Reflection #33 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 33 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 #33: Contemporary worship, with its multi-song worship sets, can–with proper attention and care–serve an analogous role to well-crafted service orders that “sandwich” individual songs around other elements in the liturgy.

I grew up in the 70’s in an American Baptist Church that utilized many traditional liturgical elements.  There was a call to worship every week.  We sang the standard Thomas Ken doxology set to the OLD 100th hymn tune every week.  There was a (usually lengthy) Pastoral Prayer (titled as such) every week.  We sang the Greatorex “Gloria Patri” every week after that prayer.  The pastor prayed a prayer of invocation before beginning the sermon every week.  We sang a Hymn of Consecration (titled as such) following the sermon every week.  Etc.

downloadMy recollection here is ordered intentionally, for the musical elements (instrumental, choral, and congregational) always were woven in and around all the rest.  The only time this church–and we were typical for that era–used anything resembling the de facto organizational structure of contemporary American corporate worship, the “worship set,” was during periodic Sunday-evening “singspirations,” for which the small slice of regular attenders who trudged back to church that night would call out favorite hymns, one after another, in random fashion, with nary a prayer, homily, or responsive reading to interrupt the flow of the constant congregational singing.

So often in contemporary worship, it feels as if the songs we sing congregationally are selected with not a whole lot more attention to overarching cohesion than the songs we sang for those evening singspirations.  Granted, there is generally a progression of styles or “feels,” with the dominant orientation featuring the Outer Court-Inner Court-Holy of Holies pattern favored in charismatic worship–i.e., moving from upbeat songs of praise about God to more-reflective songs of worship to God.  (And, to be fair, this model can be used very effectively, if the worship leader provides a bit of context along the way.)  But whereas in the traditional worship of my youth the songs sandwiched in between all the other liturgical elements reflected what had come immediately prior or informed what came immediately after (at least when the service planners put intentional thought into the process), in many contemporary worship services I attend, such flow of substance–subject matter, content, a narrative arc, if you will–is nowhere to be found.

I confess this is one of my main concerns re: contemporary worship music–lots of focus on providing opportunities for congregants to love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul, not much focus on providing opportunities for congregants to love the Lord their God with all their mind–and I bang this drum pretty loudly and regularly.  In one of my worship classes at Judson University, I foster a discussion on constructing worship sets as narratives, and it never fails to elicit interesting results, as students–many, it seems, for the first time–consider the potential for worship sets to have the same story-telling power (in miniature) as operas, oratorios, suites, and song cycles.

Here’s an admittedly simple sample outline for a narrative-driven worship set for a service focusing on the power of forgiveness featuring the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant–Matt. 18: 21-35–as the biblical text: one song of confession, admitting the need and asking for forgiveness (e.g., Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You”); one song celebrating that God does forgive His children (e.g., Elevation Worship’s “O Come to the Altar”); and one song requesting the strength to forgive others as we have been forgiven (e.g., Matthew West’s “Forgiveness”).

Ideally, the worship leader would offer a few sentences of transition between the songs to help illuminate the narrative arc.  Elsewhere in this series I refer to this strategy as worship leaders’ connecting the dots for the congregation.  Pastoral liturgist Adam Perez put it this way in a recent tweet on the subject: “Musical transitions might aid the feeling of flow, but spoken transitions are what [help] immerse us in the flow of God’s story.”

The Holy Spirit can (and does) work in corporate worship sets devoid of such intentional story-telling, of course.  But putting in the time and energy to craft worship sets that bring the addition of a narrative arc to the process might help counter the criticism of contemporary worship as being lightweight in nature and enrich the lives of your congregants to boot.  (Much more can be said here about using narrative arcs in worship, and a great place to start is worship pastor Brenton Collyer’s series just begun on the subject of progressions in corporate worship.  I’m looking forward to his future posts!)

The Lord be with you as you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): “Ministry time” at the end of worship services.

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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