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Constance Cherry on Competing Metaphors for Worship

Most churches measure worship services against a certain ideal. They may think of worship like a concert, entertainment, dialogue, or something else. Even if they have not consciously chosen an operating metaphor for worship, their pattern greatly influences how individuals and congregations live out their faith.

Constance Cherry teaches worship and pastoral ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. She also writes books and hymns, speaks at conferences, and serves as pastor at Grant United Methodist Church. In this edited conversation, she talks about the kind of worship her university students say they long for.

What competing metaphors for worship do you encounter in your teaching and presenting? 

I encounter two, interrelated, predominant metaphors, each with a distinct purpose and methodology. Especially in the U.S. Midwest, I see the “concert worship” metaphor. Worship is defined as successful and relevant if it is perceived to relate to popular (Western, middle class, Anglo) culture. The purpose for concert worship is inspiration, and the means or methodology for relating to popular culture is music-driven.

“Entertainment worship” is a second strong metaphor. Worship is defined as successful if it relates to secular culture. The means or methodology includes videos, skits, celebrity interviews, and music. The purpose for entertainment worship is reaching and evangelizing the lost.

Can you suggest a more helpful metaphor?

The metaphor of tri-directional dialogue is more in keeping with biblical metaphors. God is relational, and worship is relational at its core. Seeing worship as a conversation—God to us, us to God, and us with others—helps us understand God as relational.

How can pastors, worship leaders, and congregations understand the metaphor of worship that drives their worship? 

Few are aware of their predominant worship metaphor. It starts with them wanting to discover their operating metaphor. I meet many pastors and leaders who aren’t particularly interested in doing that, as long as their worship “works.” They measure that by numeric growth, excitement, or, in my corner of the world, conversions.

A congregation can discover its working metaphor by analyzing six to twelve months of services. You can examine printed orders of service or videos or audios of your services. List everything that happens from when the service starts till when it ends. Record the amount of time given to each element. This is a good way to measure whether what you’re doing in worship aligns with what you say or believe is important.

What might congregations discover from analyzing so many worship services? 

I’ve studied many congregations from different denominations over time. When I share the research with my students, their jaws drop. Churches may say that Bible reading and intercessory prayer are very important, yet they devote little or no time to either in worship. This research makes my students eager to talk about what’s missing from their spiritual formation if worshipers don’t know why they’re doing (or omitting) particular elements of worship. I was at a church recently where the opening words were, “Are you ready to party?” The worship leader was inviting people to jump and dance, to get excited with no mention of its possible relationship to worshiping God in Christ.

How do you open worship at your congregation, Grant UMC?

I understand worship as a conversation with the risen Lord, who is here among us. So every single Sunday, I begin with: “The Lord be with you.” And the congregation responds, “And also with you.” I follow that with an informal greeting along the lines of “Welcome to God’s house. We know that Jesus is here…” The call to worship might be informal, perhaps taken from the Psalms or composed by me. But it always has the idea of God receiving us to worship and us responding to his invitation.

Our people find comfort in the promise of Christ’s presence with us in worship. We look for how Christ leads and co-participates in worship with us. This assurance is especially wonderful in a small congregation like ours, because many small congregations don’t feel valuable to the universal church or general society.

How do the various metaphors for worship influence how individuals and churches live out their faith?

If the concept is that “worship is a concert” or “worship is entertainment”, living out one’s faith will have much to do with inviting people to church so that they will be inspired (believer-focused) or evangelized (unbeliever-focused). However, if biblical and theological metaphors prevail, the chances are greater that worship is seen as formational and people will live out their faith as a result of being changed and sanctified through worship. This transformation will cause worshipers to pursue explicit kingdom values, such as transforming culture, concern for the poor, and working toward social justice, including systemic change.

What are good first steps for pastors or worship leaders to change how their congregations understand and experience worship?

The church leader base should study worship together to reach a solid understanding and vision of worship in their hearts and minds. Don’t try to create something new just to be fresh or competitive. Make small changes one by one: “Little is much.” But be consistent in living out those changes. Don’t just try something awhile and let it go. As you secure one critical change, be relentless to maintain it.

For example, you might start by asking these questions: How does the service begin? What is assumed as worship is initiated? How can that change the tone and the understanding of worship? Then make sure that the service always begins with the proper goals in mind.

Also pay attention to how you communicate your worship philosophy. Some groups learn best by doing first, followed by explanation (induction). her groups prefer to analyze, arrive at a conclusion, and enact change (deduction).

What questions do your students ask most often about worship?

I teach 18- to 22-year-olds who are very enthused and committed to worship that is biblically, theologically, and historically rooted in the narrative of God. They can’t get enough of learning about the joy and power of what worship can be when centered in God’s Story. Students tell me they crave more Bible reading, prayer, and communal interaction in worship—and more guidance on how worship relates to life.

Many tell me that their parents’ way of worshiping seems artificial to them. These students are not into lights, sound, and celebrity worship. It’s not that I’m teaching against any of that. It’s just that my students generally prefer body life to platform worship. They feel like the generation before them is fixated on “production.” They fear they’ll never get to live out their worship commitments in churches and para-church ministries if the present metaphors continue to predominate.

How do you suggest they deal with those fears?

I remind them that you can only do what you can, where you can, when you can, as you can. Learn to be all that you can be as a leader without worrying what you can’t be. Also, I encourage them to hold tightly to what they’ve learned and to keep on learning about worship. Then, when they reach senior leadership positions, they’ll have the knowledge and passion to “turn the ship around.”

Given how many Christian colleges and seminaries have added courses and majors in worship, why do the concert and entertainment metaphors persist?

We live in a music-driven and entertainment-savvy world. What continues to predominate in popular culture may also continue to predominate in worship. What you see is what you get. Worshipers can certainly use many sights and sounds of the culture. However, they must understand that these features are placed in services to render worship that has other, more profound, goals than simply to imitate culture.

It’s also possible that those worship metaphors persist because most worship courses and majors are offered within music departments, which naturally emphasize music. I recently attended a conference for schools that have worship majors, to see whether we might want to form a guild. The vast majority of attendees teach worship from within the music department. Music is a huge part of worship training; it is even vital. But the number of academic hours and types of courses given to actual worship training is significantly less than when the worship major is located in a different department, such as practical ministries or theology. Part of this has to do with curriculum restraints of accrediting bodies for music schools.

Indiana Wesleyan University is unusual in that we have three worship majors—and they’re all housed within our School of Theology and Ministry. Most of my students are musicians, but they want to go deep into what worship means and does. We define “worship leader” generously, so we have different worship degrees suited for musicians, pastors, and artists, each of whom is being prepared to lead worship.


Read Constance Cherry's book The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services.