Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7b).1 So proclaims the first of the three angels of Revelation 14:6–12 as he outlines God’s final message to humanity. Heaven’s call is “to every nation, language, tribe, and people.”
The proclamation is lucid and clear. However, it creates a challenge for those leading worship. How can we enjoy this privilege of worshiping God together while we come from such diverse backgrounds?
Paul’s evangelistic methods demonstrate an intuitive skill set in contextualizing the style of his message first to a Jewish audience, then to a God-fearing Greek audience, and finally to a completely pagan audience. Our mission outreach has attempted to follow Paul’s example and endeavored to bring the gospel to every nation, tribe, language, and people.
Contextualizing worship, however, is not a one-time event because we do not live in a static world. Cultures, tribes, languages, people groups, and generations are continually in a flux as a result of unpredictable and volatile factors, such as wars, migration, economic upheavals, and changes in media and social contours. In view of such unpredictable changes, a congregation that is not ready to change, contextualize, and adapt its worship, evangelism, and fellowship styles heads slowly to its demise.
Yet, anytime we introduce change in the worship experience, conflicts inevitably follow. Worship wars have always been at play in Christianity. When in 1723, Thomas Symes, a New England Puritan pastor, tried to introduce Isaac Watts’s hymns to his congregation in place of songs from the hymnal, the tradition-bound saints threw this argument against the pastor’s efforts: “There are several reasons for opposing it. It’s too new. It’s often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style, because there are so many new songs that you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances, making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it.”2
Do you remember your church’s last conflict? Perhaps it was singing with projected graphics rather than out of a hymnal. Maybe it was playing a guitar rather than an organ or a change in the order of service or using a new translation for scripture reading. In any case, the conflict may have erupted because something different, something out of the ordinary for your congregation, was taking place.
While conflict over worship change may not be avoidable, the outcome does not have to be divisive; in fact, such a conversation can enable us to reflect on the substance of worship not just the genre. Such a discussion can lead a congregation to fulfill both portions of the first angel’s message and create a worship service that is both relevant and deeply worshipful. This article will deal with what needs to change and how changes can be made.
What needs to change
Analyze the substance of your worship for truth and relevancy. A few years ago an automotive maker offered a new line of cars that outwardly looked similar to other cars on the market. Yet if you looked past the paint and the seats, everything was different. Traditional steel was replaced with lightweight aluminum. Brakes were replaced with generators. The gas tank was replaced with a battery pack, and the internal combustion engine was replaced with an electric motor. The result? Tesla was able to penetrate a crowded market by creating a car that was familiar enough for people to relate to, yet revolutionary in its technology.
What if we could reengineer the worship service for new peoples and generations without creating anxiety in the minds of older members who have invested their souls in their faith? I would like to suggest that we reexamine the substance of our worship services looking for truth and relevancy. A five letter acronym, ADORE, may be used as a template for analysis.
A—Appeal. Every worship service should have an appeal. Worship should change us, and opportunities should be given to make a decision to change. This opportunity was present in the New Testament’s first large evangelistic and worship service: “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’ ” (Acts 2:38).
In the early days of Adventism, a tent in the prairie with lively music, energetic preaching, and sawdust trails was irresistible. Worship was radical, creative, and relevant for a generation of pioneers. Yet the saw- dust trail is found only in history books and cannot be re-created with any relevance for current generations. On the other hand, current technologies such as smartphones and social media, make excellent platforms for inviting people to respond to an appeal.
A way to assess the appeal element in your worship service would be to ask the question: Were you given an opportunity at the worship service today to make a decision to change something in your life?
D—Doctrine. Adventists have long focused on doctrine. Teaching truth is a vital part of any worship experience. Paul writes to Timothy: “Preach the Word; . . . correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Every worship service should be examined to make sure that truth is being taught. If no teaching happens, there will be no relevance for attendees, and eventually they will cease to come.
A good way to assess this would be to ask the question: Did you gain a new insight or understanding at the worship service today?
O—Oneness. Worship services need to promote the fellowship of the believers. In Gethsemane, this weighed heavily on Jesus: “ ‘I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one’ ” (John 17:20, 21). While congregants may differ widely on the introversion-extroversion continuum, almost everyone needs the fellowship of others to affirm them in their Christian journey. The look and feel of times of fellowship may be different in congregations, but every worship service must intentionally provide opportunities for personal interaction with one another.
A way to assess this might be to ask the question: Did you have an opportunity at church today to interact with someone in a meaningful way?
R—Responsibility. How does a worship experience challenge you to make a difference in the world? Jesus challenges us to disciple those in the world: “‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations’” (Matt. 28:19). It is not enough to hope for the kingdom to come.
A sign on the egress of a church parking lot says, “You are now entering the mission field.” Worship service is more than a service for praise and worship. It is also a place for formulating, encouraging, and embarking on mission. A way to assess this might be to ask the question: Did you feel challenged during the worship service today to make a difference in the world this next week?
E—Exaltation. This gets to the heart of worship. Again, from Revelation’s first angel: “ ‘Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ ” (Rev. 14:7b). This is probably the core of worship that is also perhaps the weakest in many Adventist churches.
An easy way to assess whether or not your worship service provided that opportunity would be to ask the question: Did you experience God’s presence during the worship time today?
This five-part acronym—ADORE— summarizes the elements that must be in a worship service in order to satisfy the soul of the worshipers. If one or two are missing or are done poorly, your worship service will fall short of its potential. Tinkering with worship style or genre while ignoring these substantive elements will simply create conflict, and the goal of worship will still be elusive.
How to change without much conflict
Now that we have assessed what needs to be in place in order to maximize your congregation’s impact on the life and worshipers in your church, let us turn to some time-tested techniques that can create maximum change with minimal conflict.
Children. Some of the best candidates in your church to demonstrate a change in the worship service are children. People will give a lot of latitude to kids. If the change modeled by children seems to be well received, you might consider having an adult model it next time.
I know of a church that was trying to reach a portion of their unchurched community who could be reached by a genre of music not heard in the congregation. Wisely they chose a talented eight-year-old to introduce the new type of music. The congregation loved it. Now young people are coming to church in scores.
Guests. If the congregation understands that one of the roles of Adventist worship service has always been evangelistic, then the needs of the unchurched guests can be high- lighted. Churches that reach out to the unchurched and are growing can often be seen affirming, “The change in the worship service has drawn our guests to feel wanted, and they come in with a feeling that they are included.”
A large church discovered that their community had a high percent- age of Catholics who are accustomed to coming to the front of the church to receive the Eucharist. As the worship team and pastoral staff discussed this question, they could find no theological reason why people had to be served in the pews. As they began to implement this change, they were not surprised that their Catholic friends were more familiar with the liturgy, but they were surprised that their senior members enjoyed the communion service more.
Public evangelistic meeting. One church introduced change in the way they did evangelism. Instead of the normal practice of holding an evangelistic campaign in the evening, the congregation decided that they would do evangelism in the worship service for the next few weeks. This new style of worship was lively and exciting, and their unchurched friends enjoyed the service. As the campaign began to wind down, many in the congregation began to wonder why some of the worship elements that were introduced for the evangelistic campaign could not be used in the regular service. The pastor took this to a vote, and the congregation voted almost unanimously to adopt the evangelistic-style worship service as their regular worship format.
Experiment. Change is more palatable if it is not forced upon people. If people know that something is not going to be permanent, they can more easily endure it and maybe even learn to like it.
The leadership team in one church thought that the church service could be more meaningful if the elders of the church sat in the congregation with their families instead of in big chairs on the platform behind the preacher. This was particularly distracting because one of the elders had a tendency to fall asleep during the sermon and was known to snore loudly. The worship team did not ask the board for permission to make this change in the church. Instead they asked the board how they felt if for one week the elders could sit with their families as a kind of experiment. The board approved the experiment. Next time the board met, most of the board members appreciated the change and asked the worship team to make this permanent.
Quality. A change in the style of music or adding video or drama can be one of the greatest sources of conflict in a congregation. To help ease people, change into new elements must be done with finesse and grace. Bad rhythm, pitchy voices, or scratchy vocals are laughed off the stage on reality shows and probably should not be permitted in a church worship service, either. Music that is done poorly will not only offend the seasoned saints but also turn off a new generation.
Genuine. Worship leaders should be chosen from a pool of people who have an authentic relationship and commitment to Jesus Christ. Worship leading on Sabbath morning must be an overflow of personal worship that the leader has experienced throughout the week. If the worship leader’s life outside of church goes in an entirely different direction, they will have great difficulty leading people into the presence of God. Even if the congregation does not know the reason why, they will intuitively sense that something is wrong.
Add, do not take away. Many church wars take place not when new things are added but when old things are taken away. People many times react in defensive anger when something that they love, cherish, and find meaningful is stolen from them. One congregation went into conflict when, for the sake of trying to become contemporary, they discontinued using the doxology. What they did not realize is that this 20-second element in the worship service was meaningful to a large portion of the congregation. For them, this was a high point in the worship service where they sensed great joy in worshiping God. Wisely, the worship team reinstated the doxology and retained the older folks without losing the young people.
Change is the only constant in the world. Worship is no exception. As we open the front door of the church for new generations and people groups, we need to continually recreate worship that is meaningful for their context and at the same time ensure that the older worshipers do not walk out through the back door. The elements that provide the greatest meaning are appeal, doctrine, oneness, responsibility, and exaltation. When congregations begin to understand worship and lead change in thoughtful ways, churches can deftly move forward with the message of the first angel. The angel commissions us to proclaim the eternal gospel “to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. . . . ‘Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ ” (Rev. 14:6, 7).
1 All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
2 As quoted by Dan Martella in “The Problem With Today’s Music,” Best Practices for Adventist Ministry, NAD Ministerial, http://conta.cc/2gR64Yo. Tell us what you think about this article. Email [email protected] or visit www.facebook.com/MinistryMagazine.