Worship is Not Just for “Natives”

Worship!The other day I was asked by a pastor friend why some of his newer members sometimes ask “clueless questions” about worship. “They should know this stuff,” he said. It was an “aha” moment for him when I asked if these folks had grown up in the church. They hadn’t. Then he said, “Well, I guess I’m the clueless one.” It was an odd conversation because I would think it was obvious – but all of my church visits over the past few years have proven how out of touch many of our churches are with those who did not grow up in the church.

I have led, participated in, and sat in worship services all of my life. I was raised as a Preacher’s Kid and have been a United Methodist clergyperson for 20 years. Being part of that means I have been in a lot of worship services. One thing I have worked very hard to keep in mind as a worship leader is that not all of the folks sitting in the pews know the language, practices, and rituals of worship. Many worship services assume a level of understanding that is just not true anymore.

People are not as denominationally loyal today as they once were, and many have not grown up in the church.  When they do make the effort to come to church seeking a connection to God, we should do all we can to welcome them and make the worship service as accessible as possible.  First and foremost, we need to create worship that is awe inspiring and praises God.  We need to create worship that connects us to God, makes the Gospel story of Jesus Christ come alive, and empowers us with the Holy Spirit.  We need to create worship that is rich with the sacred and ritual that help us experience God’s presence.

However, we too often create worship that is for “natives” – those who are part of the insider culture of the church.  We too often create worship that is not inclusive of children and folks not part of the traditional church culture.  We often create worship that does not speak fully to the needs of the people in our pews and definitely does not speak to the needs of those who are not usually present.

I am not saying we do worship poorly.  We often do amazing worship.  We frequently create and participate in worship that feeds the people present.  We often lay out a banquet of Gospel and Grace that nourishes and enlivens.  However, too many are still walking away starving.  Our worship is regularly too heady and lacks passion and engagement.  And often it assumes a level of experience and knowledge that is dangerously unaware.  We use books for worship that can be confusing and difficult to use – and we do not help people with them.  We use prayers and litanies that insiders know and others do not – and we assume those not used to the words will figure them out.  We use language that not everyone in the room understands – and hope they “get it.”

I think we all need to examine our worship and our preaching to make sure it is accessible to folks who may not know the secret handshakes or have insider status in our churches.  We need to use language and images that bring life and depth to our worship and preaching that anyone could understand.  We need to enrich our worship and spirituality with rich spirituality.  We need to create environments of welcome and are multi-sensory. 

We definitely need to feed the folks in our pews, but if we starve those who show up without experience in our faith traditions – we have failed them.  We can do better.

A recent article on the United Methodist communications website, 5 Worship Trends for the Unattached, addresses this topic and offers 5 trends in worship to address the needs of those who are not traditionally part of our worship.  You can see this article here.