So many times, people tell me how amazing and wonderful worship is. Oftentimes, I wonder if they’d be as enthusiastic about the worship in my church. The sanctuary was built a few years ago, it’s a fairly standard and simple design, like most churches I’ve attended, there are two rows of pews arranged in two vertical rectangles that are longer than they are wide. The rows themselves are on a diagonal. The walls are a clean white with the occasional large window, there is light-colored stained wood for the pews (with pink or purple cushions that match the carpet, I forget which), for the pulpit, for the rail along the stairs, for the altar. That’s a pretty thorough description of the location. The atmosphere is generally one of family, friends, and neighbors catching up with each other. They certainly do talk to each other.
When it comes time for the music to start, things change. Like on Sunday; while the lyrics for the hymn were being displayed on the screen, I couldn’t help but notice that there was quite a few disinterested parties in the building. Perhaps it was the conversations in the midst of the music or playing with their hair, it seemed like people were finding other things to do than to sing along with the worship music.Singing ceases to be the priority.
I think that’s something that people aren’t always anxious to talk about. How no matter what you do and no matter what you don’t do, there will always be disinterested parties. I think that for a lot of young people in this area, going to church is expected of them and so they show up, but they don’t have to like it. The disinterested parties just check out and don’t bother to sing at all. Sometimes I’m one of them – I just do a better job of hiding it by lip-syncing. I can only imagine how churches in regions with better internet might have a number of youth texting each other, oblivious to what’s going on, be it music or preaching. Is that the case? I don’t know. As to the older ones who are disinterested, it can be for a variety of reasons: the stale routine has gotten old, they passionately dislike the music, they have a lot on their minds, anything really.
They’re not the only ones though. Every time the choir is tasked with a contemporary song, they don’t do it justice. It’s not that they don’t sing the sheet music flawlessly, they do, but they sing contemporary music in a different way than they sing hymns. It’s the difference between having to sing a song you can’t stand and getting to sing a song you absolutely love.
Next Sunday, take a look around. Whatever worship ‘does’ for you, it doesn’t do for the disinterested. And there’s no guarantee that changing worship so that it ‘does’ something for others won’t turn you into a disinterested party in the process. It’s like worship these days is a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other, but never really able to stay in that sweet spot. For those of you whose worship “works” and “does” for you, it’s probably difficult to imagine what it is to be in a church with uninteresting worship that doesn’t work and doesn’t do anything for you. It’s a lot like having to watch that movie you can’t stand because somebody you love adores it. It’s a lot like having to read that book you despise because somebody you love admires it. It’s a lot like having to do that dance you hate because somebody you love enjoys it.
I know – I’ve been told, if you can’t stand the church go somewhere else. That only works then there is somewhere else to go. Virtual worship, watching sermons and worship sets over the internet is just somehow not the same. It certainly wouldn’t be for our traditional church – just imagine it!
“Welcome brothers and sisters, and everyone else watching us over the internet! First, let’s take a moment to meet’n’greet one another, be sure to make everyone feel welcome. Then we’ll sing hymn 724, verses 1 and 4.”
The person at home has no one to meet and greet, no one to ask about their health or family, and no one to ask them how their day has been. When it comes time to sing, the echo of a lone voice from four nearby walls serves as a reminder of what isn’t there – dozens of other voices that fill up the air, altogether rising and falling in unison. The feel of worship just isn’t there when it doesn’t feel like worship or even remotely resemble it. That’s why it doesn’t work – traditional or contemporary – over the television, over the computer, over the radio.
All it really does is turn the watcher / listener into a spectator who can see and/or hear what others are doing, but cannot interact with the others that are doing whatever they’re doing. Like my church, it broadcasts it’s services over the radio – somebody at home can listen in, but they cannot become part of the broadcast itself, singing for everyone to hear, meeting and greeting one another. Worshiping at home very much becomes like being the person who worships outside of the church doors, but can bring himself or herself to join everyone else – knowing that ‘where two or three are gathered, I am there” it’s basically a church service of one.
I just can’t think of any good solutions – what works for you is what works for you, and what works for another might not be something that works for you. I think when it comes down to it, you just can’t make somebody else interested in something that interests you because they aren’t you. The problem with church worship service is that they’re pretty unchanging. It’s all about doing things they way they’ve always been done, in the order they’ve always been done, and not deviating from that as much as humanly possible. But if you aren’t going to be able to make changes happen, then you shouldn’t be surprised when one by one, disinterested parties begin to disappear. If there’s nothing for them in the church service, there’s nothing for them to stick around for and no reason for them to show up at all.
And it’s not enough to do an occasional contemporary song if it sounds like you’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else – but at least the shoe would be on the other foot for a little while and it would give you a context as to how others feel. It just makes me wonder if there was the same tug-of-war worship experience decades ago and centuries ago, as people became polarized over the subject. I know that when I read about the Great Awakening, part of the conflict was that the New Lights were getting into more emotional worship and had stepped away from the more stoic worship favored by the Old Lights. Even Martin Luther felt that music should be emotionally moving. And yet for all these swings toward allowing emotion, tradition swings back to the other extreme …
“You can’t rely on you what you feel!” “If you don’t feel God, does that mean that God has forsaken you?” “God wants you to worship him whether you feel like it or not!” “How can you be sure that Satan isn’t the one playing on your emotions right now and not God?” “What you’re really worshiping is emotions, not God.” … I’ve heard it all, and then some.
It’s worthwhile to not that some people believe that feeling any hint of emotion during worship cheapens it, so the disinterested attendees are actually offering true worship in that they are not emotional, not sentimental, and not swept up by the music (or at least, they would be if they were singing along with the rest) – at least, according to some. Whereas those who participate and are emotional, sentimental, and caught up by the music are actually worshiping their own feelings. Fortunately, the idea that “emotion cheapens the experience” didn’t really catch on. Because to anybody else, having a conversation with somebody else or playing with one’s hair when you’re supposed to be singing really wouldn’t be worshiping, it would be boredom.
Another consideration is that in this region, churches in the same denomination are just like the one down the street from it. Our church is actually two, the same people sing the same songs, one at ten at location a, the other at eleven at location b. If one person felt that the o’clock church was the right denomination but wasn’t their cup of tea, they could go to the o’clock that’s pretty much exactly like it. Why is it that churches in the same denomination do not offer a variety of services particularly when they’re in the same area?
But when you say that your worship is great and excellent, is that an empirical fact or a statement of emotion? If every ounce of joy, every drop of delight, every gram of happiness and all other emotions were zapped out of existence for the duration of worship music – what do you get? Songs with no resonance or bounce, just words sung to a tune as correctly and as unemotionally as possible. That just doesn’t sound like worship to me. I just can’t help but wonder – if some of the regulars are disinterested now, then what will worship become in the years to come? It probably won’t be much different, just as empty with just as many people not interested in what’s going on. The former solution – separate and form different services for different people works only as long as the congregation can support it (both put up with it and finance it.) But to do that, they would have to be interested in it in the first place.