Have you ever had the experience of attending a church (visiting another, or even attending your own), and what you need is some sense of encounter with God—but the entire attention is taken up with the words on the screen not appearing on time, or the person leading constantly going ‘Ummmm…’ or the thurifer not knowing when to thurify, or the suffragan bishop not putting his mitre on and off at the right points—or whatever is your particular bugbear in how you think worship ought to be done?
Of course you have! I don’t really even need to ask the question. It is true for all of us, and it is especially true for any of us who have either been taught or taught others how worship ‘ought’ to be done. But the moment we start to think like this, we find ourselves in a bind. Surely worship is for God (‘for an audience of one’) and not some performance to be assessed by different individuals according to their personal preferences? And yet, the leading of worship is only indirectly ‘for God’; the role of any involved in leading an act of worship in any way is only partly directed to God, since it must also focus on enabling others to worship. If I do something that distracts, draws attention to myself, or simply reflects a lack of awareness or preparation, then I am distracting worshippers from their principle task. We cannot avoid the need for ‘worship evaluation’.
Mark Earey teaches liturgy at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, and in the latest Grove Worship booklet, Evaluating Worship, he cuts through this Gordian knot. He begins by noting that evaluation of worship is always already happening, even if that is just the mutterings of individuals or the banal ‘Nice sermon, vicar!’ on the way out of the door. We need to reflect on how this evaluation is happening, but we cannot avoid the God question.
Asking ourselves what God thinks about our worship is often passed over because we assume that we already know the answer—God wants what we already offer. God might want it done a bit better, or with more passion, but essentially the model is unchanged. We tend to evaluate worship within existing categories, rather than letting worship from a different category critique us.
However, we know from the Hebrew Scriptures that sometimes we offer God our best in the way we have been led to believe God likes, only to find that the prophetic critique reveals a massive gap between our understanding of good worship and what is actually required. The classic example is from Amos 5, but there are plenty of others:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5.21–24, NRSV)
To begin to answer the question about what God thinks of our worship, we need to consider not just worship but God. What is God like? What actions and behaviour does God want from us? Hence this booklet will start with the underlying assumptions, the models, which lie behind our judgments about worship, before concluding with some suggestions about how this makes a difference in practice.
Mark then looks at the different models that arise from our different views of God and what we think worship is about. These include worship as intimate encounter, worship as edification, worship as duty and service, and worship as ongoing offering. Mark notes that thinking about models is not the same as thinking about styles of worship.
It is important to note that a worship model is not the same as a worship style. Worship styles are above the surface (conscious and obvious); models of worship often lurk below the surface (like the largest part of an iceberg), largely unseen and unarticulated. They are about the underlying theological assumptions about what good worship does and is. It is perfectly possible for two churches with seemingly very similar styles to be working on completely different models.
For instance, two churches might both have a musical style which is based on contemporary praise songs, led by a music group or band. One church, however, is doing so on the basis of an intimate encounter model, in which the singing is seen as central (and is extensive), whereas the other church is doing so on the basis of the edification model, in which the singing is seen as a tool to prepare us for (and respond to) the preaching.
Equally, two churches, or even two services at the same church, can have very different styles and yet be operating on the same model—as in the example given above, where at both the 8am Prayer Book Communion service and at the later morning praise service, the intimate encounter model is driving assumptions and practice, but the means used to bring about that intimate encounter are very different. This possibility, of working on the same model in different styles, should alert us to the fact that some aspects of the models which shape our worship are determined as much by different cultural expectations as by theological considerations.
In the next chapter, Mark looks at different possible criteria for evaluating worship—historical, doctrinal and contextual—and here adds a strong caveat to the way these are used.
I feel quite ambivalent about the idea of right or wrong, or good and bad worship. In my experience these categories are too monovalent—they do not allow for taking seriously the context in which worship is being offered. The idea of a right or wrong way, for instance, to lead a service of Holy Communion, or to use colour in church buildings, or to celebrate Easter Day, can be used by the over-confident (or insecure) to oppress or intimidate others. It can result in a rules-based approach to worship and a fussiness about liturgy in which concern for worship in Spirit and truth can be lost in a nitpicking attention to secondary details.
In other churches, those with strong views about, for instance, how a song set should be put together, or the importance of prayer ministry as the main form of response in worship, can also find it hard to consider other options.
This right or wrong approach is what lies behind much evaluation of worship, at whatever level, and it stops us challenging our own assumptions.
Mark then sets out an approach to worship audit, and includes some fascinating examples of a ‘triangulated’ approach to evaluation, drawing on the process by which new baptism texts were developed, and the way in which one denominational leader agonised over the worship in his own denomination. He ends the booklet with setting out a compelling case for why the evaluation of worship matters very much at every level of the church.
I want to leave the final word to the late Michael Vasey:
The evaluation of worship in any Christian tradition has to attend not only to the emotional and aesthetic experience but to its outworking in agape, justice and mission.
How can you tell if worship is any good? Not by asking ‘How many of us liked it?’ (the ‘emotional and aesthetic experience’). What Vasey reminds us is that the truest evaluation of worship will always be based on what are essentially long-term criteria, rather than the short-term criteria we often apply. This has implications at all the levels we have been considering:
- Individual—The ‘What is this doing for me?’ question is immediately changed when you take the long view. You do not have to feel good about every service while it is happening, or straight afterwards, in order to conclude that it was good worship.
- Local congregation—As the worship leader or church leadership team, you do not have to have short-term approval as your aim either, and that may affect how you plan, what you include, and so on.
- Regional or denominational—For senior leaders there are also lessons here in how we recognize that our initial assessment of the quality of worship in our denomination is not necessarily giving the full picture.
These long-term results of worship are much harder to assess and therefore they tend to get missed. But that does not mean that they are not worth seeking after.
This is a booklet full of profound insights and wisdom drawn from many years of experience, and I think it should be compulsory reading for all those leading worship in the local church! You can order it, post free in the UK, from the Grove website.
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