Moving Worship Beyond All-Request Hour, or: Why Making People Happy Isn’t the Main Thing

Moving Worship Beyond All-Request Hour, or: Why Making People Happy Isn’t the Main Thing January 9, 2017



I’m not here to make you happy.

I’m not here to make me happy, either.

I’m not here to make anyone happy.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen or heard of several churches inviting members and guests alike to respond to worship survey to indicate how satisfied they are with their worship services. One such survey, published as a template on the United Methodist denominational website, asks these questions:

  • What is your CURRENT SATISFACTION with the worship service you primarily attend?
  • Which worship style do you MOST prefer?
    • Traditional – Choir, Music comes from hymnal, use of the organ, use of liturgy such as responsive reading, creeds and Lord’s Prayer
    • Contemporary – Music on screen only, mostly praise music, use of guitar/drums, minimal use of liturgy [!].
    • Blended – A mixture of both traditional and contemporary styles.
    • Other
  • What is your CURRENT SATISFACTION with the start time of the service you primarily attend?
  • Please rate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements:
    • The music during the worship service is a main component of how I express my spiritual joy.
    • I would be interested in worshipping in a space other than the sanctuary.
    • I often receive a sense of God’s presence during congregational worship. [!]
    • I am often bored during worship services and anxious to have it over.
    • I attend worship services only because I feel it is my duty.
    • Availability of childcare is an important factor in whether or not I can attend worship or Sunday School programs.

The worship wars are apparently over, and preference has won.

One of the worst effects of America’s worship wars is that we’ve bought into the idea that worship should be preferential; that is, corporate worship is really an entertainment industry that secures its future with satisfied customers.

Of course, we use different language. We talk about making disciples through increased church attendance. We talk about changing people’s lives. We talk about reaching the culture. But instead of letting the gospel do the work for us, we become pseudo-christian chameleons, doing whatever we can to hook people on our products and build up brand loyalty. Liturgy becomes a “worship experience.” The work of the people becomes the commercial entertainment of the people.

As it is with any form of entertainment, all elements of this experience then become evaluated by their ability to stimulate on an emotional, physical level. Preaching is conversational, casual, funny. Electronic media saturates the arena.

Oh, but music is the key to a satisfying worship experience, so they say. I mean, we’ve seen its commercial appeal in our culture, and we know that our success hinges on our ability to capitalize on that appeal. So we get a musician with a guitar and call him our “worship leader.” We surround him (it’s usually a him, for some reason) with a commercial-quality cover band. Their jesusy tunes are exponentially amplified over the massive PA system, which sounds as if it would be large enough for the entire state of Vermont. That’s a good thing, because with all the carpeting, seat padding, curtains, acoustic paneling, and hipster flannel, this low-ceilinged, nondescript edifice is about as resonant as the back aisle of a JoAnn Fabrics.

We offer multiple services with different styles of music, because damn it, our customers like all different kinds of music, and the customer is always right! A casual stroll through many of our churches would look a little bit like going through the line at Luby’s cafeteria. We sell a Jesus that tastes like roast beef, another like baked almondine, even liver and onions, even though Jesus himself taught us that we could find him in the bread and wine.

Do you hear the message, people? To everyone who listens, we say, “Worship is all about you!”

When people are led to believe that worship is all about them, a funny thing happens: they stop trying. Their level of engagement becomes more shallow. We shouldn’t be surprised. Passive entertainment always begets disengagement. And they place the onus of providing commercial-quality entertainment on the church’s shoulders. Hence the need for the worship surveys. The church is anxious about numbers (especially the number butts in the seats and money in the bank) and if customers are dissatisfied, we need to fix it before they go checking out the new Jesus franchise down the street. You know, the one with “mark” or “spring” or “song” or “point” or “life” in the name. Anxiety always leads to this kind of checking in.

More broadly, we talk about corporate worship in terms of me, I, my.

“It’s hard for me to worship with that kind of music.”

I don’t worship God through singing. That’s not who I am.”

My worship style is more reflective.”

It’s given us overtones of a false, pseudo-pious egalitarian philosophy toward the church’s worship. It says, “Whatever works for you is fine and dandy.” We’ve so deluded ourselves that we talk about a person’s worship style being an intrinsic part of their identity, as if it’s imprinted on their soul, more innate than their personalities.

This demonstrates how miserably lost we are in the Christian church. No wonder church attendance has declined, even among church members and professing Christians. If we make it all about preference, it will inevitably become peripheral, even meaningless. The American church’s obsession with misapplying Paul’s mandate to “become all things to all people” has led to worship being about ourselves, instead of our good God, the Almighty, our Creator and Sustainer. When we cater to preference, we distort the worship syntax. For the entire history of the church, even going back to the history of Israel, gathered worship has been about God and for God’s people, to nourish and strengthen and empower.

But we’ve decided that worship is about us – our preferences, our individuality – and for God, as if we ourselves could add anything to God’s glory. We’re distracted by offering expressions that everyone is comfortable with, instead of opening ourselves to God’s own impression on our hearts.

For those of you who who are tasked with choosing and preparing music for worship – a worship leader, music director, Minister of Music, Organist-Choirmaster – remember that worship is not about you, but it’s also not about your people. Your job is not that of holy tour guide, as some would suggest, leading the crowd to God’s very throne, but doing whatever you can do to facilitate the song of the people.

If we would stop trying to determine the will of our brothers and sisters, and start being about God’s own will for God’s people, church musicians will do things differently.

  • We will try to be inconspicuous. Get out of the way. Get off the chancel choir loft platform stage and join the congregation.
  • We will get away from the microphone. Forcing your voice on the congregation teaches them that their voice isn’t important.
  • We will stop talking. The words that are chosen to sing are more important than anything you could come up with.
  • We will use instruments that effectively support congregational singing.
  • We will choose music that carries the gospel with dignity and beauty.
  • We won’t judge our successes by the affirmations we receive. I’ve been there. I actually do this often, like many of you. That doesn’t mean we don’t accept honest criticism, both good and bad, from those we trust. But we need to free ourselves from being slaves to reassurance.
  • Most importantly, we will stop asking people what kind of music they like to consume, and start teaching and encouraging them to make beautiful music for themselves.

Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn on the night he was betrayed. The hour was late. The situation was dire. That’s the kind of urgency we should be bringing to our worship, including our singing. The corporate gathering is not the time to play around, be silly, and consume our favorite entertainment. We sing because Jesus sang. We sing because it is our duty, our responsibility. We sing because it engages our whole being in the gospel message.

We sing because our mission depends on it.

And that mission is infinitely more important than our customer service.

Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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