Reflection #25, part 3, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25, part 3, in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

I have been discussing lately the power of worship to transform lives.  I have, I hope, made the case (with substantial assistance from John Witvliet, of Calvin College) that AlexisAbernethy_400x400most of us in American churches practicing contemporary worship don’t view seriously enough corporate worship’s and congregational singing’s power to transform lives.  In this next section from “The Cumulative Power of Transformation in Public Worship” (in Worship That Changes Lives, edited by Alexis Abernethy), Witvliet sagely and theologically answers objections to the obvious examples of times when worship doesn’t transform lives.

For one, worship is not the only formative power in our lives.  Even lifelong worshipers are formed also by advertising, shopping malls, television, friends, and families.  All these things too have rituals, habits, gestures, and language that form us.

For another, we can be inoculated against the formative power of worship.  One way to inoculate ourselves against part of worship’s power is to think of going to church in superstitious terms, as if we are hedging our bets with God.  If we participate in worship and simply hope that our being there will cause God to bless us, what we are doing in church really amounts to practicing something other than Christianity.  We are practicing superstition, or hypocrisy–in which we sometimes even intentionally learn to say things to God that we do not mean. . . .

Third, some of this formation depends on our attentiveness.  A person who attends worship reluctantly, perhaps with a spouse or parent, and works to avoid active engagement with liturgical action, is less likely to be transformed by the experience.  And some of us are kept from attentiveness by powers beyond our control.  Clinical depression or ADHD, for example, might significantly affect our aptitude to enter into worship.

Fourth, external factors can also turn upside down a lifetime of formation like an earthquake that changes the flow of rivers.  An experience of abuse or injustice in a congregation can lead us (understandably) to turn away from everything that the congregation stands for, possible casting aside years of formation as firmly as we can.

Fifth, some people can use the topic of the Spirit’s transformative power in worship as an exercise of power to restrict the influence of other people.  Introverts who cannot stand exuberant handclapping can speak of this transformative power over time to silence other voices, just as extrovert enthusiasts can invoke an emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s more dramatic modes of work to bolster their own preferences.  Presbyterian and Reformed Christians (of which this author is one) can use all this talk of Spirit-led habit formation to squelch moments and practices of charismatic zeal, just as charismatics can use talk of Spirit-led spontaneous ecstasy to squelch Presbyterian and Reformed patterns of prayer. . . .

Having listed the “Yeah, but” reasons why worship doesn’t always form us, Witvliet finishes the section by providing helpful reminders of God’s sovereignty in this, as in all other, aspects of our faith.

These are important caveats that need to be front and center in the minds and the hearts of all who would speak of the cumulative power of transformative worship over time–just as the converse of each of these statements needs to be prominent in the awareness of those who testify to the Spirit’s dramatic inbreaking.

Such caveats remind us how messy ministry is.  In nearly every community, the deep formative power of worship offers a mixture of good and bad.  Congregational leaders can never be in control of all this formation.  Indeed, the wheat and tares of vital Christianity appear in every facet of Christian living, including worship.

But these caveats need not slow or stop our grateful reception of the Spirit’s cumulative transformative work over time.  Compare them to the complaints of a reluctant physical therapy patient: “Why exercise when my eating habits will only put on the calories I am taking off?”  “Why exercise when I am likely to simply stop in six months and lose everything I’ve gained?”  “Why not go on sinning so that grace may abound?”  As in every other area of Christian life, we gain wisdom when we hold on to vital truth about faithful ministry with open-minded awareness of the dangers and downsides of the claims we embrace.

Worship leaders, as you graciously seek to allow your worship sets a more substantial place at the Sunday-morning table–not necessarily in time, but in substance–the Lord be with you as you hold up the ideal even in the face of counterexamples that testify to our fallen condition.  Worship can be transformative, and we should pursue transformation as we plan.  The fact that not everyone will be transformed is no reason to set our sights lower.

Coming next week (Lord willing): final thoughts on worship’s power to transform.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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