Chapter OneWinds of Change
Vic Gordon and I were sitting in a booth at the brightly
lighted Wheaton Restaurant, a favorite haunt of faculty and
students of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Vic smiled
as he ordered his breakfast. And so he should. After all, he
was only thirty-one years old and had just been appointed
chaplain of the college.
He leaned toward me, and with an eager sense of anticipation
in his eyes, he said, "Bob, we've got to do some worship
in chapel. I mean something different than the ordinary
hymn, prayer, sermon, and prayer sequence." He was talking
to the right person because that's exactly how I feel about
college chapel and the Sunday morning service of the average
church-both are too much like another classroom
monologue. He continued, "I want you to take two chapels
this fall. Speak on worship in the first service and lead us in
worship in the second one."
When the day came for me to speak in chapel, I began
by emphasizing the need to rediscover the focus of worship.
"The focus of worship," I said, "is not human experience,
not a lecture, not entertainment, but Jesus Christ-his life,
death, and resurrection."
Several students in the back shouted, "Amen," which is
almost unprecedented at Wheaton. I stopped my sermon
and spoke directly to the "Ameners." "I like it when you respond,"
I said. "One of the problems of evangelical worship
is the passive nature of the congregation. We just sit and
never do anything except sing a hymn or two and put money
in the plate." To this statement a whole slew of "Amens" resounded.
The rest of my short talk was punctuated by interactive
remarks which made me realize that more students
than I would have guessed felt the need to break through passive
worship and become more active and involved.
What happened in chapel that day exemplifies what is
happening in the larger evangelical community. Such an occurrence
suggests to me that we may well be part of an exciting
change-a change from passive worship to active
worship. I hope this book helps this transition along and
provides a guide that will lead a congregation into an active
and more fulfilling worship. In other words, WORSHIP IS
A VERB. It is not something done to us or for us, but by us.
In order for worship to become a verb, I am not suggesting
that we deny either our convictions or roots. Rather, I am
suggesting that we consider restoring some essentially evangelical
practices in worship which, when regained, will restore
an active quality to our worship. In no way am I
suggesting the use of faddish, innovative gimmicks. Rather,
it seems to me that active worship can and will be restored
as the Holy Spirit opens before us certain biblical and early
church insights and practices.
It was about ten to fifteen years ago that I first became
aware of my need for a deeper worship experience. I was no
longer satisfied to sit passively in the Sunday morning service.
I wanted to be more involved, to be more than a mere
observer, to do something more than watch and listen. I felt
the need to participate-to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and
move as I worshiped the Lord.
This growing feeling of inner dissatisfaction caused me
to reflect on my feelings. And, after some pondering, I was
able to identify four things that were disturbing me about so
many of our worship services.
First, I began to see that much of our worship is dominated
by the pastor. From early childhood, I have been accustomed
to the pastor doing everything. But in the past few
years, I've noticed that I have become particularly sensitive
to pastor-dominated worship services. Whenever I worship
or speak at a church where the pastor is the focal point, I feel
dominated and stifled. I find myself longing to participate,
to be involved. I want to respond to what's going on, to say
"Amen" or "Thanks be to God" or give witness to my faith
or pray. But in churches where the pastor-figure is central,
any response is often looked at as odd or inappropriate. In
this situation my stomach actually feels tied up in knots, my
muscles tense, and my whole body feels trapped, even caged
in. My spirit and thus my worship is affected. I feel as
though I'm not worshiping; I'm not actively participating.
Rather, the pastor is doing everything for me. I'm simply a
receiver, a passive recipient of the actions of one other
Second, I began to feel that the congregation was little
more than an audience. It is true we live in an "audience society."
We sit passively and are entertained by television or radio
or stereo. As spectators, we listen and watch, but we
seldom participate actively.
This same mood is often carried over into our church services.
We simply transfer what we do at home in front of the
television set to what we do in church and let the pastor become
In my conversations with pastors I've found a growing
awareness of this problem. Pastor Loren McLean of Geneva
Road Baptist Church in Wheaton said, "I feel like I'm producing
a program for people to come and watch." Layman
Jim Young, director of theatre at Wheaton College, expressed
the frustration many pastors must feel when he said,
"You've got to wow the audience." This lays a grave burden
on the pastor to perform rather than lead the congregation
I think there is another problem related to an audience
mentality. It seems that many of our services shift from true
worship to what Henry Jauhiainen, pastor of the Crystal
Valley Church in Crystal Lake, Illinois, refers to as "serving
up the secrets of the good life." With all the complexities of
our world today, the temptation to turn worship into a giant
psychiatric couch or pep rally for human potential is great.
I agree with Pastor Jauhiainen when he says, "I don't know
of anything that could hinder proper corporate worship
more than that." Christian pep rallies and success services
may fulfill the needs of some, but a congregation that wants
to be led in worship is not an audience to be entertained by
persuasive speeches or show business gimmicks.
Third, I began to sense that "free worship" is not necessarily
free. I have a great deal of respect for the tradition of
"free worship." Originally, it was a reaction against cold,
dead, and fixed liturgical forms. The intention of its proponents
was to introduce congregational participation and involvement
into the church and create an atmosphere that
was conducive to an inner and spontaneous response to God
in worship. But I feel that somehow the pendulum has
swung to the other extreme. In many of our churches, what
was once free has now become a fixed form with little life
I agree with Peter Robb, an active layman and former
worship director in the Open Door Fellowship Church of
Phoenix. He says, "There is a myth that if [worship] is spontaneous,
it is more holy than if it were planned." I've worshiped
in Plymouth Brethren churches where the people wait
on the Spirit of God to lead their worship. In these churches
I have always found more planning (in the sense of an order
of worship that tells a story) than I have in the average
evangelical church. They seem to follow the sequence of
Preparation, comments on the Word, celebration of the
Communion Table, and Dismissal in a very thoughtful way.
In the worship of Plymouth Brethren churches I'm carried
into the presence of God. I hear him speak, I respond to him,
I commune with him at his Table, and I'm sent forth.
In some evangelical churches, there is little sense of a deliberately
planned sequence. I sometimes get the feeling that
hymns, prayers, Scripture, and testimony are simply thrown
together without much thought about anything other than
the need to have something to do to get to the main reason
for being in church-the sermon. The service might start
with a dismissal hymn like "Onward Christian Soldiers" and
end with a preparation hymn like "Holy, Holy, Holy." Prayer,
which should be a response to God's Word, will often come
before the reading of the Scripture. It's surprising to note
how often services include very little Scripture.
I also think lack of planning contributes to the dull and
sterile sense of sameness that characterizes so many of our
services Sunday after Sunday. Many evangelical churches do
virtually the same thing in Advent that they do in Lent or
during Epiphany or in the Easter season. So, there is little
variety, other than that provided by the changing secular calendar,
not only in the week-to-week Sunday service, but also
throughout the church year.
I believe that this almost hypnotic sameness and dedication
to a particular brand of "free form" worship is robbing
us of a richness in worship that is desperately needed. As I
reflected on my needs, I realized that I desired an order of
worship through which God is working to communicate his
message of saving grace. I need to experience and participate
personally in the biblical events as God reaches down to me
and in worship brings me the benefit of what he did for me
through his Son on the cross. Then, I am quickened spiritually
and made alive through worship.
Fourth, for me, the mystery was gone. I can remember
times in my life when I've experienced the mystery-the awe
and reverence-of the woods, or of the desert, or of a snowcapped
mountain far above the timber line, a sense of the
creation "telling the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1). But, unfortunately,
we so seldom experience awe and reverence in our
churches. All too often the atmosphere seems to work
against reverence. Our churches are characterized by a feeling
of overfamiliarity, an inappropriateness in the approach
to God. The sense of transcendence and the otherness and
holiness of God seems to be missing. A kind of secularization
has taken place.
One very obvious form of secularization may be found
in most evangelical church calendars. We are organized
around the academic calendar, the seasonal calendar, the national
calendar, and the secular calendar of special days. We
celebrate Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day,
and the like. But when it comes to the sacred seasons of Advent,
Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and
Pentecost, we have reduced our celebrations to Christmas
Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. We don't seem to have that
sense of spiritual time-a sense of the mystery of Christ's
life, death, and resurrection, unfolding in time throughout
the year. However, I'm beginning to sense a change. More
and more pastors feel what Neil Garrabrant, pastor of the
Countryside Chapel in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, expressed to me:
"One weakness I've sensed in my approach to worship is that
I have given very little consideration to the church year." Personally,
in both corporate and personal worship, I have
found the church year to be a guide to my spiritual life.
Another way in which secularization has permeated the
church is in our music. Many of our contemporary popular
songs are not directed to God, nor do they glory in the cross
of Christ. Rather, they concentrate on personal experience
and self-realization. They participate in the narcissism of
our culture, in what writer Tom Wolf has called the "megeneration."
Our religion has followed the curvature of a
Dan Sharp, the music and worship minister at Grace
Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, feels that much contemporary
Christian music feeds into this self-centered mentality.
"In music," he says, "anything that is cutesy, where you
notice the cleverness of the music more than the message
that is being communicated, is inappropriate."
The mystery also seems to be gone from the Communion
Table. Many of my students express bewilderment about the
bread and wine. What does it mean? What is supposed to
happen? How I am to feel? All these questions unveil a failure
to grasp the transcendent nature of this sign.
In fact, we pay little attention to how God communicates
to us through signs and symbols that reach down into the
very depths of our being and touch us where words cannot
go. As we have worshiped at the altar of "realism," we have
reduced human persons to a thing-a mind-and have neglected
the power of our God-given imaginations and the
role of the senses as vehicles through which God can communicate
to us and we with him.
FIVE NEW INSIGHTS
As I wrestled with the four concerns we've just looked at,
there were times when I thought I couldn't make it through
another service. However, even while I was reacting negatively,
new insights and a fresh approach to worship were beginning
to take shape in my thinking.
First, I began to see that the primary work of the church
is worship. I grew up on the fundamentalist side of the evangelical
tradition. For as long as I can remember, it was impressed
upon me that the most important part of being a
Christian was being a witness. For example, as a nine-year-old
boy, I attended Camp Shadowbrook in the Pocono
Mountains of Pennsylvania, which was sponsored by Percy
Crawford. There I became so inspired by my calling to be a
soul winner that, after camp, I went home and for a week
or two I spent every day going door-to-door witnessing.
Later, as a college student, I was told again that my single
calling in life was to be soul winner. It was all right if we
Christians were called to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers,
as long as we were soul winners first.
Evangelism is an exceedingly important work of the
church as are teaching, fellowship, servanthood, missions,
and the healing of broken lives. But it is worship, I gradually
discovered, that really stands behind all these activities. The
church is first a worshiping community. Evangelism and
other functions of ministry flow from the worship of the
I found general agreement with this insight among those
pastors and lay people I interviewed for this book. Layman
Peter Robb said, "Worship should be the central activity of
the church." Pastor Loren McLean feels that "the worship
service is the key barometer of where the church is." David
Mains, pastor of the Chapel of the Air in Wheaton and
former pastor of Circle Church in Chicago, said, "There is
an overwhelming hunger for God. The current concern for
worship derives from that deeper sense of hunger." And Dan
Sharp said, "I want people to leave the Sunday service with
a conscious awareness of God." Indeed, I have discovered in
my own life that corporate worship is the taproot of my life.
It is the source of my spiritual life and growth.
Second, I rediscovered that worship is a source for spiritual
renewal. In my background I always saw worship in
terms of evangelism or education. The sermon was, in my
mind, the central thing. That's why I went to church. But the
sermon's effect on me depended on its intent. Sometimes the
sermon would be geared toward the unsaved. On those occasions
I felt it was meant for somebody else, and not for me.
On other occasions the sermons were educational in content.
I felt like I was back in school, being lectured to again.
More recently, however, I have discovered a whole new
dimension in worship. I have experienced what I call "worship
from above." In worship God is speaking and acting,
bringing to me the benefits of redemption. Through worship,
God works on my behalf. He repairs and renews my
relationship with him. Just as he has always sought people
out to bring them to himself, so he now seeks me out in worship
to bring healing into my life.
Consequently, worship for me is no longer something I
do because of social or peer pressure. It's not a requirement
that I endure for legalistic reasons, or a painful process in
which my sensitivities are offended. Rather, worship is an
experience I long to have, a necessary part of my spiritual
diet, a central source of my spiritual formation.
I have come to see that, in reality, worship is a celebration.
It is the celebration of the event of Christ-his death
and resurrection. To celebrate Christ, not my devotion to
him, frees me from having to create or invent my worship.
Both preaching and the Lord's Supper celebrated Christ and
through them Christ is given to me. Consequently, I am spiritually
nourished by what God is doing for me through the
Scriptures and the Communion Table.
Third, worship became an active experience for me.
When I began to experience God at work in worship, speaking
to me and moving toward me through the symbols and
the preaching, I broke through the passivity I had previously
known and responded to.
I learned that the God who spoke, speaks. He who spoke
in times past through the prophets and apostles was now
speaking to me through them. Scripture reading in worship
is no mere recital of past events. Rather, it is part of the immediate
experience of God bringing the power and effect of
that passage into my present experience and applying it to
Scripture that is imbued with this kind of power cannot
be passively received. It deserves a response, a hearty
"Thanks be to God," a statement of faith affirmation, a sharing
of its power in my life.