Evaluating our Worship Life (Bible Study)
This Bible study lesson looks at evaluating worship and the criteria we should use to do this.
Lesson 12 See all lessons
Scripture: Luke 5:33-39, John 4:19-24
We all know that a good bit of worship evaluation takes place in the parking lot after the service. In many churches, this is the only place it happens. For many worship leaders the whole idea of worship evaluation seems awkward at the least and possibly very threatening while others seem to think evaluations are unnecessary. For some, attendance records and applause give an idea of what is and what isn't good worship.
Nonetheless, popularity polls are not good means to evaluate worship. The scripture passages for today’s lesson refer to different aspects of evaluation. If we were among the disciples and listening in on Jesus' discourse in Luke 5:33-39, we would hear him pointing out to the disciples that there are some things that never may change (the wine of the new life in Christ) and other things that will have to change (the wineskins, for instance). Just as those living at the time of Christ needed to make careful evaluations about what is wine and what is wineskin, how well the wineskins are serving, and when they might have to be changed so too we often need to make careful evaluation of our worship practices.
Another such conversation is in John 4. The Jews and Samaritans had many discussions about where to worship: Mt. Gerazim or Jerusalem. You can almost hear them discussing how to worship: What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth? How well are we doing that? How can we improve it? To what degree are we worshiping "in truth"? To what degree are we worshipping "in spirit"? Should we have a balance of the two? Do we? How central is the Word of God (truth) in our worship? In what ways is the Spirit of God (spirit) obviously present? As we evaluate our worship, we should be asking very similar questions.
A thoughtful plan of regularly evaluating our worship life can be very healthy and will pay large dividends in a congregation. In our book (Designing Worship Together) we spell out these benefits:
- Those who serve well will receive encouragement. Most worship leaders wonder if others appreciate their efforts. How healthy, then, to have a forum where leaders can be affirmed for their good efforts.
- Evaluation will encourage the development of thoughtful and wise practices. Healthy practices must be reinforced until they are ingrained. When someone says "be sure to do this again," good practices are reinforced. Many good evaluations have "for next time" written all over them.
- Evaluation will balance out the negative criticism that is easily made. Complaints come so easily. We all hear them. A thoughtful plan for evaluation will draw out the positive comments also.
- Evaluation can stir the leader's creativity and motivation. People who speak from their heart will enable leaders to view worship through the eyes of the broader congregation.
- Evaluation will enhance seasonal worship planning. When planning for one season, it's helpful to review the notes taken on worship during that season last year. Learning from the previous years prompts an annual growth process.
- Evaluation provides a healthy corrective in planning. It's easy for slight shifts over a period of time to get us off track unintentionally or to get stuck in a rut. A healthy evaluation process catches such shifts and enables us to make the necessary correctives.
- Evaluations remind us that our work is not about us. True, egos can get humbled in the evaluation process. Though quite painful at times, this can be good. Our efforts are not for ourselves but for the larger cause of giving glory to God and edifying the congregation.
- Intentional evaluation can be a safeguard against hyper-evaluation. Some evaluations are too soon and too harsh. A thoughtful and intentional process will promote growth, not pain.
If you do not currently have a thoughtful plan of regular evaluation, we encourage you to consider one. Be sure your process is well thought out and thoroughly discussed before beginning. The risk of misunderstanding and hurt is high if the evaluation process is not carefully considered.
What criteria are used for evaluation is critical and will determine whether your evaluation time promotes growth or divisiveness, whether it encourage or inflict pain. The intent is not to give a grade to worship leaders, musicians, or preachers. Nor is the intent to provide a forum for critics to explain what they think is wrong with worship. Instead, the purpose of evaluation is to provide a setting in which mature and thoughtful Christians can express what they have learned about their worship life and what goals they would identify to address in the near future.
It's easy to slip into questions that center on style and personal preferences. The impromptu sessions in the church parking lot after the service often include phrases like, "well, I like…." or "I just don't like…"
These statements do not provide the benefits of evaluation but are stuck in the mire of opinion.
John Witvliet has said that most evaluation focuses on (in this order) mechanics and logistics, issues of style, flow and integration, and, finally, whether the service aided our encounter with God. He argues the order ought to be just the opposite. We ought to begin with the essence of worship, about how it helped our encounter with God, and how the entire service was integrated. Only later, and in a very secondary way, should we discuss preferences of style and logistics.
In both The Worship Sourcebook (pp.763-765) and Designing Worship Together (pp.173-176), you will find sample evaluation forms that will assist you in the use of questions and criteria that will help bring about the greatest benefits and keep evaluations on course. Each of the evaluation forms will help you avoid mistakes, and each suggests methods and questions that will focus on the heart and essence of worship for your congregation.
It is wise for each congregation to develop a plan for worship evaluation that suits its situation and needs. This plan will likely include multiple layers of evaluation. The frequency and thoroughness of the evaluations will vary in each setting. However, we generally caution against congregation-wide worship surveys. They typically politicize the process, provide little helpful material, and leave the impression that worship is planned on the basis of popular approval. Worship evaluation can often be conducted more thoughtfully in other settings.
Some worship leaders prefer to engage in short post-service debriefings. Though some resist this because the level of objectivity is minimal, others find it helpful to reflect immediately while the whole worship experience is fresh.
Worship Planning Teams are most likely to engage in the best evaluations. The fact that most meet weekly gives them an opportunity to spend time to evaluate each week before they begin planning the next. They are able to look at worship thoughtfully and critique it on the basis of the intent and theme they had formulated for the service. Some planning teams even begin an evaluative email exchange with each other prior to meeting personally.
A Worship Committee that meets monthly will likely have more objectivity in its evaluations, and its membership usually represents a broader range of the congregation's members. In some congregations, this committee serves the Worship Planning Teams by spending a short time at each monthly meeting to evaluate at least a few of the services of the past month and pass them on to the worship planners.
Since the elders or church board is likely the place where final responsibility for the worship life of the church lies, they should either receive or engage in some evaluations from time to time, perhaps annually or semi-annually.
At any of the above levels of activity, some evaluators have the practice of soliciting comments from key members of the congregation who know the mission of the congregation, have a good understanding of worship, and can be trusted to make thoughtful and helpful comments of evaluation.
Tips for Discussion Leaders
It will be important to keep in mind that the purpose of this lesson is not to DO actual evaluating but to discuss WHETHER you have such a plan and method in place and HOW evaluation should be done.
Be alert to the fact that there are several difficulties that may surface in this discussion though they are not quickly recognizable:
- One difficulty is that some people feel very threatened by any suggestion of evaluations. Perhaps they feel insecure and are fearful of criticism. Perhaps they are not able to trust others to be kind, fair and charitable because some painful past experience has made them afraid of a repeat of the same. You will likely hear some members expressing these fears. Be sensitive to their concerns. It may even be helpful to invite people to share their concerns with the group so that others can more consciously be sensitive to them.
- Another difficulty is that it is easy to politicize this process. Some can't get past the tendency to think worship is good or bad on the basis of how many people like or don't like it. So when they hear "evaluations," they think of an opinion poll. This approach will not produce good results.
- The third difficulty focuses on who will be involved in the evaluations. We've discouraged congregation-wide surveys but have encouraged the involvement of designated groups and thoughtful, trusted and experienced members of the congregation.
- A caution is in order. This is intended to evaluate the worship life of the congregation. It is not intended to evaluate sermons or preaching (that's for another setting) or the persons who are planning and leading worship. Keep the focus in the right place.
If you bear in mind some of these concerns, you will be able to guide this discussion in a good direction.
1. Does your congregation or committee currently have a plan for intentional regular worship evaluation? If so, by whom is it done?
2. Is the spirit of evaluation healthy and growth-inducing? Do you use a well-prepared and carefully constructed set of questions that keep your evaluations on course? Are you satisfied that the results of the evaluations are helpful?
3. If you do not currently have an evaluation process in place, would your group (and congregation) benefit from such activity? Who would be the most helpful group(s) to be involved?
4. Do any of your worship leaders and planners need more encouragement? Do they show signs of discouragement? Do you as a committee or planning group have concrete methods and expressions of giving encouragement to those who lead? Talk about how to encourage leaders by affirming good leadership efforts.
5. Review the eight benefits that were cited in the Introduction above. Which of these are you presently experiencing? Which of these are you in need of? Talk together about how intentional worship evaluation would be able to help you.
Designing Worship Together, Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell, Alban Institute, 2005, especially "Worship Evaluation", pp. 153-176.
A Royal "Waste" of Time, Marva Dawn, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999, especially pp. 301-313.