Vital congregations series #2: Why worship?

August 07, 2012

It’s been seven months since the churches of the Minnesota Annual Conference began recording and reporting weekly statistical data for our nation-wide United Methodist Vital Congregations program. United Methodist churches across the country have set goals and are intentionally tracking seven important metrics:

1. worship attendance 2. persons received into membership by profession of faith 3. number of small groups 4. number of persons participating in small groups 5. number of people engaged in service and outreach efforts 6. amount of money given for mission beyond the local church and 7. total contributions for local church ministry.

Thanks to all the congregations that are faithfully responding to the weekly link for data entry. For the few congregations that have technical difficulties with the system or still need help getting started by submitting their goals, please contact in the Office of Congregational Development for assistance. For the remainder of 2012, this column is devoted to exploring priorities and practices for each of these seven vital signs of congregational health and vitality. Last month I addressed the underlying question “why measure?” This month I invite us to ponder “why worship?”

Summer is a common time for extended family reunions. At occasions like this I’m quite content catching up on health, jobs, kids, fishing, or even the weather. However, especially with relatives who don’t see me much, they often initiate conversation by telling me about their most recent memorable worship experience—sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I guess it’s an occupational hazard! Depending on the individual, they want me to know that the future of the church depends on

• half/one/two/three hour services
• praise band/pipe organ/choral/solo/orchestra/taize’ music
• humorous/serious/topical/Biblical/doctrinal/interfaith/monologue/dialogue/drama sermons
• in-person/projected/manuscript/extemporaneous/live/web-based preachers
• silent/verbal/bidded/printed/charismatic/unison prayers and
• daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly communion.

When I follow up and ask why they feel a certain practice is so important, they most often respond in some form or fashion that “it brings passion to life.”

Passionate worship begins with people anticipating connection with a spiritual power beyond themselves. Passionate worship networks people with God and each other so that in this isolating and alienating world, we’re assured that we don’t walk alone. Passionate worship offers Christ through Word and sacrament, cultivating a relationship that dwells within. Passionate worship turns our eyes beyond our own busyness to see where we can join in God’s business.

Without passion, worship becomes stale, boring, irrelevant and inauthentic. Few people of new generations are inclined to commit to such a dutiful chore. So instead of just asking how many you have in weekly worship attendance, take some time to also ask questions like these:

• Does our congregation encourage, train, resource and support all our worship leaders to adequately prepare for worship so they may not only lead with excellence, but with a confidence and energy that inspires themselves as well as others?
• Does our congregation make young families feel welcomed in worship? Are children and youth visible participants and not just antsy and silent observers?
• Does our congregation teach and model various practices of prayer? Do we pray for one another, our community, and our world?
• Does our congregation create an environment in worship where people can freely express emotion as well as intellect while experiencing multiple stimuli of the senses?
• Does our congregation’s corporate worship inspire and inform individuals to cultivate a personal devotional life?

Yes, I agree with my family reunion pundits. The future of the church does depend on worship. After all, worship is the one practice that distinguishes the church from all other social organizations. But maybe worship is important not because of any discreet rite or ritual. Maybe the future of the church is more deeply rooted in reclaiming the passion of the Psalmist, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Psalm 84:2, 10a.

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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