What a difference 50 years makes!
Over the past five decades, congregational worship in many of our churches has undergone dramatic change. We’ve seen changes in the language used in worship – from German to English and more. We’ve also seen a steady move away from formality to a more casual approach in language, leadership style, and even dress.
Many congregations have also seen a growing appreciation for the arts – for drama, dance, and art.
New technologies have changed us even more – the introduction of the microphone has revolutionized the sound of our worship. Even the architecture and acoustics of our churches have changed as a result.
There have also been significant changes in how worship is planned and led – from a single pastor planning, leading, and preaching, to the involvement of worship committees, leaders, teams, and bands.
And then there are the dramatic changes we’ve seen in worship music: changes to how songs are chosen and used, how they are led and accompanied, how song texts are presented, and even how songs are sung.
With all this in mind, earlier this year I asked more than 40 long-time members and leaders to reflect on changes to worship in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren church over the past 50 years. Here are a few of the things they told me.
Our understanding of worship has changed. Rather than viewing worship primarily as a conversation about God, many today view worship as a conversation with God. This shift from “worship as education” to “worship as encounter” has been the primary impetus behind many of the significant changes we’ve seen in worship, from how we plan and lead services to the types of songs we choose and how we use those songs.
“I think we put a lot of effort into giving people a variety of ways of encountering God in our worship services,” said one respondent. “Visuals, dramatic elements, Scripture, prayer, sermons, music – they all connect with different people in different ways…. Worship is not a somber test of endurance, but an opportunity to engage with the Word in creative ways.”
We desire intergenerational participation. Most respondents emphasized the importance of involving children and youth in worship. For some older members, this is in direct contrast to their own experiences as young people: “Children sat in the front of the church with the patriarchs of the church behind them,” one long-time member remembered. “Sometimes there was a disciplinary tap on the shoulder.”
In contrast, many of today’s congregations take great care to involve children and youth in worship – even if this comes at the expense of their own comfort level at times. “Many older people truly want others to find a place in the church,” said another lay leader. “They are very concerned about the spiritual welfare of the young and have made huge sacrifices to maintain unity.”
Another added there is an “expectation that everyone contributes and finds a place of belonging. We don’t always achieve this, but it is a value we have.”
We are eager to explore new resources. This isn’t a new trait; Mennonite Brethren have always been borrowers – open to a wide range of outside influences and resources. But churches today have almost unlimited sources of worship and liturgical resources for congregational music, preaching, drama, and more.
“It seems that we are much more willing to look outside our own denomination for resources,” one church member observed. “Even pastors are more likely to come from a background and schooling other than our own.”
This openness has moved MBs beyond the narrower ethnic definition that marked the church 50 years ago. “There has been a definite shift from maintaining/protecting our ethnic identity to becoming a church that is much more inclusive,” said one respondent. “In my childhood and youth, anyone who did not have Russian Mennonite roots was too strange…. I think we have changed from being afraid of change to being much more open to new things – actively looking for ways to connect to people where they are at today.”
Openness to the arts. Fifty years ago, worship would have been more austere, with music being the primary art form permitted in the service. Today, it is not uncommon to find drama, art, video, photography, dance, and lighting effects in worship. Corporate worship, in other words, is not just an auditory experience anymore – congregations today are more open to engaging other senses, too.
More people are engaged in worship leading and planning. Fifty years ago, the pastor often planned and led the entire service, from the sermon to the music and the prayers. Today, many people are involved in preparing and leading worship services – planning the service order, choosing music, preaching, reading Scripture, offering prayers, singing and playing instruments, doing children’s features, running the video projection unit and sound system, preparing for communion, etc.
Many congregations today are intentional about looking for ways to involve the gifts of many people in the planning and leading of corporate worship. The Word. One thing that has not changed, however, is the emphasis on Scripture. Most who responded observed that the reading and preaching of the Word continues to be at the heart of MB worship today. In fact, some suggested that this was the component of worship that had changed the least since their childhood.
On the other hand, others observed that biblical literacy today isn’t what it used to be, and today’s preachers face new and significant challenges. One pastor noted that he “used to assume a congregation that could follow systematically structured teaching sermons,” but not anymore. The challenge now, “is to hold people’s attention, and creativity has become much more important.”
Another pastor agreed, noting that today’s preachers have to find ways to “keep their congregations engaged in what they’re saying.” The use of storytelling, visual illustrations, and video are commonplace in many churches.
While many positive things can be said about Mennonite Brethren worship, it’s clear that we are also facing some significant challenges.
Balancing the different needs and preferences of the worshipping community. Many of those responding identified this as one of the greatest challenges we face. We want to be inclusive – of age, gender, learning style, worship preferences – but that’s no simple task. “Because of the large and diverse population in the congregation, it’s a challenge to speak to everyone’s needs in their own language and to keep everyone fed,” wrote one lay leader.
Some of our churches have responded to this diversity by segregating the congregation into groups of like-minded people. Others have purposely chosen to base their congregational identity around one particular approach to worship or music style. Other churches continue to try to balance the diverse needs and preferences of members in one service. Each approach has its challenges.
Balancing “heart” and “head” in worship. One of the strengths of our worship is that we seek to engage God on an emotional level. We want to “pursue transcendence,” as one person put it – to encounter and respond to the presence of God among us. But emotional responses, by themselves, are not enough. As one leader wrote, we also have to consciously work at “understanding the truths which transform us, as well as the experience of God’s presence. Both matter a lot.”
Another lay leader went ever further: “How do we pursue transcendence in ways that are not self-indulgent, but that compel our commitment to care for creation and the pain of our world?”
Confusion about the nature and purpose of corporate worship. Our culture’s growing individualism and consumerism are increasingly threatening both our understanding of worship and our practice of it. We see clear evidence of this both in the expectations many people bring to worship, and the lack of clarity about what it is we do when we gather together.
For example, is worship an individual experience or a corporate one? Is it something that takes place between “God and me” or “God and us?” Does it matter if we gather with others for worship or not? Increasingly, many people view “regular” church attendance as coming to Sunday services twice a month. Others say they can worship just as well at the lake, cottage, or on a walk in the woods.
And what about the purpose of worship? Is worship something that’s done for us? Is it something we do for God? Or is it something we do together with God and others? What is God’s role in worship? How do we know when worship has been successful?
Without a clear sense of the overall purpose of our corporate worship gatherings, it’s easy to begin to evaluate worship based on our own personal likes and dislikes. And it’s certainly true that members today feel far greater freedom to switch churches. Should it concern us that many of us choose churches like we choose our shoes – based primarily on our personal taste, on being able to “worship in the style that suits us best,” as one respondent wrote?
Sadly, many of the people we call to ministry have often had little opportunity for training in worship, and so are ill-prepared to guide congregations through discussions about the nature and purpose of worship gatherings. Altogether, it leads to what one long-time pastor called an increasingly “shallow understanding about worship in the community of faith.”
Diminished role of corporate prayer in worship. Respondents bemoaned the fact that many of our congregations have lost the ability to pray together in worship. They pointed to our rich heritage of congregational prayer, things like the Gebetstunde that used to begin every worship service, where men and women spent an extended period of time in extemporaneous prayer, or the regular weeknight prayer meetings that were a fixture of congregational life.
Today, most corporate prayer is led by the worship leader or pastor. And, as I discovered doing research on corporate prayer in 2007, many of our churches spend less than four minutes in prayer during a typical worship service. That said, in recent years, there seems to be a growing interest in both the form and content of corporate prayer.
The potential loss of core values. A number of respondents wondered about the downside of all the borrowing we do from various sources. “I wonder if, as we source material and music from all kinds of places, we are as aware of our own theology,” said one leader. “Does the average church member know what they believe about Christ? About the Holy Spirit? About salvation?”
One long-time pastor observes a “lack of theological discernment about the streams from which we’re drinking (in our music and also our preaching resources).” Another suggested that, in some circles, we’re seeing “an embracing of mainstream North American evangelicalism and an abdication of Anabaptist values and thought.”
There’s no question the last 50 years have brought significant changes to our practice of corporate worship. The next 50 will probably bring even more. Our congregations will need to continue practicing careful discernment to know how best to respond.
Fortunately, it’s not just up to us. In the end, the church’s worship and ministry are not merely human endeavours, but rely on the grace and mercy of the Holy Spirit at work among us. Thanks be to God!