By Nathan Smith
A few years back, I led worship on a regular basis at a midsized suburban church that was made up primarily of white, middle-class Americans. I often would speak with the pastor, a good friend, about the church’s “brand” and where he felt God was leading it.
The worship gatherings were musically and aesthetically appealing, but I couldn’t get over the fact that we were “selling” a product completely disconnected from the worshipping body. The services were being designed for visitor Q rather than the Christian church member. (A bit of a disclaimer here, I do believe the worship gathering can be used for evangelistic purposes, but must we discard our rich liturgical history in order to evangelize?)
In his extensive works on corporate worship, Robert Webber often wrote about the importance of content, structure, and style. Webber emphasized content through a biblical approach to communal worship gatherings by highlighting both the Word and table. Structure basically asks where best to incorporate these acts, which can be manifest in many different ways. Webber concluded by stating that style should reflect the indigenous people or the communal body that is worshipping.
Is Style the Answer?
For years churches have waged bitter battles in the name of musical style; in fact, churches have split over this debate. Some believe style can save their church from numerical decline and mundane stereotypes. But can style actually save our churches from either becoming too boring or, on the other hand, too sacrilegious?
I am not simply speaking of musical taste, but the worship environment as a whole: the lights, the dress, the pews, or stadium seating. Is style the answer to a local church’s decline in attendance and depth in worship?
In short, I would say no. But is style important? Absolutely.
But I think style should reflect the personality of the people who worship in that community. What is the personality of your church? Although it may be affected by the geographical location of the church (urban, suburban, rural), there are many other factors. The worship leader’s task is to understand the community where he or she ministers. How often do you hear ministers express a desire to bring their congregations out of the 1950s and into the contemporary era? This may be a good intention, because the minister feels the worship service can be an evangelistic tool. But there is danger we will change the church to match the personality of the latest “effective” church down the street and leave our congregation and community’s unique personality behind.
I am not suggesting churches should not learn from other communities, or that a church should never change its liturgical style to match another; I know many churches have grown after a change in style. I am simply asking church leaders to consider whether they are proposing a healthy, disciple-creating change, or whether, perhaps, the church should strive to be more seeker sensitive with its hospitality than its guitars.
What Changes People?
I live in a city that has many creative artists. Some large churches here create breathtaking worship gatherings that beckon people by the thousands to return each week. But do the music’s style and the worship environment’s design positively effect change in a worshipper’s life? By spending our time creating worship gatherings that attract, rather than change, the attendees, are we not simply creating a product? Are we failing to open the door for people to be changed by the presence of God?
Don’t get me wrong—I believe style is important. I want to understand my church community more and more so I can design worship gatherings in which the worshipper can connect to our creator and redeemer God. But I also believe the best way to change people into disciples of Christ is not through music, but through people.
Worship leaders must remember that we are pastors, not rock stars or salesmen. We must recognize that music does not bring about change in a person’s life, but that worship does. Take time to understand your community. Where are the people spiritually, and where do you feel God is leading them? What is the personality of your community and how is this reflected in your liturgy?
After reflecting on these aspects of your church, how can you design your liturgy to bring people to the understanding that God is in their midst and that this reality demands we become more like Christ and less like the people we were before we came to this saving faith?
A change in style can change both the size and the demographic of your church, but if we count on style to change people, we will be disappointed. Style will not change people, but God can, and these changed people will undoubtedly change the church.
Nathan Smith serves as worship pastor with University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.