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Worship Well or Die

Charles Featherstone sends in this fascinating essay by Kazimierz Bem [1], a Congregationalist pastor who says that churches are doomed if they don’t put primacy on how they worship. Excerpts:

The mainline Protestant churches have been declining for decades. This trend has now reached the evangelical churches, too. In a desperate attempt to stay alive, churches and their leaders are coming up with new solutions, new strategies and guesses.

New church plants are tailored for terribly busy people, giving them a brief moment of worship (with the stress on brief) “on the run.”

In one way or another, the refrain I constantly hear is: “The Church of the future is the Church of service.” It takes all shapes and forms, but it always boils down to the same thing: Don’t focus on worship — “do stuff” instead! So, a denominational leader blogs that the vocation of churches is to be local community centers, food banks, day cares, or places for diaper drives. New church plants are tailored for terribly busy people, giving them a brief moment of worship (with the stress on brief) “on the run.” Regular meals together are held where the leader says “Holy things for holy people” before the participants share their thoughts, and this is praised as new worship. My own denomination is experimenting with an online community called “Extravagance,” where people participate in worship online and then post their thoughts on Facebook. “The post was a part of her worship,” we are told.

As I read these emails, stories, and articles, I cannot help but think to myself that we should stop ordaining people to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament and instead create an office of “Community Organizer (with Brief Prayers).”


Before I became a minister in a small Massachusetts town, I was a lawyer and I worked in academia. This experience allowed me to meet people who worked in the areas of social justice, peace, and human rights. All of them went into their fields with enthusiasm, passion, and conviction. But I quickly learned that working on justice issues does not guarantee happiness, peace, or fulfillment — nor will you necessarily be working with nice and pleasant people, including co-workers.

One summer I worked for a boss who quickly turned my passion for refugees and refugee law into pure misery. Had the church I was attending that summer been a “community center” with a “community organizer” calling me to more “service,” I would have probably gone crazy. Instead, what kept me sane and grounded was what has been known as traditional worship throughout the centuries — prayers, hymns, sermons and the encounter with God in Jesus Christ.

Read the whole thing.  [1]Understand that Pastor Bem is not posing an “either-or” choice.


29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Worship Well or Die"

#1 Comment By DobermanBoston On January 26, 2015 @ 8:16 am

That’s a great article, Rod.

And even though I am an atheist, I find it infuriating. In 2009, my entire life fell apart. Among many other things, two of my close friends passed away. Their Rites of Christian Burial were the only occasions during that wretched year that I felt safe and hopeful.

“Look busy” has already ruined the workplace, urban living, and all kinds of other things. It’s a damn shame to hear that it’s infecting religious practice as well.

#2 Comment By Grumpy realist On January 26, 2015 @ 9:07 am

Someone once described our modern economy as “amusing ourselves to death.” But aside from that tendency, there is the fact that we’re supposed to be constantly working. If you want people to be able to spend time on spiritual matters, you’re going to have to take a whack against the overwhelming demands of work as well.

#3 Comment By Bernie On January 26, 2015 @ 9:21 am

There is no substitute for meaningful community worship. It fills a space in our being that even private prayer cannot. It not only nourishes us spiritually, but also gives public recognition and praise to God. He deserves it, and he gives back so much more.

Private prayer is a one-on-one experience while community prayer embraces God and ripples out to others. I’m encouraged when I see others worship well, and I encourage others when I worship well – it’s contagious. Different styles of worship appeal to different people. I think each person should choose the most nourishing for himself, and through it, praise God with everything he’s got.

#4 Comment By Caroline Walker On January 26, 2015 @ 9:42 am

Your headline pretty much sums up an epiphany i had last week after attending a Traditional Latin Mass at my parents’ parish in New Orleans, St. Patrick Cathedral downtown. Which I do each tome I visit them. By now I am familiar enough with the rubrics and worship aid that it doesn’t take all my attention just keeping up, and I can let the liturgy sink into my bones. it struck me to the point of tears how much we Catholics have lost with the Novus Ordo.
from the rich tapestry of the vestments to the sheer number of priests (3) and seminarians serving as acolytes (a dozen?), to the Ad Orientam, the gorgeous choir hidden from view, incensed Word, frequent bOws and doffing birettas, all of it speaks of hierarchy as God’s order…It reveals to the faithful the gulf between us and God. You can be in no doubt, in a TLM, just who God is and just who you are.
And what a sign of contradiction…here, every gesture and vestment has meaning, and for the most part, the Faithful rise to the occasion, turning out in their Sunday best.
It made me “seek that which is above,” in a profound way. it revealed to me that God’s ways are not our ways, that as high are the heavens above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways.
And how dramatically different …opposed, actually…from The World, with its disappearing standards in dress and manners.

#5 Comment By The Wet One On January 26, 2015 @ 9:53 am

Of course, we’re all going to die anyways, so worship or not, death awaits you.

But I’m guessing you’re talking about the church with respect to worship well or die, right? Well, the same thing applies. The church too will die (if nothing else, with human extinction). It just takes longer. Sooner or later it will go though, just like everything else.

Sad, but there it is.

#6 Comment By woody weaver On January 26, 2015 @ 9:53 am

Reading Bem’s article displays on the printed page the conflict that has plagued my own heart for many years. I live in northern Wisconsin where most towns of any size are dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and various Lutheran denominations. There are also scattered evangelical churches belonging to no particular denomination.

Yesterday I attended an evangelical church where some of my friends attend. A couple of months ago one of the deacons who read the Sunday Bible lesson dressed up as Saint Peter and started shouting Peter’s words from his sermon and Acts chapter two and scared me witless because I sat near where he made his dramatic entrance. When I see the kind of gimmicks that some evangelical churches use, to get people in the door or to seem relevant it crushes my spirit. One of the points Bem makes in his insightful article is that worship should be done decently and in order

In contrast the Lutheran churches I’ve visited practice Liturgy which contain elements of the type church service Bem mentions in his article. For example the Wisconsin Lutheran service I visited begins each if their liturgies by asking God as a congregation for forgiveness of sins. In the Old Testament God’s people offered blood sacrifices for their sins before they could approach Him. The liturgies I attended had excellent hynms, public readings of scripture and beautiful prayers.

I am between churches at the moment. I am torn between the good fellowship and informality of evangelicalism and the truth and majesty of liturgy. Bem’s article gave me much to ponder. I thank you Rod for such an excellent posting on youir blog.

Woody Weaver

#7 Comment By The Wet One On January 26, 2015 @ 10:52 am

“amusing ourselves to death.”

Was that David Foster Wallace by chance? I believe that was a theme in Infinite Jest.

[NFR: The late Neil Postman. — RD]

#8 Comment By bill holston On January 26, 2015 @ 11:10 am

This is really excellent. Thank you. I love this quote from Frances de Sales, as it really describes the duality of worship and service, especially for those of us who are laboring as lawyers.

For years this has been in the front of my journal. It reminds me of Isaiah 58: Is this the Fast I choose?

Yet, I really need to be reminded that service does not substitute for worship, and that requires a community of faith who is serious about that.

“You should strive, too, to accustom yourself to go easily from prayer to all such occupations as your calling or position 80lawfully require of you, even although such occupations may seem uncongenial to the affections and thoughts just before forming part of your prayer. Thus the lawyer should be able to go from meditation to his pleading, the tradesman to his business, the mistress of a family to the cares of her household and her wifely duties, so calmly and gently as not to be in any way disturbed by so doing. In both you are fulfilling God’s Will, and you should be able to turn from one to the other in a devout and humble spirit. ” Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II Chapter VIII. I have this quote in the front of my journa

#9 Comment By Bernie On January 26, 2015 @ 11:12 am

“I am between churches at the moment. I am torn between the good fellowship and informality of evangelicalism and the truth and majesty of liturgy. Bem’s article gave me much to ponder.”

Woody, you pose a frequent and fascinating scenario. What is the chicken and what is the egg? Does a preferred worship style flow from a body of Church belief or is it the other way around? It seems to me that they will be consistent for wholeness in regular worship.

#10 Comment By k On January 26, 2015 @ 11:21 am

At this point as (Jews and) Christians we have been repeating and combing over the same scriptures for so long that it is hard to keep the worship spirit going. People turn to gimmicks and wholly distract ourselves with “service” because we are just trying to keep some feeling of life in it. How can we continue worshiping a God whose acts historically are sinking so far into the past, and whom modern development has removed so far from our daily considerations and needs?

#11 Comment By bmj On January 26, 2015 @ 11:36 am

Obligatory Stanley Hauerwas quote:

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.

#12 Comment By charles cosimano On January 26, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

“Obligatory Stanley Hauerwas quote:

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.”

Ok, Hauerwas is obviously nuts if he actually thinks that is a logical progression.

There is value in shared experience. That is why sports fans gather together in bars to shout at the television. Worship is just another version of that, only folks usually let the fellow in the funny outfit in the front do the shouting, so to speak unless they are Pentecostals and everyone shouts.

But the key is the shared experience.

#13 Comment By Chris 1 On January 26, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

Goes back to James, doesn’t it?

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

But our active society misses this: Christian works arise from our encounter with Christ, not the other way around.

Even worship gets approached as a work to be done, which is how so many worship services get reduced to formulaic entertainments, sing-alongs that manipulate our emotions without informing the soul.

The tough part is in recognizing Christ when we encounter him, our services exist to remind us of that encounter, our good work flows from that. We fail when we put things the other way around.

#14 Comment By Jan Hus On January 26, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

The Liturgy of St. John Chrystosom or St. Basil. Run to an Orthodox Church, stand there and keep your mouth shut.

Go as often as possible. Don’t talk, just listen.

That’s my friendly advice for everyone seeking something more.

Everything else (except the traditional Latin mass) is diet coke cut with water and rainbows.

#15 Comment By sdb On January 26, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

…there is the fact that we’re supposed to be constantly working. If you want people to be able to spend time on spiritual matters, you’re going to have to take a whack against the overwhelming demands of work as well…

Maybe there was something to those crazy blue-laws after all.

#16 Comment By Pat On January 26, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

This is a great article.

I have had pastors who were so caught up in ‘what should we DO?’ that I felt they, and their god, simply viewed me as free labor and a walking pocketbook. I would wake up on Sunday morning already saying ‘No!’ before I even got out of bed. It took my current pastor a long time to convince me that her church and her god were different, and bring me back to saying ‘yes’; and most of that was done through worship and contemplative prayer.

I could say that those are the ways we truly establish our relationship with god, but that would be begging the question. The fact is that the god we establish relationships with through worship and the one we establish relationships with through being guilted into inauthentic service are different, and we shouldn’t be afraid to state that and decide which one of them we want to be involved with.

#17 Comment By bmj On January 26, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

@charles cosimano: Hauerwas is prone to hyperbole. His point is that worship directly affects ethics and virtues. If, as Christians, we try to get by without stepping outside of ourselves to actually worship God (who, by the way, desires, and is worthy of, our worship), we can’t expect to get anything else right. Bem makes that point in his essay–everything we do as Christians should be born out of our worship. The Anglican post-communion prayer usually includes: “And now, Father, send us to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” So, Hauerwas is right; if our worship becomes disordered, the rest of our lives become disordered.

#18 Comment By RBH On January 26, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

It wasn’t until I was almost 30 and began attending a more liturgical church when I moved to a new city that a pastor articulated without any equivocation that the Church is first and foremost a worship community. This point was emphasized often, I think, because many of the members were so socially minded and our pastor always said, I hope this neighborhood would miss us if we left for the service and outreach we do, but that not our first purpose.
Most of my friends and acquaintances that were also raised in an evangelical church, if they’re still religiously observant at all, are in either a historically and traditionally minded Reformed church or have joined the Catholic church.

#19 Comment By cermak_rd On January 26, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

But what is the motivation for short, drive by sermons? Isn’t it that there is over-saturation in the religious marketplace? Too many pews and not enough rears in them?

#20 Comment By Scott Nunn On January 26, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

I’ve always wondered if a large nondenominational could make a got at it with great traditional oriented liturgy, be it orthodox, Anglican, Celtic-centric. In other words, no rock band, no 1 hour message from a young guy with people taking notes. But still have the amenities the big non-denom churches have — small groups, strong youth programs, great websites and use of social media, etc.

#21 Comment By grumpy realist On January 26, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

How much of this is because we’re now getting what we used to get from church elsewhere? Church used to be a) a day of rest, b) an opportunity to dress up and lift yourself out of a life of drudgery, c) a chance to see other people in your village and really sense community, d) a chance to meditate, e) listen to beautiful music, f) make beautiful music, g) hear inspiring thoughts….well, you get the idea. (All that in 1 hour! Wow, now THAT’s efficient!)

Now we’ve broken all those little bits out and handed them over to our iPods, singing lessons, yoga classes, evenings out, parties, and so forth.

(I’m only half joking when I say churches might to best if they concentrated on the wonderful liturgical bones, become as ritualistic and gorgeous as possible, and let the chips fall where they may. We all need gorgeous spiritual ritual in our lives, and unfortunately most of the modern religions have turned into something irredemably beige. Whatever happened to the mystical trappings?! Whatever happened to the gorgeous stained-glass windows? I want ICONS and liturgy in Latin and wonderful polyphonic music, dammit!)

You CAN create a wonderful spiritual tradition out of the ordinary, but you have to know what you are doing. Sen no Rikyu did it with Zen Buddhism and the Japanese tea ceremony. (He also managed to create something that would comfort the poor while humbling the rich.) I don’t know what would be the equivalent in the Christian tradition–maybe the Franciscans.

#22 Comment By Fr. Frank On January 26, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

“@charles cosimano: Hauerwas is prone to hyperbole.”

Uncle Chuckie knows this. He’s an extremely bright man. And, mirabile dictu, he’s doing God’s work in this combox. If the Eastern Christian vision of the afterlife proves to be true I will not be at all surprised to be examined by Uncle Chuckie – or some being very like him – at one of the Aerial Toll Houses. 

#23 Comment By Ellery On January 26, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

I was raised in a Catholic-Ohio culture with quick services, under an hour – one church my family occasionally attended in the 80’s allowed people to fulfill their obligations by hearing a 5 minute sermon and the rest of the Mass rattled off with the speed of an Iowan farm auctioneer… and this priest’s church was packed to standing room every week. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Filet-O-Fish for Lent was invented by a Catholic Cincinnati McD’s franchise owner?)

The Episcopal church sure gets a lot of ragging on this blog, but weekly service at my Boston area church lasts almost an hour and a half and is full of all the ritual described here. I love every minute of it- it is my refuge from the busy week, as well as my moment to ask forgiveness, contemplate God’s word, remember to turn my self-employed life over to God’s hands, and experience communion. We end the service with the words, “The worship has ended, let the service begin.” My fellow parishioners work at food pantries, with homeless nonprofits, help out with inner city nonviolence initiatives and so on during the week, but we do our Sunday worship, and it’s beautiful and rooted in tradition.

I might add, the church is growing. So we’re doing something right.

#24 Comment By dominic1955 On January 26, 2015 @ 11:48 pm

The Christian life needs contemplation and liturgy. The active life is good as well, but it is worthless (if I give my body over to be burned, but have not Charity…) without the higher spiritual side informing and guiding it.

Most people will not be pure mystics and they simply cannot be pure actives. You need a balance.”Soul of the Apostolate” by Dom Chautard is an excellent explanation of this concept.

Aside from the theological issues, any group that wants to push activism at the expense of spiritual formation and prayer will fail. It is a most pernicious lie to think that the ora is in the labora, so work replaces prayer.

#25 Comment By In the desert On January 27, 2015 @ 6:00 am

Jan Hus writes:
“The Liturgy of St. John Chrystosom or St. Basil. Run to an Orthodox Church, stand there and keep your mouth shut.
Go as often as possible. Don’t talk, just listen.”

What I wouldn’t give for that experience right now. I’m an Orthodox Christian in the military, deployed in the Middle East now. Haven’t been to an Orthodox service in what seems like forever. I try to be diligent in saying my prayers and in sometimes praying the hours during the day, which keeps me connected to God somewhat. Thankfully I can also e-mail my priest with issues as needed.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, substitutes for true worship. If I’m feeling this lost after only months with no Orthodox liturgy or vespers, I can only wonder how my non-Orthodox Christian brethren must feel all the time (and they’re not even aware of it). And how must have those Orthodox Christians fleeing Muslim or Communist persecution have felt, all alone in strange lands while their beautiful churches were left in the “old country”? No wonder that the first thing most of them did was construct new churches wherever they ended up, in Harbin, Paris, New York, San Francisco, South America, Australia.

Clothing the naked and feeding the hungry are always going to be crucial, but one must not forget to tend to his own soul as well, through the holy Mysteries of confession and holy communion.

#26 Comment By Jan Hus On January 27, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

To in the desert:

May God Bless you. You’re living the ascetical life in the desert. May it bear fruit!

#27 Comment By Stubbs On January 27, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

I know I’m late to this discussion, but: A while ago I read an article on the subject of worship. The author (can’t recall who it was) said that a big problem with worship services is that churches structure them so that they serve as advertisements for the church, which is antithetical to worship. To worship within a tradition, one must be schooled in that tradition. Of course, one of the main reasons for this is the transient nature of our society now. A couple generations ago people were more likely to attend the same church for the better part of their lives. Indeed, a person’s entire childhood, up to confirmation, was an education on the rhythms and function of the worship service. And when people did change churches, they often stayed within their denomination. That’s not so much the case anymore. As a result, churches and pastors have altered the worship service so that it is welcoming to newcomers above all else- don’t do or say anything to scare the prospects away! Don’t be weird! And while this has allowed some evangelical churches to grow exponentially fast, they also shrink fast, based as they often are on the personality of the minister rather than the catechism of the faith. I can’t imagine an Orthodox church ballooning, say, from 200 members to 5000 members in the course of 4 years.

I think this has been at the root of a great deal of the softening of the worship experience- it’s a numbers game.

#28 Comment By Gary On January 27, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

Let the water continue. The root of the watered down message, that is the Christ message, began in the 1960’s, specifically with Vatican II. The Catholic Church was losing parishioners, slowly at first, before long the trickle became a waterfall. The Catholic Church’s answer was to water down the Christ message and do all they could not to talk so much about our sinful natures and more about doing stuff. By todays standards, the busier you are, the better, even to a point of exhaustion. What book of life tells us that being busy doing is the better way to go. When, in fact, very many people need to stay busy in order not to look at themselves, much less any sinful natures they are indulging in, quite unconsciously, of course. Being lost out for doing, peace and quite were disdained. It became go go go, full steam ahead. Drive thru’s never existed before the 70’s and fast food was not considered a regular meal of consumption, in the car to boot, while driving. Working mom’s was a new term of vocabulary, then came soccer, football. baseball, basketball, cheerleading, gymnastics, with lots of practice, then games. Parents felt compelled to do as their neighbor least “looking” as if they were substandard parents. Rush here, rush there, no family dinner, oh well, no family time, oh well, I am busy, can’t you see? If you look closely, it has become hysterical, yet, quite sad. The things in life that really matter are no longer part of family life, if there is a family to begin with. More often than not, we have these “blended” families where chaos reigns supreme, where conflicts are just a syllable away from a nuclear meltdown. No one has time for anything but doing something, anything, and church was one of the first things to go. Church is boring, church, if they have the time, which is never, is ok, but not important, besides, who needs God anyway, I got this is the common thought. Looking back, when life was simple and people actually spoke to each other, face to face, children played outside (oh, the thought)and families sat down together and ate a meal together, going to church was important, real important. This showed in community as a togetherness rarely seen today. Church’s of every denomination have much to blame, but to be honest, society has morphed into a social chaos, where inner peace is just an illusion and being the busiest person on the block is admired. So lost are so many and its effects are everywhere. God has been systematically driven out of public consciousness and to what end, I ask? Seeing what I see today, people have completely missed the boat on real, core values that those of us were raised on, all for the sake of being busy. Sad.

#29 Comment By woody weaver On January 28, 2015 @ 7:59 am


Logically, worship should flow from a body of church belief originating from both Scripture and tradition. Emotionally and sentimentally I can’t shake the informality of evangelicalism because many people whom I hold dear attend the Baptist church in question mentioned in my first entry. My mind and intellect are screaming for substance and my heart yearns to be among friends. Choosing between the two is painful. I wish that I could find a church that features both but in my small town only one or the other exists.

Bernie, thank you for your kind response.

Woody Weaver