Evolution of Worship

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, August 12, 2021

Evolution of Worship

“Boring.”

Parents dread hearing this word from their children. It likewise chills church leaders when on the lips of congregants.

It doesn’t help that the primary mention of “worship” in the Foundations section of our Book of Order attaches it to the term “maintenance.”

“Maintenance of divine worship.” It’s the third of the church’s Six Great Ends. (Book of Order F-1.0304). Everyone who studies church vitality knows that the church is dying when it focuses on maintenance, rather than on mission.

To be sure, we know that maintenance is critically necessary for everything we use, from cars to furnaces to lawns to computers. Deferred maintenance is both more disruptive and more costly than preventive maintenance. But still…

“Maintenance” is boring.

The church may be called to do some boring things. Some of its most necessary work is anything but heart-racing. Yet “maintenance of divine worship” is far from boring, if understood rightly.

In mechanics, “maintenance” is about prolonging repeatability. Maintenance assures that my air conditioner turns on every time the same way. But maintaining living things is a different matter. Living things are either growing or declining. Maintaining vitality – growing rather than declining – requires constant adaptation. Biology calls it “evolution.”

The church is a living organism, not a mechanical system. Sheer repetition eventually kills the church. Maintenance of vitality requires its ability and readiness to adapt, to evolve.

Vital worship adapts to its surrounding culture. The American church of the 1950s – the decade when mainline churches peaked in attendance – was tuned to families who had at most one car, one income, multiple children, rarely divorced, communicated via US mail or dial telephones, studied music in grade school, had three or four choices of TV channels (which they watched in black and white, and which went off the air during sleep hours), had no air conditioning, couldn’t shop on Sundays… And the list goes on.

The church that tuned its worship to those exigencies drew crowds. But society moved on.  All of the cultural features listed in the previous paragraph disappeared over the following decades. Thriving churches evolved their worship in response. Those that sought to maintain the status quo through sheer repetition waned.

The Reformers adapted congregational worship to the culture of the surrounding community, by using vernacular language and arts in worship. John Calvin contracted with one of the popular musicians of his day (think: Elton John) to set music to the Psalms. I think he would have been appalled to learn that Reformed folk would continue for centuries around the world to use his Psalter, set to music popular in 16th century Geneva, as though its value transcended place and time.

Our “Directory for Worship” continues this Reformed thrust: “The words we use in worship are to be in the common language or languages of those who are gathered, so that all are able to receive the good news…” (Book of Order W-1.0302) Vital worship constantly adapts to the church’s changing social locations.

“Maintenance of divine worship” through and beyond the pandemic seeks ongoing worship vitality through evolution. One manifestation of that has been the surge of congregations streaming worship services online. Vital congregations will do this more and more, and get better and better at doing so.

But that is not enough. Christian worship involves gathering: singing together (Ephesians 5:19), sharing the Word of Christ with each other (Colossians 3:16), breaking bread and praying in communal fellowship (Acts 2:42). Christian worship connects us not only to God, but also with each other.

The great pandemic challenge for worship is not just, “How can we get people remotely to engage the music, prayers, and message of sanctuary worship?” It is also, “How can we get close to each other to honor God when social distancing is the rule?” Truthfully, increased social distancing has been a cultural trend for years, something to which the church has been slow to adapt.

Maintenance of divine worship in and beyond the pandemic will require us to evolve new ways of being with each other as we seek together to honor God. It may move us to focus more on gathering in homes, parks, or cafes, not just on large gathering places. It will surely lead us to assure that those to whom we reach out remotely via worship service streaming are also being engaged in person or at least by direct connecting technology (telephone, Skype, etc.).

“Maintenance” of divine worship involves more than remaining faithful to the church’s tradition. It leads us to adapt the holy words of eternal life to ever-evolving social situations. It may require us to change our tune and speak in new languages. It always calls us to build strong connections with members who are not able to join us in sanctuary worship.

Yours in divine worship,

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