Worship: Style vs. Substance

by Jeff Krehbiel

Among my Presbyterian colleagues, several articles have been making the rounds this summer about millennials and the church. The most popular was by the evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans, published in the CNN Belief blog, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.”

Here’s the money quote:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance… You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, posted an equally popular post on Patheos titled “Why traditional churches should stick with traditional worship.” He writes about skipping his usual mega-church one Sunday for a smaller, more traditional church closer to home, and being put off by their attempt at being “contemporary.” He concludes:

“When traditional churches try to be contemporary it usually comes across as forced, stilted or artificial. This dissonance jerks people back into the mundane world. Worshippers focus on the distraction instead of the Lord. So here’s my advice to every church: be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over.”

What Evans and Murrow write, of course, is sound advice. All people, regardless of their age, value authenticity over pretense, substance over style. Here’s my worry:  What we are really thinking when we read these articles is “Whew! Thank God I don’t need to worry any long about making any changes in worship. Now we can go back to focusing on the things that really matter and leave worship alone.”

Change Without Conflict?

My colleague Molly Douthett, pastor of Furnace Mountain Presbyterian Church, posted this enigmatic little entry on Facebook the other day:

Two Myths:
We can grow without changing.
We can change without conflict.

That, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the matter. As conflict-averse people we want to reach new people without conflict, so we hope against hope that we can grow without having to change anything about how we do church.

Style and Substance

Our experience at Church of the Pilgrims over the past thirteen years, as our average age has gradually shifted from over 65 to less than 45, with Sunday worship peopled by a lot of twenty and thirty-somethings, is that style and substance are not so easily separated. Not only has the participation of young adults in worship been transforming for them, it has changed who we are as a community of faith.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received as a young pastor came from former moderator John Fife, long-time pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. At an urban ministry conference following his moderatorial year, he spoke about the lessons he learned in leading Southside into deeper engagement with its changing local community. He said that no matter what new demographic you are trying to reach (a different age, race, gender, ethnicity, whathaveyou), when people come to worship they want to see their own people in leadership and hear their own sound.

In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways (“You’re in my pew!”), we often communicate to newcomers that this is a place for us, but not a place for you. If the only ones required to change in bringing newcomers into the church are the newcomers themselves, we have a problem. Brian McClaren has often observed that there are scores of disaffected evangelicals who would easily find a theological home among Presbyterian and other mainline Christians congregations, but those congregations are often not experienced as hospitable places to those outside their fold. The message is often this: This is how we do things. If you are going to fit in here, it’s you who has to do the fitting.

Experiments in Wiki-Church

Howard Hanger, founder of the Jubilee! Community in Asheville persuaded me long ago that the big divide in worship is not between traditional and contemporary, but between passive and participatory. We learn in seminary that “liturgy” is the “work of the people,” but too often it is primarily the work of the pastor’s word processor. More recently, Landon Whittsit in his book Open Source Church, has suggested that in our Wikipedia culture, young adults increasingly expect to help create the experiences of which they are a part.

At Church of the Pilgrims, that begins in worship planning, where we invite a diverse group of worshipers to help us imagine worship together, including newcomers to our community who are not yet members. Then, in our planning, we make sure that worship provides meaningful opportunities to participate in ways that involve more than standing up to sing a hymn or sitting down to read a unison prayer printed in the bulletin.

Transformation and Our Comfort Zone

I love what Corey Widmer wrote in Presbyterian Outlook, that in his culturally diverse congregation in inner city Richmond, they have concluded that no one should be happy in worship more than 75% of the time, because if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed. Too often, the only ones worshiping outside their comfort zone are those who are new.

What if we began to conceive of worship as a place where transformation takes place, not just for newcomers but for everyone? What if personal and corporate transformation were at the heart of congregational life? When everyone finds themselves in that liminal space, we all enter worship on the same vulnerable footing. A few months ago, MaryAnn McKibben Dana shared this wonderful little diagram on her blog:

 where the magic

Worship that is EPIC

There is no cookie-cutter approach to creating transforming worship. However, we have found this simple rubric from Leonard Sweet to be helpful in our worship planning. He suggests that worship for postmodern people should be EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-Driven, and Connectional. So when we plan worship we talk about what we want the overall experience to be like, and how we can shape worship in a way that engages all of the senses (and not just worship from the neck up). We look for ways that worshipers can participate in meaningful ways. (For rich examples of participatory worship, Theresa Cho, co-pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian in San Francisco, is the master of interactive prayer stations.) Then we ask ourselves if there is a central image that can help ground the service and provide a focal point. Finally, we focus on what is happening in the service that will help worshipers connect with those who are around them.

This isn’t about traditional vs. contemporary, it’s about creating ancient-future patterns that engage in richer ways. (What exactly is contemporary, anyway? Is a new hymn contemporary? Or a praise chorus written in the ‘90’s? Where exactly does a Taizé chant fit in that traditional-contemporary schema? ) So, for example, at Church of the Pilgrims we often begin worship with short songs from Iona, not because they are new, but because singing a cappella in harmony creates community in powerful ways. I would also note that the sacraments, rightly celebrated, are an EPIC experience—there is bread and wine, plate and pitcher; there is taking, breaking, pouring, tasting; and most importantly, there is sharing. It’s all there.

For a recent example at creating worship that is transforming and EPIC, see this.


Jeff1_8x10Jeff Krehbiel is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, where he has served since 2000. He is a member of the NEXT Church advisory board, and a coach in NEXT’s Paracletos project. 

10 replies
  1. Ann Gold
    Ann Gold says:

    Thank you so much for this article. It is so pertinent to our time and place in Wisconsin in an ever-changing world. We need the historical and we need to be ever evaluating our current situations and make our worship responses very real so that all are involved in the Glory of God!

  2. Bill Plitt
    Bill Plitt says:

    Jeff and Jessica,

    I love this piece! It has a message for all of us regardless of our comfort zone.
    I like the quote from somebody, probably a Presbyterian who said, the purpose of church is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. May your message spread far, wide and deep amongst us and around us. BiLL

  3. Gerry Hendershot
    Gerry Hendershot says:

    Full disclosure: I’m a member at Pilgrims and support the EPIC approach to worship planning–it really does work. But I want to emphasize the idea that if a member likes what’s happening in worship all of the time, that’s probably not a good thing–it suggests that one worship need is crowding out others. At Pilgrims, I like what’s going on in worship probably 85% of the time; for the other 15% I TRY to remember that the worship element I didn’t like may have been exactly what was needed by another worshiper. In talking to first time worshipers after worship, I often discover that the worship element that was distasteful to me, was indeed the highlight of their worship experience.

  4. RDJH
    RDJH says:

    Jeff, please write some about the relationship between you and the “pillars” of your congregation, i.e., the central leaders whether or not they are on the Session (I’m assuming Pilgrim is a Presbyterian congregation). I like the EPIC model, but am curious who “funds” that in terms of leadership in the congregation.

    • Jeff Krehbiel
      Jeff Krehbiel says:

      RDJH: Yes, we are a Presbyterian congregation (the former “national church” of the PCUS!). As such, we are organized like any other PCUSA congregation– we have a Session that is responsible for the life of the congregation, including worship. In our Session, each elder is assigned a particular area of ministry, so we have one elder responsible for “Worship & Spiritual Development.” She works with me, our Minister for Spiritual Formation (Ashley), our and Director of Music (Rob), in forming our Worship Planning Teams. When we pull together the teams, we make them intentionally diverse, including some “pillars” who have been around for some time (I’m not entirely sure I like that term, but I understand what you mean), some folks who have become members more recently, and then some who are brand new. Then we provide regular opportunities in and out of session meetings to reflect together on our worship experiences. Over time, just about everyone is involved in worship planning, so everyone knows they have input.

  5. Brint Keyes
    Brint Keyes says:

    I really, really like a lot of what you’ve written here, especially your synthesis of other commentators. So I offer this one concern as a “friendly amendment” to your piece: where is God in all this? As much as I agree with all that you’ve said, there’s a part of my heart that wants ALSO to hear the Truth proclaimed that the heart of true worship is not our ingenuity, or our ideas and images, or even our “experience,” but rather the transcendent God Who freely deigns to approach us through his Word proclaimed and made flesh, and enlivened through the Holy Spirit. I am reminded of a “Theology of Reformed Worship” class with Tom Long where he was explaining the liturgical elements. After the sermon, he explained, we RESPOND to God’s Word. “And,” he continued, pointing to the Affirmation of Faith, the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Offering, and other elements, “this is how we respond.” Immediately I thought of several classmates who brought with them to our daily chapel services the tradition of “response” that they had grown up with in their churches — i.e., non-scripted, real-time, vocal responses to the Word Proclaimed. In that moment, it seemed to me that some of our African-American brothers and sisters had a far more authentic praxis of “the Theology of Reformed Worship” than anything I had experienced in any white church. All this simply to say that, in our conversation about worship styles and substance, we endeavor to keep “God’s immanent and inconceivable real presence among God’s people during corporate worship” at the very forefront of the discussion, such that that holy phenomenon is the indisputable foundation for every action, word, prayer and song. Thanks again for a great post.

    • Jeff Krehbiel
      Jeff Krehbiel says:

      Brint: Absolutely! Thanks for your amendment. Our understanding of worship is deeply informed by the Reformed understanding that worship is response to the prompting of God in the Spirit. That’s why having opportunities to genuinely respond through meaningful participation is so vital. Our worship is “Word centered.” In our worship planning, we begin with the text for the day (or, more often, with the texts for the season), and do in-depth study with those texts, reflecting together on what those are saying to us both as individuals and a community of faith, before shifting in our planning to how we feel called to live into those texts in worship.

  6. Dr. James C. Goodloe IV
    Dr. James C. Goodloe IV says:

    Thank you for this. When I hear suggestions that worship should be “participatory” instead of “passive,” I am concerned that that often means downplaying the reading and preaching of the word and doing a lot of something else, as if listening were “passive.” I don’t quite see that said here, but it comes close. Actually, of course, listening well and faithfully to the reading and preaching of the word is very active and participatory. And hearing and believing the word of God is the basis for all other activity in worship, such as praise and prayer. So, yes, worship should be participatory. And the most important part of that participation should be listening.

  7. Dr. James C. Goodloe IV
    Dr. James C. Goodloe IV says:

    I am confused by the expressions “engages all of the senses” and “not just worship from the neck up.” I suppose they are meant to be a rejection of merely cerebral worship, but aren’t at least four of our five senses located above the neck?

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