Friday, January 18, 2008

One size doesn’t fit all - Greg Bowlus

At first hearing, blended worship sounds like an ideal solution for meeting the needs of a diverse congregation. There is something for everyone in the blended worship model. But is that enough?

Does blending two or more music and worship styles in one service work? Maybe so. Just nowhere that I have been.

Based on my experience serving in Baptist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, small, medium and large churches, I believe blended worship is an ineffective compromise for meeting the needs of most churches. A large segment of the congregation stays frustrated and agitated much of the time. The theme of too many Monday morning phone calls, comment cards and e-mails is: “Too many choruses, not enough hymns.” Or vice versa.

I don’t believe that we can approach worship with a “one size fits all” attitude. Of course, the Holy Spirit can work with -- and sometimes despite -- our human limitations. But I believe that to help our congregation worship in spirit and truth, we must offer multiple worship services of differing styles and formats.

I have heard the arguments for blended worship. Many church leaders think that blending worship styles will lessen the impact or appearance of change. But a slow transition from traditional worship to a blending of contemporary and traditional elements is aggravating especially to traditional worshipers. It creates uncertainty and fear, as if their red carpet is being slowly pulled out from under them, with the sense that it will never be over.

I have found that any major change will be less disruptive and disconcerting when the issue has been studied over time, the congregation’s input has been sought, and the move is implemented all at once, or in as few moves as possible.

Other leaders who are concerned about losing congregational unity feel that one blended service is better than multiple services of varying styles. But I have not found one blended service to be any guarantee of unity, since no one will be completely satisfied with the result.

My suggestion to maintain church unity is to offer at least two different worship services and find other opportunities for cross-generational, cross-congregational worship and fellowship. Coffee and pastries between services, family-night suppers, small groups, mission opportunities, and fifth-Sunday-night joint services of arts and celebration are a few possibilities.

True worship
Still I know many churches will opt for blended worship. But before blended worship has a chance to work, several realities must be addressed.

First, church leaders must realize most congregations, if not all, are actually multiple congregations. By this I mean that every congregation is demographically diverse, representing different generations, socioeconomic levels, denominational backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, tastes in music, etc. Like it or not, we have multiple congregations under the same church roof, sharing a staff and budget. Each week as we gather for worship, a portion of every congregation is worshiping in a style that is not its preference.

Secondly, most of the people sitting in our pews each weekend have little or no clue what true worship of God is. According to a recent poll on worship by George Barna, two out of three church attenders say they have no idea what worship means. Thirty-two percent say they have never experienced God’s presence! We as worship leaders die on the inside when we hear this.

We must educate our congregations in the worship of God and we must do everything possible to allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives during worship. We must also encourage them to study and practice personal worship all week long. This will make corporate worship even more meaningful.

Then, when congregants grow from being weekend attenders to true worshipers, there will be more openness and understanding of individual worship tastes. This can produce a healthy tolerance of other forms of worship, from traditional to contemporary, with an understanding that it takes diversity to reach diversity.

In summary, if we understand who makes up the various congregations within our larger congregations, if we teach our congregants what true worship is, and if we encourage them to worship in “spirit and truth,” then we will understand that we all come to God differently.

Worship is about God, not us and our needs. Yet how can we worship a God we do not understand, in a language we do not comprehend, or in a setting in which we are not inspired or engaged?

As I tell my congregation, we are all wired differently, with different gifts, abilities and tastes. And yet we are one body. We all sing one song, proclaiming one message of one Lord, but in different voices.

Greg Bowlus is minister of music for St. Johns Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Fla., where he plans and leads two worship services, one traditional and one contemporary. (

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