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Dealing with Fear in Church Life

How can we worship so that God’s perfect love overcomes all we’re afraid of?

When people who focus on worship renewal describe what they want to do, it's startling how often one word surfaces. Pastor Susan Richardson calls it “the F-word for the church."

That word is fear. Whether church leaders talk about renewal, revival, discerning the Spirit's work, making room for more gifts, including more voices, or participating more fully, someone will feel uneasy.

Each year Calvin Institute of Christian Worship gathers worship renewal grant recipients to learn together. At a recent meeting, several pastors and project directors shared stories of how they helped their congregations work through fears about worship change.

'Fear not'

Delinda Guisgand, administrative minister at American Lutheran Church in Clinton Township, Michigan, led an intergenerational project on exploring religious symbols to "'see' God more evidently and personally" in worship and the world.

She and pastor Becky Bolander knew that the idea of sharing testimonies might threaten some members. "I framed it as an opportunity to try some new things, not as 'this is our new norm,'" Bolander says. The project team shared first. They spoke of seeing God in buttered toast and long curving roads. Their point was that there's "not one right answer" when interpreting symbols or recognizing God on the move.

"We also led a six-week study on Max Lucado's book Fearless: Imagine Your Life without Fear. It went so well that we used it in a summer sermon series," Guisgand says. Fear "makes us forget what Jesus has done and how good God is," Lucado writes.

Creating an atmosphere of fearless acceptance made a difference as people delved into symbols together. "We found that, given the right opportunity, even stoic Lutherans are prompted to witness to their faith," Guisgand says.

Different churches, different fears

Worshipers who value excellent music often worry that making music "more accessible" will dilute its quality. They may find it easier to show hospitality by serving or eating with people who seem "other" than to include others' differences in worship. That was the case for many at Christ Church of Philadelphia, founded in 1695.

When the organist and choirmaster decided to retire after 45 years, assistant minister Susan Richardson led a project to explore Anglican music and liturgy, expand sources, and involve more parishioners. Rector Timothy Safford says that Richardson had already helped Christ Church begin to embody "a theology of radical welcome." But not everyone welcomed global music and a new emphasis on congregational singing, rather than professional choristers.

Richardson says that, especially in traditional settings, churches need to confront fears before they can answer God's call to worship in new ways. "You don't need to fix the fear, just create a safe space to express it. Seeing worship as a gift given to us, rather than something we control on behalf of others, helps us find the places of greater freedom that God desires for all God's children," she explains.

Being weighed down by history is not a problem for Ron Vanderwell, lead pastor of The Gathering in Sacramento, California. People are game for anything in worship, including improv comedy and liturgical tagging (spray painting their sufferings on a temporary wall).

Many people at The Gathering have far more experience with technology than with organized religion. Even worship leaders haven't always been clear on why they do what they do in worship. That's why the grant team planned monthly services about "Meeting God: Vertical Habits that Guide Our Worship."

"I'm in a church plant so there's always this fear that something could unravel it," Vanderwell says. He's seen how technical glitches and "poorly-thought-through transitions can instantly distract people from a powerful moment of intimate prayer." So the temptation is to take over the Holy Spirit's role in "prompting people's hearts. Leading worship is a reality check in trust. I have to live with the lack of sureness that God is who he says he is."

Fearless worship as lifestyle

At Community Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, many people pitch in to run Saturday soup kitchens, direct choirs, and minister to youth, substance abusers, seniors, and people released from prison. Yet few saw that the way they lead reflects "their worship of the One who gave them the gifts," says Lauri Small, a minister there. Her project helped leaders use their gifts as an expression of worship and renew links between service ministries and worship.

The word worship scared people. "They thought that worship was some mystical state of holiness. They didn't think they measured up. So we took Romans 1:12 as our framework: 'Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.' That took away the fear," Smalls says.

Seeing worship as more a lifestyle than a Sunday morning activity or event led to increases in Community Baptist giving, fellowship, attendance, ministry involvement, and new forms of service.

Learn More

  • American Lutheran Church used Max Lucado’s book Fearless: Imagine Your Life without Fear with this DVD-based small group study guide.
  • Rector Timothy Safford wrote a church newsletter article to explain the discernment process that helped Christ Church of Philadelphia involve more worshipers and hire a new director of music. Susan Richardson is now rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mercerville, New Jersey.
  • Like The Gathering in Sacramento, California, many churches say the vertical habits program helps new and lifelong worshipers engage more deeply in worship.
  • Search by church name to see posters that summarize worship renewal grant discoveries described in this story.
  • Watch short Community Baptist Church videos to see how people offer their bodies in worship through song, liturgical dance, and sign language.
  • Isaac Wardell and his band, Bifrost Arts, are helping to enrich worship through congregational singing. Download mp3s and leadsheets. Download the first lesson in Trinity Presbyterian Church’s new curriculum on liturgy, music, and worship space.
  • For insight into why so many Christians are afraid, read “’Fear not” Jesus said--but some Christians still do,” an Associated Baptist Press article by Robert Dilday.

Start a Discussion

  • Share a time when you experienced a worship change as a loss. Did the change treat some people as less important than others…miss the mark biblically or theologically…push you outside your comfort zone…seem poorly introduced…or did something else bother you?
  • What does your congregation do to help all ages know why you do what you do in worship?
  • Who in your congregation has the responsibility, freedom, authority, or possibility of introducing changes that might lead to worship renewal? How many people in your church know about or have access to this process of change?