Worship Is About More Than Personal Preferences

Worship(Creative Commons Image by Erin Rempel on Flickr)

I would love to install a policy that anyone who uses the words “I like” or “I don’t like” in regards to worship must put a dollar in a jar.

One of two positive things would happen: We would solve all of our church budget issues for all time, or we as a church would start reflecting on what worship really is.

For more than 2,000 years, the structure of worship was centered on the goal of providing the body of Christ in the world with a shared encounter with God. The degree to which it was successful can be debated, but at least that was the goal.

The modern church’s intention to redesign worship to be relevant to the culture in which we live, was good and necessary. The unfortunate result, however, has been consumer worship.

In the 21st century, the structure of worship in Protestant churches centers on pleasing individual tastes. Christians critique worship almost exclusively in terms of personal likes and dislikes:

I really liked the hymns. Didn’t like the hymns. Like the liturgy, don’t like the liturgy. I want more organ; I want a praise band. Don’t like screens, love the screens. I like sermons where the pastor doesn’t use notes. I like the old Lord’s Prayer; I like the newer version.

If my church doesn’t give me what I want in worship, I lobby for it. If that doesn’t work, I leave and find another church that meets my demands.

The actual purpose of worship — encountering God — is seldom part of this conversation. Christian worship has become all about us. People come to church expecting to be served exactly what they like. We not only buy into this, we encourage it, and even advertise it in hopes of attracting new members.

Consumer-centered worship is supposed to increase worship attendance. In reality, worship attendance at most churches has fallen dramatically since it started.

That should come as no surprise: If worship is about pleasing me, then what happens if worship fails to do that? I have no reason to come.

In fact, what happens if something comes up that pleases me more — like fishing or sleeping in? If it’s all about what pleases me, those are better choices. People have figured that out and make their choices accordingly.

The sermon is part of this evaluation of what pleases. That puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on a preacher. Our job becomes not merely proclamation of the Gospel but doing so in a way that pleases enough consumers to get their return business.

I believe strongly that effective preaching requires creativity, empathy, and understanding the context of the congregation. But the purpose of these tools is strictly to better communicate the message, not to please people.

Creativity produces insight. Empathy makes inspiration possible. Understanding the context of the congregation provides touch points for the message to adhere.

On Easter, I preached a sermon woven around verses of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Among the comments I received: “I’ll bet baby boomers really liked that” and “I didn’t know you were a Beatles’ fan.”

We are so steeped in consumer worship that it’s becoming hard for people to imagine any purpose for a worship choice, whether music or sermon or liturgy, other than that it pleases somebody.

It’s hard to convince people that my use of the song had nothing to do with pleasing anybody. Whether or not I like Beatles’ music is totally irrelevant. I chose the song simply because it seemed to me an effective tool for providing insight, inspiration and a touching point for those things to adhere to those in attendance.

C.S Lewis once wrote that a perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been so focused on God. It may be an unattainable dream in our culture.

But is it too lofty a goal to strive for worship that has less in common with an evening at a restaurant, and more in common with a community encounter with God?