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How to Discuss Church Worship Calmly and Productively

These case studies of worship in other times and places will give your congregation the freedom and framework to deepen your discussion of worship.

“History repeats itself. Reading Longing for Jesus makes me think of the irony that there’s so much fighting over how we worship the Prince of Peace,” Andy Park said. Park, a Southern Californian who joined a Vineyard church as a teen, was commenting on the book Longing for Jesus: Worship at a Black Holiness Church in Mississippi, 1895-1913 by Lester Ruth.

The setting was a 2014 Calvin Symposium on Worship seminar based on case studies of churches that launched the Vineyard and Church of Christ Holiness USA (COCHUSA) traditions. The seminar included guided conversations among participants, so they could go home with models of how to more effectively talk about worship in their churches.

“The advantage to using historical case studies is that it gives you some distance from preconceived notions and judgments. You can discuss points of contrast with what we do today without having to judge those differences,” said Carrie Steenwyk. She and Lester Ruth hosted the seminar. Steenwyk, Ruth and John Witvliet edit the Church at Worship series, which documents specific worshiping communities from around the world and throughout Christian history.

You can use resources from the seminar and Church at Worship books to help your church see its place in God’s historical family, to appreciate what’s good and to imagine new possibilities in worship.

See your congregation’s place in God’s historical family

Steenwyk compares the Church at Worship books to time machines that set you down in a particular congregation. This “you are there” experience is only possible to recreate from churches that have a paper trail, such as pictures of a worship space, song texts and information on and from people who worshiped there. These accessible textbooks help readers see worship through the eyes of those worshiping in different times and places.

At first glance, COCHUSA and Vineyard seem more different than alike; yet, conversations depend on how we frame them. That’s why Steenwyk asked everyone to discuss, in pairs and as a group, what comments they typically hear after worship. Common themes emerged:

  • Mechanics. “The choir processed beautifully and in a straight line.” “The pastor got us out on time.”
  • Style or preference. “The choir was so energetic.” “That chorus went on for-e-e-ver.”
  • Form and function. “Those scripture passages and songs went together so well.”
  • Purpose and meaning. “That song helped me pray for the first time since my husband died.”

The seminar panelists focused on worship’s purpose and meaning.

Dale Cudjoe, a COCHUSA pastor and bishop, explained that founder Charles Price Jones came away from the Missionary Baptist denomination because “he wanted to be more intimate with God.” C.P. Jones wrote 1000+ hymns, including “Jesus Only” and “I’m Happy with Jesus Alone.” Longing for Jesus describes how members of Christ Temple suffered because of racists and Christians who disagreed with holiness doctrines or who believed that all true Christians must speak in tongues.

“Regardless of arson, threats and shots fired, these church members persisted. They depended on God for their complete existence. They knew how to worship God when they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from,” Cudjoe said. He described COCHUSA as a hymn singing denomination marked by “Christ-centeredness that is God-honoring and Holy Spirit-led,” scriptural inerrancy, prayer and “the belief that God still heals miraculously.”

Early Vineyard musicians Andy Park and Cindy Rethmeier are co-authors with Lester Ruth of the forthcoming Loving God Intimately: Worship with the Anaheim Vineyard Fellowship, 1977-1983. Park said, “John Wimber came out of the Quaker tradition, moved into the Calvary Chapel movement and gradually came to lead the Vineyard movement out of which contemporary Christian music grew. New songs like ‘All the Earth Shall Worship’ and ‘I Only Want to Love You’ spoke to God in a simple, intimate, loving way in a pop style.”

Rethmeier recalled, “At Vineyard I found people experiencing a two-way communication with God. John Wimber, true to Quaker tradition, would give times of silence for us all to wait on the Lord. So many people were healed and delivered.”

Park added, “Wimber was a professional musician who was against manipulating people through music. Because of the extraordinary way God was visiting our churches, we wanted to make sure that music didn’t eclipse God. We didn’t use drums till 1983, and even then I said, ‘Play really quiet. This isn’t a concert.’ Now I think that’s funny, because drums aren’t meant to be tapped.”

Appreciating what’s good

Steenwyk asked everyone to “look at practices that another church holds dear. How does this help someone worship? How does it help to create a deeper meaning?”

Rethmeier and Park recalled John Wimber’s love for the whole church and belief that every member is equipped to evangelize and pray for healing. “Someone told me about a pastor who wanted to leave his own congregation and join Vineyard. But John said, ‘I think you need to stay where you’re at. Whether you’re bells-and-smells or come-as-you-are, we love you,’” Rethmeier said.

Leadership is decentralized in the global Vineyard movement, and churches are affiliated in national branches. Cudjoe described COCHUSA as hierarchical, with clear procedures for how men become deacons, elders, pastors and bishops. “I appreciate the connectedness your churches share,” Rethmeier said. Park commented that Vineyard churches could learn from COCHUSA’s commitment to corporate intercessory prayer.

Cudjoe said his denomination could learn from Vineyard’s openness to the Holy Spirit during worship. “Our churches are locked into time constraints and an order of service, no matter how the Spirit moves,” he said.

All three noted similarities. “John Wimber and C. P. Jones both wanted to know God more deeply so that they were willing to break from a successful church tradition—but not break from the Bible. They were surrounded by controversy from people who’d never been to their churches. They wanted to get back to Jesus and not be constrained by traditions that exclude healing. They knew there’s no replacement for knowing Jesus for yourself. Both were strong preachers and hymn writers,” Park said.

Imagine new possibilities

Panelists noted that appreciating the gifts of the past doesn’t mean churches should never change.

Cudjoe said that when his denomination decided to allow drums in worship, people who disagreed said it was “satanic, ungodly and would make C.P. roll over in his grave.” Longing for Jesus explains that Jones favored dignified worship that focused on the Giver, not the gifts. Jones thought worshipers should dance in their hearts, not with their feet. “The church I pastor in Gary, Indiana is excitable. Folks will shout, dance, run around. I believe in enjoying life and the variety God brings. I’d ask Bishop Jones, ‘Can we sing the same words but with a different instrumental arrangement or tempo? Can you be more lenient and allow for other ideas, instruments, forms and functions?’ I don’t mean to be less holy but less strict,” Cudjoe said.

Because early Vineyard music worked so powerfully, Park admitted that he sometimes finds rearrangements at his kids’ church “jarring. And yet I shut my mouth, because I see the fruit that flows out of what they experience in worship. They are devoting themselves to God and trusting God.”

Rethmeier is now the musical worship leader at an Anglican church, where she loves learning about the Christian liturgical year. Park said that even though Vineyard churches still value spontaneous prayer, several now include creeds and written prayers as well. “It’s a way to strengthen them and give a theological track to run on,” he said.

Steenwyk asked everyone to silently ponder and then discuss what their church could learn from other traditions. Responses flowed quickly. “I’m Presbyterian and I’m excited about the idea that worshipers [not just the pastor] can stand and immediately pray for someone.” “I want to remember that I’m accepted as I am.” “Ask God to move in people who aren’t asking any more for God to move.” “Decide to worship no matter what.” “Know that worship doesn’t always have to be extraordinary.” “We need silence to wait for the Holy Spirit.” “Don’t watch the clock.” “Pray half an hour ahead of time for everything in the service and the day.”


Learn More

Don’t miss this story’s companion conversations and article about how to use Church at Worship books in personal devotions, small groups and classrooms.

Buy Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem by Carrie Steenwyk, Lester Ruth and John D. Witvliet; Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople by Walter D. Ray; and Longing for Jesus: Worship at a Black Holiness Church in Mississippi, 1895-1913 by Lester Ruth. The Church at Worship book series will eventually include ten volumes.

Lester Ruth says that writing Longing for Jesus helped him face racism in a new way. Bishop Dale Cudjoe says that founder Charles Price Jones wrote hundreds of songs that shaped worship in the Church of Christ Holiness USA (COCHUSA) denomination. Compare the original C. P. Jones hymn “I Will Make the Darkness Light” to newer versions by listening online to previews 9, 10 and 11 from the album Beams of Heaven: Selections from the African American Church Music Series. Listen to previews from the 2012 album Awesome God: Live in Chicago by the National Congress Music Ministry of COCHUSA.

Listen to worship songs by early Vineyard musicians Andy Park and Cindy Rethmeier.

Listen to these Calvin Symposium on Worship resources:

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, music or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about how to discuss ways to enrich congregational worship.

  • Consider comments you make or hear after worship. How many relate mostly to style or preference?
  • How could you reframe a comment about worship style or preference so your conversation could explore a worship element’s deeper meaning or purpose?

What have you experienced in another worship tradition that helped (or could help) you reconsider, change or enrich worship in your congregation?