Being involved in discussions on what makes for good worship is an interesting experience. What I find in the midst of the back and forth banter is that the dialogue most often is not about the content and craft of worship, but its style. I am not suggesting for a moment that the style of worship is unimportant, but what I find problematic is the notion that what makes for good worship is what people believe will attract others; and they usually define attractive worship according to what they like.
Back in November, I was out of town at a conference. On Sunday morning I made my way to a historic Congregational Church. The sanctuary was old, but well-kept and attractive. There was no screen for PowerPoint. The church has two traditional services on Sunday morning and two times for worship on Sunday evening it refers to as Contemporary/Liturgical. Every service is filled to capacity. The congregation is multi-generational and ethnically diverse. College students make up thirty-eight percent of the congregation and forty-nine percent of the members are in their twenties. The pastor's sermon was excellent-- it was well-crafted, authentic, and substantive. Indeed, the entire worship experience could be described in this way. (I forgot to mention that the Sunday I was there, they were taking in approximately thirty to forty members at each of the four services.)
Well-crafted, authentic, and substantive-- these are the characteristics of vital worship. There are pastors and parishioners who think if they can just start a praise band and go contemporary, people will flock in on Sunday morning. And, yet others believe that it doesn't matter if we keep on singing the same old hymns in funeral dirge fashion. What counts is good preaching. If we get the right preacher, people will push their way in to get a seat.
I take issue with both views. I do not care if worship is traditional or contemporary (however those two words are defined). If worship is indeed Christologically centered and theologically competent; and if worship is well-crafted, authentic, and substantive, it is worship that will please God and it will reveal to visitors that what we do on Sunday morning is more than just perfunctory. Worship is what we desire to participate in more than anything. And when people get the sense that what is going on is significant, they will want to be a part of it.
More than a few churches in their desire to go contemporary, field a praise band whose lack of talent and commitment make it difficult for the congregation to get caught up with God and one another in worship. The worship degenerates from a people focused on God to the individual focused on... well... the individual. And while I believe good preaching is indispensable for vital worship, too many churches, in their traditional worship, undermine the profound theological affirmations of many our hymns by singing them in a slow, sleepy, and shallow rhythm guaranteed not to wake the dead. Moreover, ineffective preaching tends to gravitate to the two extremes of monological therapy on the one hand, or straightforward exposition devoid of analogy, illustration, and story on the other.
One significant rule for every church to follow in its worship-- if you can't do it in a well-crafted, authentic, and substantive way, don't do it at all. There is nothing wrong with churches developing a more contemporary form of worship, but it should not be implemented until it can be done at least moderately well. Traditional worship continues to have a significant place in Western culture. I reject the view of those who think otherwise. But traditional worship is not incompatible with lively and joyful praise. One does not have to jump up and down in the aisles with hands lifted up to worship God in spirit and in truth. But I dare say that if visitors are not sure the parishioners are worshiping in such an authentic way while they are singing the hymns, it is a safe bet that they aren't.
By the way, it is my experience that the church with well-crafted, authentic, and substantive worship applies the same three qualities to everything it does in its mission and ministry. This Congregational Church's evangelism and mission outreach is quite extensive.
"Well-crafted," "authentic," and "substantive" are not three words that describe just one more strategy for success; they reveal the competency, the character, and the commitment of those who know that only the vital worship of God in spirit and in truth is acceptable.