Theological Reflection a Key to Worship Renewal

Asking good questions helps congregations move worship forward. They move from the language of preference to the language of full, active, conscious participation in worship.

It’s amazing what happens when you ask better questions. Thousands of congregations and campuses have applied for worship renewal grants from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. For years the grant application included this question near the end: “What is authentic worship?”

Joyce Ann Zimmerman, who serves on the worship institute’s grants advisory board, recalls, “It got to be a joke as to how many applicants would give the same answer.” Group after group cited John 4:23-24 to explain that true worship must be in the Spirit and in truth.

“The way the question was phrased made people think we were looking for the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer. Now the theological reflection question is third on the list. We changed it to ‘How would you describe Christian worship?’” Zimmerman says.

Rephrasing the question helped grant applicants think about why they do what they do in worship. The accumulated learning of grant recipients and worship symposium participants from across the world has shown that theological reflection is a key to worship renewal. Zimmerman says these congregation-wide conversations help worshipers “move closer to holiness, God, each other, and service.”

Center on God

Theological reflection promotes worship renewal when conversations focus on basic questions and include many people.

“Churches in both liturgical and non-liturgical traditions are struggling with preparing and structuring worship so it’s centered on God, not on our own needs and likes. Many proposals for alternative worship, contemporary worship, or ‘better music’ are really about ‘Let’s keep folks whipped up so they keep coming back,’” Zimmerman says.

“Questions need to come out of a theology of where we want to go. If you are designing worship to be more intergenerational, is that mainly to pull people in the door so your congregation will survive—or because you understand yourselves to be all part of the family of God?” she asks.

The way your church describes worship’s purpose and meaning will vary according to your tradition. “As a Catholic, I define worship as a larger category than liturgy. Liturgy is the enacting or making present of the paschal mystery. Many non-liturgical Protestants would simply understand worship as giving God God’s due worship or praise,” she says.

Zimmerman suggests casting a broad net for worship conversations. Invite all ages, including people who think of themselves as “just a person in the pews.” Invite people who don’t think like you do, maybe from churches that celebrate communion more or less often than yours does.

Learn by teaching

Congregations need the language to notice, understand, and reflect together on worship elements. Learning delivered in small doses over time works best.

Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, began as a mission plant to “truly reach out to people who didn’t have a faith relationship yet,” says staff minister Mike Pfeifer. The church has about 475 members, with a median age of 28 to 29.

“Recognizing that God has blessed us with young people gave us the desire to involve more children, teens, and young adults in worship and outreach,” Pfeifer says. During sermons, Bible studies, and worship discussions, he asked what liturgy means and how to involve kids in worship.

“The best way to know something is to have to teach it,” Pfeifer says. He worked with Sunday school teachers and youth to plan Lenten activities and a Palm Sunday service. Kids led worshipers on a “you are there” Holy Week experience and led the congregation in a responsive Scripture reading.

“In the sending, we often say, ‘Our time here is ended so we are going back out into God’s mission field,’” Pfeifer says. Families and teens volunteer at a homeless shelters, group homes, and nursing homes.

Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida, has a dozen ministers-in-training. “We meet monthly. When our senior pastor thinks we’re ready, she asks us to preach in a Sunday service or revival,” says Pamela Green, who led a year-long worship renewal project. “As ministers learned about how sermon development and worship need to be underpinned by theology, that wisdom got disseminated to decision makers throughout the church.”

A Father’s Day service on being heirs of the King featured a dramatization of the song “There Is a King in You.” As Green tells it, “A woman majestically walked down the aisle with a crown in her hands.” Men, “a teenager with twists in his hair and a defiant T-shirt,” and crown-bearing women of various ages came forward.

Finally a “man looking like a homeless individual, with an empty liquor bottle in his hand, stumbles into the pulpit area and is surrounded by the men. When they open up the circle again, you see the man transformed, clean and in clean clothes, with no liquor, standing tall and smiling. They hand him a crown and the song ends, ‘There is a King in you.’ It was an interconnected, intergenerational, diverse service that celebrated God and helped the men better understand their place in the kingdom,” Green says.

Pray and listen

Many worship renewal grants take an unexpected turn. Beautiful Savior was without a senior pastor for most of its grant year. The people Pamela Green expected to attend workshops at Ebenezer were not the ones who did attend. These experiences remind people that worship renewal is a gift.

“My personality is to problem solve. I had to learn to bring my questions to God and pray, pray, pray. At times I felt the Holy Spirit holding me back. Some things we have no control over. But there’s no need to struggle, fight, or resolve problems right now. By following the leading of the Holy Spirit, the ordinary becomes magnificent, what is divided is unified and what is the will of God transpires,” Green says.

Zimmerman says worshipers need silence to discern the Spirit. “Silence lets us recollect and meditate on what God has said and done on our behalf, as revealed by Scripture. If there’s no silence in worship, we don’t hear God. We don’t surrender ourselves to God. When we introduced silence after psalms sung in a worship symposium vespers service, I could feel the prayer happen.”

Learn More

The Institute for Liturgical Ministry (ILM) helps people live so they can serve well as lectors, cantors, and distributors of Holy Communion. ILM founder Joyce Ann Zimmerman recently wrote Silence: Everyday Living and Praying.

Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida, includes a worship evaluation form in the bulletin and online. This helps people focus on what matters and give feedback about what helps or would help them in worship. Pamela Green uses the POWR model of worship planning so leaders keep reflecting on what makes worship life giving.

Read more about worship renewal at Ebenezer UMC and Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Many congregations recommend these small dose methods of learning over time:

  • Help worship leaders pay attention to “in between” words.
  • Use the bulletin or screen to orient worshipers in liturgical time: “Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time” and “‘Eucharista’ from the Greek means ‘Thanksgiving.’”
  • Include 100 or 200 words in the bulletin or sermon to explain a worship element or theme: “Today Christians around the world are hearing these lectionary passages, which remind us that baptism is God’s call on our lives...”
  • Start a book discussion group.

Read related stories on connecting worship and community outreach and learning worship together.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, education, or youth ministry meeting. These questions will help you talk about how worship can move your congregation closer to holiness, God, each other, and service:

  • How is God present and active in your worship services? What does your church do to give people the language to notice, understand, and experience key worship elements?
  • What first step might you take to move your congregation from the language of preference to a language of full, conscious, active participation in worship?
  • When have you felt (or resisted) the Holy Spirit’s influence while planning, leading, or participating in worship?

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