“I can’t help but thinking that at this level, it’s not really the priority. I mean, I’d gladly trade my Lotus developed suspension for some Toyota developed door trim.” – James May, reviewing an inexpensive Malaysian car.
Let’s be honest. There is an element of any corporate worship service that boils down to performance. This isn’t meant to be a criticism per se, but simply to state what I take to be a clear reality that the way things are done in contemporary worship settings (and by this I mean contemporary as in current, not any particular style of worship), execution of the specific elements matters. Anyone who has been to a church where the worship band was awful or the preacher put you to sleep is keenly aware of this. Some level of execution is important. Most people, given a choice and all other things being equal, would choose a service with a high production value over one with generally poor execution.
One disturbing trend in many churches, though, is a preference for execution over thoughtfulness. There are many reasons for this, I think, and many of them have their roots in the more widespread emergence of what Lindbeck would call “experiential expressivism” in recent years. Whatever the cause, most worship pastors, and to a large extent most parishioners prefer well executed services to meaningful ones, or, perhaps to put it differently, the “meaningfulness” of a service is a function primarily of its execution, rather than its content.
This actually leads to some pretty interesting consequences, at least in practice. Consider, for instance, the abundance of new worship songs which sound fun, have a good beat, and can move people to a different emotive state, but whose content is either remarkably thin, or worse borders on theological garbage. Think about whether, at a typical worship service, the songs are chosen because they sound good together (or have a particular emotional movement to them), or because they harmonize theologically. My sense is that if many of us were honest we find ourselves in services where, if there is planning, that planning is primarily centered around emotional content rather than theological content, which suggests that the primary aim of our execution of worship services is to make us feel good, rather than to actually encounter God in some sort of meaningful way.
Which brings me to my opening quote. What, really, is the priority in what we’re doing in corporate worship? It seems to me, unfortunately, as if we’ve traded our foundational beliefs and theology for a more emotional product that makes us feel good, at the expense of some pretty serious theological incoherence and inconsistency. I want to be very clear that this is not a question of worship *style*, at least in the sense that many of us think of it, nor is it a function of the amount of pure effort or thought – I’ve been in thoughtful an coherent services ranging the gamut of multiple dimensions in the traditional / progressive divide. What it is a question of, I think, is the *types* of thought we put into our services:
- Do our words, welcomes, prayers and songs speak with a unified theological voice? Do they suggest a common eschatology, soteriology, etc? If so, what is that voice? If not, what message are we sending?
- Do we spend more time thinking about the flow of the service, especially the emotional flow of the service, than we do the voice of the service? For example, when we consider movement, are we thinking primarily along the dimension of how a particular sequence of elements will people will feel, or about the progression of the message and proclamation of the sequence (e.g. fast song, fast song, slow song; or song about Jesus’s life, song about Jesus’s death, song about Jesus as risen Lord)?
- What metric do we use to evaluate whether a particular service was “effective” or “well executed”? Do we look at performance criteria (i.e. how well everything came off), emotive criteria (i.e. how well everyone felt at the end), or transformative criteria (i.e. did anybody actually change as a result of what we did here)?
Unfortunately it’s not hard to find examples of services which are, by and large, both poorly planned and poorly executed, but it’s probably even easier to find services which are poorly planned and well executed. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a well planned, well thought-out, well executed service on a consistent basis. But if we have to choose between the three, it seems to me the priority shouldn’t be on execution.