship styles.  In fact, yesterday, traditionally the kick-off for the program year, was the day many of these changes went into effect. 

I am impressed by the openness of our congregations to change.  It is good not to become too comfortable, to continually evaluate the effectiveness of our worship, and to be willing to try new things.  If your church’s worship looks exactly the same as it did 15 years ago, your congregation is probably not growing, learning and expanding its vision. 

There are 3 primary reasons why our churches are experimenting with worship: schedule, style and Sunday school.  Schedule and style often go together.

  • Should we add a second or third service in order to target a particular audience, give people another choice of time, or use a different worship style?
  • When our church can no longer maintain strong attendance at 2 services, should we go back to one blended service so that the congregation can all be together?
  • If our sanctuary is 80% full, should we start another service to allow the church to grow?
  • Is God calling us to reach out to the community by adding another service in a different location?
  • Does blended worship fit our church’s personality, or should we offer just traditional worship or contemporary worship?
  • Should we offer “specialty” worship services at non-traditional times, like Taize, jazz, gospel, U2charist, emergent worship, or Christian rock?
  • How does the size and configuration of our worship space inform the number and style of our worship services?

Sunday school is an equally important factor in our Sunday schedule.

  • How does Sunday school fit in with the worship schedule?  Should we have a dedicated Sunday school time, or should Sunday school be held during one of the worship services?
  • If we have 2 worship services, do we have enough volunteers to staff a Sunday school at each service?
  • Do we make it too easy for families to come to church for only one hour on Sunday morning if worship and Sunday school are at the same time?
  • If children and youth never attend worship because they are in Sunday school, how do we teach them what worship is and train them in its rituals and habits?
  • Lake Harbor UMC in Muskegon has just changed its worship schedule to separate Sunday school and worship.  Pastor Mark Erbes wrote in their August newsletter, “To have a worship service at the same time as Sunday school in a sense devalues both opportunities for spiritual growth.”

Unfortunately, we often miss the most important reasons to tinker with worship:

1.         Worship should be an expression of our vision and mission as a congregation.  When visitors attend your worship service and read your vision and mission statements in the bulletin, do they experience congruence?  Will they see reflected in every aspect of your worship and Sunday school schedule who God has called your congregation to be and what God has called you to do to bring in God’s kingdom? 

2.         Excellence, vitality, spiritual depth and integrity in worship will do more to attract new people to your church than specific worship schedules or styles.  While using different musical styles in worship is important in appealing to the preferences of various age groups, what people hunger for most in worship is an authentic and transformative encounter with God.  Will the children in your congregation look back on their experience 40 years from now and exclaim with joy, “This is where I first met Christ”?  Worship is evangelism!            

How are you rethinking worship?  Are you honoring the musical preferences of your constituents, from senior citizens to youth and young adults?  (Please read the September 2009 edition of The Parish Paper, by clicking here.  I’ve discovered that people are usually willing to respect the preferences of others if their own preferences are included in worship as well.

During worship at Zion, my younger brother leaned over to me and whispered, “Holy, Holy, Holy” is my favorite hymn!”  I smiled, knowing that my older brother would have a different answer.  He and his wife were worshipping at a nearby megachurch where there is only contemporary music.  The good news is that there is room for all styles of music in healthy, vital churches. 

I have been impressed by your willingness to experiment with worship schedules, styles and Sunday school.  Since worship is one of the most important entry points to the church, keep tinkering.  It’s worth it! 

Blessings, Laurie

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