Why Is Worship So Difficult for American Churches?


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Jonathan Aigner, writing earlier this week in “Patheos,” has some great insights into the currents driving many—some would say most—of America’s churches in their worship. His piece has the dandy title, “Eight Reasons the Worship Industry Is Killing Worship.”


While I won’t try to unpack all eight of his reasons, it’s worthwhile to at least mention them:

  • The worship industry’s sole purpose is to make us feel something
  • It hijacks worship
  • It says music IS worship
  • It’s a derivative of mainstream commercial music
  • It perpetuates and awkward contemporary Christian subculture
  • It spreads bad theology
  • It creates worship superstars
  • It’s made music into a substitute Eucharist (Aigner, a Methodist, considers the Eucharist or Communion the central act of Christian worship—not an unreasonable conviction since that was the case for the first sixteen centuries of the Church)


Aigner’s piece caught my attention because the church I pastor has been involved in a worship shift for the past nineteen months. After several years of divided worship—the usual Protestant template of contemporary and traditional worship venues—we moved to a single, unified style of worship that has moved us toward integrating the different styles into a single voice. It’s been an awkward and at times painful transition but well worth it. Aigner’s understanding of modern worship trends helped me clarify some of my own convictions.


His take on the motivation behind the worship industry does just as well in describing the expectation of worship for many of our people today:


The industry, as with the mainstream music industry, must engage us on a purely sensory level to find widespread appeal in an entertainment-addicted culture. It must make us feel something on a purely emotional level. It strikes a match for the initial excitement of the spark. It must hook us in to be profitable. And so, the quality of theology, poetry, and music suffers accordingly. And we trade the beauty of God’s story for the initial excitement of sensory stimulation. Singing love songs to Jesus is not the point of gathered worship. I find Robert Webber’s definition helpful: Worship is doing God’s story.


Aigner isn’t the only one pointing out our modern pre-occupation with entertainment, and how that has crept into church worship practices. I’m not saying—and neither is Aigner—that modern worship songs are more prone to that than any other genres. It’s just that in our pursuit of emotional stimulation we’re missing the more biblical understanding of worship that engages the mind, the emotions and—most importantly—the spirit.


Aigner goes on:


When the mind is disengaged and worship is reduced to an emotional experience, worship descends into narcissistic and self-referential meaninglessness…It turns us inward. How many times have we heard people say, “I can’t worship with that kind of music!” or “I really felt like I could worship today!” What they mean is, “I didn’t feel it” or “I was entertained.” True Christian worship happens when we engage with the Christian story through Word and Sacrament. When it’s done well, the only possible response is one that looks outside the self to the goodness of God and God’s work in human history, and searches for our place in God’s story.


This is hard stuff to hear because it tracks so precisely the feelings of many folks in our congregations. That’s not altogether their fault because we in leadership have done such a poor job of teaching God’s Word about worship.

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I’d love to go through the rest but will have to settle for a final point. Aigner gets it right on the place music has come to occupy in our worship services. Again, he’s writing from a more liturgical tradition than my Baptist roots allow me to embrace. Still, his point is worth pondering: have our worship services become little more than a concert followed by a lecture?


For the industry, the “worship” is the music part of the service. It uses the old revival meeting order, with a long singing block followed by a long preaching block. In most instances, the invitation is replaced by another singing block. The singing is the “worship,” the preaching is…well, we’re not sure. It’s not really worship. No corporate prayer, no creeds, no confession. No more gathering, proclaiming, thanksgiving, and the industry’s “worship” music, “worship” albums, and “worship” leaders have helped solidify the contemporary church’s departure from historic liturgy.


Worship for the modern American church continues to evolve in a thousand different ways. But the more we can pray and think through what’s going on in our churches, and continue to build our worship from biblical principles as opposed to cultural expectations, the healthier our churches will be.

1 Comment

  1. O. S. Sandy Bain on October 29, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks Mike! You have once again hit the nail on the head to a problem that many churches have failed to address from the Biblical platform.

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