“It Was Good, but They Didn’t Shout”: Motives and Metrics in Worship Planning and Assessment

I will have already lost some readers with the title of this article, because for some “worship is not something you plan” (as I have been told).  “It’s already in the book.  I don’t wonder [about] what’s going to happen in church.  I know.”  I appreciate the traditions of my Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Episcopalian siblings.  In fact, as a self-defined “Baptopalian” (Baptist-Episcopalian), I deeply enjoy worship in these contexts.  However, the context of my formation in faith and ministry was a non-traditional Baptist church with a more formal liturgical structure (hence, my Baptopalian-ism).  Thus, the Protestant free church tradition is my predominant frame of reference when thinking about worship.  So the following thoughts emerge from this context.

In a conversation with a young man from my home church whom I have known for years, we discussed worship.  He’s an organist, and as one would surmise, many of his friends and colleagues are organists and specifically church organists.  He said to me that, often in conversations with his friends, he will ask, “How was church?”  And they often reply, “It was good, but they didn’t shout.”

When teaching, I often do this exercise with the students.  I ask them (1) what happens in worship, (2) what doesn’t happen in worship, and (3) what should happen in worship.  The exercise and discussion are intended, in part, to get the students to think (more) theologically and critically about worship planning.  As students share their responses, I ask them, “What’s your motive [for that particular choice]?”  And, then I ask, “What’s your metric for evaluating whether it worked?”  In other words, I am asking them, “What motivates your choice of biblical text, musical text, prayer, participants, and by what criteria do you evaluate the effectiveness of your choices, whether your choices “worked,” whether worship was “good” or not?  

“It was good, but they didn’t shout.”

In the case of this particular response, I wonder what “good” meant to this young church organist.  Clearly, if “they had shouted,” then worship would have been something other than “good,” but I wonder what that would have been?  Excellent?  Awesome?  Awe-inspiring?

Many churches are in a season of contraction for numerous reasons.  Attendance and fiscal resources are down.  People are not coming to church as they did in previous eras.  One reason is what I call “R&R” — retirement and relocation.  In some contexts, people who have been members of congregations for decades, after marrying, rearing children and working 20 to 30 years on a job, once they retire, they relocate to a different (often warmer and/or drier) climate (or to be closer to children and grandchildren).  And often, older people are the biggest givers.  So when they leave, so does a significant contributor to the church budget.  Another reason for the decline in Sunday church attendance is the other “R&R” — rest and recreation.  People are working longer hours and sometimes more than one job.  Children have schedules that are more packed than their parents’, and some parents are taking care of their parents.  After working long hours during the day, spending evenings and one weekend day shuttling children to sports practices and games, music lessons, parties, AND doing the “maintenance tasks of life” (laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping and/or cooking), Sunday becomes their “day of rest.”

There is another trend contributing to this contraction in the church that requires a more nuanced discussion.  A fair and robust treatment is beyond the scope of this brief blog.  However, we can provide a broad brush treatment.  First, there are individuals who now consider once-a-month attendance “regular.”  This group can be divided into three sub-groups.  There are individuals who are “in the church building” once a month and watch worship via their church’s live stream the other Sundays of the month.  Though not physically present every Sunday, this group is consistent in their financial giving through various electronic online giving platforms.  Then there is the group of individuals who consider once-a-month attendance regular who do not live stream on the other Sundays, but their giving is not impacted by their attendance.  Their offerings to the church are on “autopay,” deducted weekly no matter where they are in the world.  Finally, there are those individuals who consider once-a-month attendance and once-a-month giving as regular.  Giving among this group may or may not be impacted in that some individuals will give four weeks of offering the Sunday that they are “in the building.”  Others will give one week’s offering the one week they are in church.  This is not to veer off into a discussion of church participation and church fiscal health, but it is to offer some insight into the interstitial nature of the contractions that many churches are experiencing.

There are a plethora of issues that can be raised here, but we can keep the list of questions short and basic and still have a headache trying to answer them.  What does corporate worship mean to people today?  How do we define the Sunday morning worshiping community?  Are individuals part of the same worshiping community if half are physically present and half are virtually present?  Is it enough to be in the building once a month and tune in to worship via live stream the other Sundays?  What is lost?  What is gained?  And for whom?

So, to return to the questions that are at the center of this blog, when planning worship, what are your motives in worship planning and what are your metrics when assessing worship?

What is your motive?  Is it to get people to shout?  Is it to get people to tithe?  Is it to get people to tune in?  Is it to simply get people to show up in the church building?  

These questions may seem a crude oversimplification of a complex problem facing many pastors, and I am not unaware or dismissive of the concrete realities they face.  AND the motives underneath our worship planning choices expose, obviously or insidiously, some of our presuppositions about worship (or what people tell us is “wrong” with worship).  “We should read less Scripture.”  “Let’s delete the confession.”  “Let’s cut the sermon.”  (Yes, someone in a church meeting actually suggested that the sermon be cut because services were beginning to run a bit too long — church was getting out at 12:30 and occasionally 12:45 where 12:15 was the norm.)  “We need more music.”  “We need more upbeat music.”  “We need different music.”  “We need a better musician.”  “We need more musicians.”  “Let’s start a liturgical dance ministry.”  “We need PowerPoints.”

A few presuppositions based on these examples:  Worship is boring.  Worship is too long.  Music IS really the worship time, so we need better music, more music.  We don’t need to confess; people are already feeling beat up from life during the week.  They don’t need to come to church and be made to feel guilty and get beat up.  Too much Scripture is read.  (Can too much Scripture ever really be read in church?  Some people only hear or read Scripture in worship.  They do not attend Bible study or Sunday/church school.  They have not grown in their own walk and spirituality such that they have a personal, devotional life.  The one time we have them in the week, during worship, may not be the best place to decrease the amount of Scripture we read.)  It is not the considerations regarding text and music and other elements of worship that are the problem.  It is the motive underneath our decisions about these elements that needs to be examined.

And what are your metrics to evaluate whether worship was successful:  the number of people who were in attendance?  If the people present shouted?  The number of people who shouted?  The financial report of the day?  The number of people who “gave their lives to Christ” or “united with the church?”  The number of hits on the online stream?

I argue that as pastors and liturgists (worship planners and leaders) our primary motive when planning worship should be this:  to help people enter into the presence of God.  Period.  It is unnecessary for me to list every single thing that should be our motive:  to hear God, to pray to God, to offer praise to God, to grow in the life of Christ (i.e., discipleship).  It is enough to say the motive is to have the people assembled enter into God’s presence, for all of those things happen when one is in God’s presence.

How can one measure that?  How does one evaluate whether the goal has been met?  Immediately and over time.   God’s presence is not manifest in the same way in the same place every time people gather for worship.  However, many people can attest to at least one time when “God showed up mightily in worship,” as the saying goes in some communities.  There are some times when the manifestation of God’s presence is so profound, weighty, awesome and awe-inspiring that it arrests our attention in a particular kind of way.  Those times are gifts, and serve as immediate reminders to the community of the goal of our gathering:  to worship God and be found in God’s presence.  

However, and most often, our ability to evaluate whether the motives and goals of our worship planning have been met can only happen over time, and the evidence shows up in the lives of the people.  What we as pastors and liturgists sometimes forget is that authentic, substantive Christian growth does not happen instantaneously (like a light switch) but rather like the accumulation of water in a big bucket from a slow dripping, leaky faucet.  People do not “get it” all at one time.  It is regular rhythm and ritual of worship that permeates the spiritual, behavioral, and psychological DNA of its participants (notice I did not write the “hearers,” for worship is a participatory activity, not a spectator activity… and offering is not the only time when the assembled people participate… they are (should be) participating in the entire service… I’ll save that discussion for another post).  The regular rhythm and ritual of worship tutors and forms individuals and grows in them a posture, disposition, and orientation towards God, the things of God, and the very life of God.

So we may need more musicians but not in order to get more people in the pew.  We may need more musicians so that the message of the Gospel in song may be more effectively rendered and thus well  (better) received by those hearing it.  We may need to sing different music but not so that more young people come.  We may need to sing different music because the music we have been singing has weak (bad!) theology or is ambiguous about the object of its adoration and praise.  (Or, maybe we simply need to stop allowing “quasi-joyful noise” from the music ministry to substitute for music that gives God glory.)  We may need to revisit the length and content of our announcements but not because service is running long.  We may need to revisit announcements because they are inwardly oriented (pertain only to members of the community and not visitors), are not ministry-oriented, or because they do not reinforce a sense of responsibility in its members for their specific ministries (i.e., the regular, monthly ushers’ meeting does not have to be announced across the pulpit… the ushers should know when they meet, and everybody in the congregation is not an usher).  We may need to read more Scripture but not only because so many people in the pews are weak in their biblical literacy.  We may need to read more Scripture so that we can stop indicting people for their biblical malnourishment when we barely feed them when they come to God’s house and God’s table.

There are several other questions and considerations that attend worship planning:  questions about culture, theological consonance, aesthetics, ways of learning and knowing, etc.  Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, dean and vice president of academic affairs and associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, has an article that I use as a staple in my introduction to worship course.  It is entitled  “Twenty-One Questions Revisited”.  This article provides a good and broad spectrum of considerations for pastors and liturgists.  Calvin Institute of Christian Worship also treats considerations on worship in “Ten Core Convictions” (https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/ten-core-convictions/).

Our primary motive in worship planning should be to help individuals enter into the presence of God. A major effect of worship should be lives transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.  In your worship planning and assessment, what’s your motive?  What’s your metric?  Do the people have to shout?

5 comments

  1. Àshé and amen! Sound and thought-provoking discussion of the motives and metrics of worship planning. I’m leading a workshop next week on making the hymnal your friend in worship. I can incorporate some of this into our discussion.

    1. No, I don’t believe the need to shout more, but if the holy ghost moves you then shout, in my opinion its all about winning people to Christ educating them and growing them in there spiritual relationship with God.

  2. Motives and metrics is another term for what has been around for since the 1970s: semiotics in liturgy, or the science of perceptions.

    One reason why this has not been more widely taken up is because this is more of an anthropological science than a liturgical one or an ecclesiogical one. There does actually exist an initial toolbox for analysing or measuring how music works in liturgy, and there are series of questions that can be asked to help in making that analysis more precise.

    Essentially what we are doing is asking how people perceive what they experience in celebration. It may not be quite as simple as we think. Those who plan/present/preside at/minister at liturgies are often non-plussed to find that people did not understand what they were trying to do. Sometimes the people “get” the intention behind the act; often they don’t get it, or get a mistaken interpretation of what was intended; sometimes they do get what is intended and reject it.

    Sometimes those who are responsible for liturgy do not themselves understand what is going on.

    Applying this to music is a never-ending source of fascination. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I have a chapter on this topic in volume 3 of the Liturgical Composers Forum series The Heart of our Music which gives an outline of that initial toolbox. https://litpress.org/Products/4853/The-Heart-of-Our-Music-Digging-Deeper

    All three volumes are well worth a read.

  3. The proclaimed (rather than read aloud) word plays its own part in engaging worship. It was meant to confront its listener, and it entered the canon of scripture because it continued to do so without losing its tang. If I bring it alive I will contribute to the general encounter, and if I just read words from a book I will detract from that. I don’t have to chant but I have to appreciate and put to use the range of sounds available in a text. I shouldn’t shout myself, but can remind my listeners about something that may make them want to shout. [Note: most presiders just want readers of texts, and my approach is not welcomed by my current pastor.]

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