Is our worship any good?

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 07.53.27These 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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10 thoughts on “Is our worship any good?”

  1. I run a small weekly service where I work for a group of people from a variety of denominational backgrounds and church exposure. I find myself faced with a constant quandary in my choice of hymns, namely, whether I:

    a) choose songs which tie in with the theme of the sermon; or
    b) choose songs which I am confident that people will know.

    Option a is my personal preference, and I hope it will extend/deepen the encounter with God which the sermon offers. The problem is, we have no band and are not a particularly musical bunch, so the congregational involvement is often reduced to mumbling along to a recording of a song (most) people don’t know, which I suspect does not offer a very satisfying experience of worship for those who attend.

    Option b allows people to have a good sing, not worrying about words or tunes they don’t know, and thereby builds a sense of community, and hopefully makes it easier for people to connect with God without distraction. The disadvantage is that the number of commonly known songs is quite low, meaning that we end up with hymns that have no discernible connection to the rest of the service, or are even theologically questionable (Jerusalem, and I Vow to Thee My Country are both favourites here).

    Despite my continued dilemma about the best way to run the service, I think it is valuable to remind myself that the best way to judge it is to look at the long-term fruit rather than the short-term aesthetic experience.

    • For what it’s worth, my feeling is that the hymns/songs are important as a part of the service in which everyone can participate, so it’s important that the congregation know them. If they don’t know many, I would try introducing new ones gradually, so that they learn them.

      My own practice is to choose primarily hymns which people are likely to know, but to include one new or less-known hymn/song most weeks. I teach it to the congregation before the service starts, and make sure we sing it 4-5 times in the next 2-3 months. I then consider it part of the ‘known repertoire’, so it is getting easier to choose known hymns which fit the theme of the service as time goes by.

      I’ve heard of churches occasionally having a singing evening – an informal get-together to sing all their favourite hymns, and learn a few new ones. Perhaps something like this every few months might help? If it’s not on a Sunday morning, you might be able to get a musician from another church to come and play for you?

      • We had a songs of praise evening like that at a Church where I served as curate as part of a 125th anniversary celebration. We asked people who had chosen the hymns to say why they had chosen them and so turned the event into a bit of a faith sharing / evangelistic event -pretty sneaky I admit in a church where most people would faint at the very mention of evangelism!

  2. Any evaluation must attend to the part the conduct of worship has played in the collapse of congregations across all traditions in the last generation.

    The relaxation of rules about the ordering of worship has intended to provide a rich diversity of offerings. But any other than very regular congregants will have found it bewildering. It is like going to different households belonging to one family and discovering that the house rules in every place are all entirely different. You can’t relax, because you don’t know how to behave.

    At least at mass in Hungarian last night we knew where we were liturgically speaking because, though the words were meaningless strings of sound, the shape was entirely familiar, so you knew what to pray when. That kind of liturgy doesn’t need evaluating, it needs work to make it good, and it needs people to pray it.

    • Yes, there’s a real practical value in having a constant and extremely high quality liturgy (its theology, linguistic construction, shape, memorability etc) with which worshippers everywhere in a denomination are familiar; and the very fact of its practicality in no way needs to undermine its spiritual value. This is of course the principle of ‘Common Prayer’, the loss of which many still believe has contributed to CofE decline.

      Of course no living liturgy can be unamended forever because language evolves and this affects comprehension, especially for the young, but the need for minor amendments is no justification for demolition.

      Alternative liturgies and styles are a natural expression of spiritual engagement and creativity which should not be stifled but there does remain a place for a body of liturgy which spans time and place to which everyone can and does regularly turn.

    • Any evaluation must attend to the part the conduct of worship has played in the collapse of congregations across all traditions in the last generation.

      The British Religion in Numbers survey 2005 – 2015 shows that New Churches, Orthodox and Pentecostal traditions have increased significantly over the past 10 years:

      BTW, great analogy about relaxing the house rules, which may indeed bewilder those of one family in different households. Nevertheless, such a relaxation should be embraced if CofE parishes really wants to make the extended family from overseas feel welcome.

      But, that’s also exactly the kind of inclusion and opportunity for growth which the CofE has sidestepped (with the usual hand-wringing and lip-service about increasing minority ethnic representation) for fear of not knowing how to behave in any context that might cause upset to its majority ethnicity.

  3. ‘This right or wrong approach is what lies behind much evaluation of worship, at whatever level, and it stops us challenging our own assumptions.’ Indeed 🙂 I am one of the musicians at our church – I play the digital piano. I am aware that music touches us at a very deep level and that the words that we sing to music also touch us at a very deep level. I love hearing people talk about their favourite hymns, and why those hymns mean so much to them – there is always a story. One such story came from an elderly woman who told how her mother softly sang in her dying hours the nineteenth century hymn ‘Count your blessings, count them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God hath done!’. A current favourite of many in our church is ‘In Christ Alone.’ Before each service I play voluntaries and occasionally people come up to me after the service and tell me that one of the tunes I played was his/her favourite. I love to hear why it is a favourite.
    God draws us to Himself in so many different ways, and I think it is impossible to measure whether or not worship is ‘good’ – God alone knows that!
    Thank you for another great article, Ian!

  4. This is very apposite for me at the moment as our Mennonite church, where we had been for 23 years and where the worship always spoke to and equipped me (except when I was leading it!), has closed down, and we are currently ‘church-hopping’ to find a new home. I don’t want to evaluate just the worship, but also what we can see of the church’s life together outside Sunday mornings. But you have given me new things to think about, other than ‘Could I stand to be here every week?’ which I’m afraid is my number one question. To what I wrote in a comment on your FB post, I think I would like to add: ‘Good worship equips and challenges people to get through what they are going to face Monday to Saturday’. But you’ve already said that.

  5. This is a good summary of the different approaches towards worship (which can of course produce different results in different contexts). The convergence between seeker-driven (evangelistic) and ‘charismatic’ (experiential) worship styles in recent years has been an interesting trend. Personally, I would like to see more engagement with the book of Leviticus, since it gives more space to the theological purpose and nature of worship than any other book in the Bible.


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