The Sabbath worship service is the high point of a congregation’s weekly engagement with the church, and yet it is rarely evaluated for effectiveness. Personally, I have never heard anyone step back and ask, “Why are we doing things this way?” After years studying God’s vision for how to be a church, I have decided to share my reflections regarding this central feature of Christian life. My goal is to open a way for the worship service to become far more transformative, life-giving, and inspiring.
Most worship services follow the same patterns every week. If I asked why your church conducts services in the way that it does, how would you reply? I offer some possible responses below.
1. Tradition: “Our current form of Sabbath worship service is simply the way we’ve always done it.”
Although I think this is a very sad statement, I can certainly empathize with it. Our denominational leaders uplift this approach. In fact, the General Conference president has repeatedly warned against any “aberrant” choices that stray from traditional formats. This kind of unfortunate exhortation can easily lock churches into a “don’t make waves” mentality.
Have you ever heard of processionary caterpillars? They move through the trees in long parades, each one with its eyes half closed. Jean Henri Fabre, a great French naturalist, tried an experiment with them. He carefully placed the caterpillars in a circle on the rim of a large flowerpot, expecting that they would eventually start off in different directions. But by sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept up a mindless procession until they got so exhausted that they began to fall off.
Churches that appeal to tradition as their primary rationale for conducting worship services are exhibiting the same unthinking mentality of processionary caterpillars. Following tradition is only acceptable if it achieves an intentional, biblical outcome.
2. The Biblical Standard: “Our church service follows the biblical model.”
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 14, Bible scholar William Barclay provides the following insights in his book The Letters to the Corinthians:
There is no more interesting section in the whole letter than this [Ch. 14], for it sheds a flood of light on what a church service was like in the early church. There was obviously a freedom and informality about it which is completely strange to our ideas.
There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early church which is now totally lacking . . . The really notable thing about an early church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it.
A man did not come with the sole intention of being a passive listener. He did not come only to receive, he came also to give. Obviously this had its dangers for it is clear that at Corinth there were those who were too fond of the sound of their own voices; but nonetheless the church must have been in those days much more the real possession of the ordinary Christian.
When there is any talk about “sharing” on Sabbath morning, modern Adventists probably envision stale, cobwebby testimonies from people who hog the microphone and tend to ramble—“I’d like to thank the Lord for showing me the truth fifty years ago!”
The sharing that occurred in Corinth was nothing like that. If you walked into a typical service, you would have been immediately struck by the energy, earnestness, immediacy, and honesty of the members. They had much to share because they had been equipped by the leaders to live out their priestly ministries within their families, church communities, and world during the week. There was a pervasive sense of expectancy. The service was not a preparation for ministry. Instead, ministry happened during the service itself.
Paul was so affirming of his community’s desire to participate in the service that he invited everyone in the congregation to exercise the gift of prophecy, stating, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (1 Corinthians 14:31). Paul’s main concern was that the service was orderly and edifying to all.
In an article on open participation in worship services, Robert Gordon Betts observes,
The New Testament pattern, then, is that there should be sufficient opportunity to allow contribution from a variety of people, and flexibility to allow the Holy Spirit to direct the meeting, whilst maintaining order (1 Corinthians 14:26, 40). And everything that is contributed should be for the edification of the whole gathering.
In stark contrast to modern worship services, a substantial portion of early church services involved the members telling stories of how the Spirit had been working in their life and sharing any words of encouragement, instruction, or enlightenment the Spirit had placed on their heart for the church.
An article from the Atlanta Reformation Fellowship reflects on participatory worship, stating,
The author of Hebrews urged his readers (ordinary Christians) to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together . . . but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24–25) . . . . The focus was not exclusively on pastors; it was on “one another.” There was a principle of participation. All members of Christ’s body bore the responsibility to encourage the others through testimony, song, praise, prayer, exhortation, teaching, and the sharing of personal spiritual lessons learned.
3. Teaching: “We gather together to be taught the Word of God through the sermon.”
Another remarkable element of the Corinthian Church was the absence of the modern day, twenty-five minute sermon that we now consider so essential. David Packer, a German pastor, observes in an article for Medium,
Sermons as we know them today rarely seemed to show up in churches of the New Testament era . . . There was a wonderful practical nature to the messages, and they were fresh from people’s hearts and experiences . . . A worship experience, in fact, may have had several speakers who shared with some spontaneity on various biblical passages. At other times the church was gathered to be read the letters from the apostles.
If the modern sermon does not have its roots in scripture, where did it come from? Missional church leader David Allis, in his article, “The Problem with Preaching,” reveals their true source.
The sermon as traditionally practiced, in which a clergy person preaches a message to a congregation, originated from Greek, not Biblical, sources. Around the period of 200–300 AD, the sermon emerged as central in Christian gatherings. The model for this practice wasn’t taken from the Bible, but from Greek culture.
For ten years, I pastored in two church districts and preached in both churches every Sabbath. I have a deep appreciation for the many hours of work placed into creating Christ-honoring sermons. However, over time, I have come to understand and accept the unsettling truth: sermons are simply ineffective.
The problem with what we call the “sermon” is not only that it is unbiblical—it is also a lecture. Research by the National Training Laboratory in Bethel, Maine indicates that the long-term retention rate from lectures is about 5%. The authors of an article about “The Learning Pyramid” state, “Lecture is one of the most ineffective methods of learning and retaining information. Since the lecture is simply a passive form of learning where students only sit and listen the whole time [to] whatever [is] spoon-fed by teachers, it is not a preferable method of learning.”
Educators have known for quite some time that lecturing is one of the least effective forms of teaching. The fact that the subject matter is religious doesn’t obviate that reality. If the church’s priority is to educate and transform the congregation, why in the world would we choose a teaching method with such a bleak track record?
In an article titled, “Forgetting the Sermon By Wednesday,” pastor David Fletcher discusses the reality of sermon retention rates based on a Sunday worship schedule:
Forty four percent of a select group of church leaders reported that by Monday of any given week, the congregation had forgotten the sermon from the day before. When you add the results for Sunday through Wednesday, the total of forgotten sermons climbs to a staggering 94% . . . . Senior Pastors regularly invest 20 to 25 hours a week in study, preparation and delivery of the sermon. The data from the survey points to an enormous lack of short-term application and long-term life change by the Sunday sermon.
The concept of one person preaching to the same congregation week after week, year after year, was certainly appropriate many decades ago when most people were illiterate or had no access to scripture. That, of course, has changed dramatically. Church members today can easily find all manner of translations, Bible courses, and Bible lectures online for free.
One of the keys to transforming the effectiveness of education at all levels has been the dramatic change in focus from “teaching” to “learning.” The focus is no longer on the teacher’s presentation but rather on the student’s growth and development. This crucial shift needs to be applied to the local church setting as well.
When a church says that the purpose of a worship service is to teach, they can measure success by how well the sermon was crafted and presented. But when a church says that the purpose of a worship service is learning, success is measured by how the people in the pews are transformed. The choice of approach will tell you volumes about how seriously a church takes the biblical mandate to make disciples and equip the followers of Christ.
In his book Transforming Preaching: Communicating God’s Word in A Postmodern World, Jonny Baker writes,
There is also plenty of research that shows that a talking head is actually a very ineffective means of communication. People retain only a very small percentage of information communicated in this way. Preaching, it seems, is stuck in the old school. The questions we should be asking are how we can help people to think, theologize, discover and learn—not what doctrine or information can we impart this week. How can we cultivate growing learning communities?
Gradually moving away from the traditional sermon to a participatory model of worship does not mean diminishing the role of the pastor. The time formerly devoted to sermon preparation can be redirected to the challenging task of planning services based on participatory principles and active learning methodologies. The participatory model calls for the blending of learner-centered instruction and Spirit-guided spontaneity.
4. Evangelism: “We utilize the church service for reaching non-believers.”
The New Testament does support the need to preach, but those directives were almost always given in relation to evangelistic settings. In his article about preaching in the New Testament, David Allis continues,
‘Preaching’ as it is practiced in churches today has little biblical basis. In the New Testament, preaching was always linked to preaching of the gospel or kingdom to those that are outside or on the edge of the kingdom—the Greek verbs used in the NT to portray preaching are found overwhelmingly in situations which are outside church meetings and evangelistic in nature. In contrast, in our churches today we ‘preach to the choir’—most people sitting in churches listening to sermons are Christians.
Bible scholar CH Dodd similarly defined New Testament preaching in his book The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments as “the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world.”
After a careful analysis of the translated word “preach” in the New Testament, scholar Nate Wilson offers the following:
The major task of the Apostles was missionary work—the starting of new expressions of the church throughout the world. It is significant therefore, that the people mentioned as preaching in the Bible were people who were involved in missionary work. John the Baptist as well as Jesus and his 12 Disciples and the witnesses to their miracles were proclaiming a new message to unbelieving or ignorant Jews. Paul, who takes the lion's share of references to preaching, was a foreign missionary. So were Jonah and Phillip and the Christians of the diaspora. For that matter, when Peter and John are mentioned specifically as preaching, it was to foreigners (Samaritans) as well.
In the last few decades, there have been a significant number of churches who have tailored their worship services to meet the needs of non-Christians. A classic example is Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, who pioneered the concept of “Seeker Services.” As effective as they have been in making new converts, they often wind up problematically short-changing the spiritual growth of existing members.
Rory Noland, who was the worship leader at Willow Creek for twenty years, looks back at that experience in his book Transforming Worship and observes, “A four-year research project . . . surveyed thousands of Willow attendees and affirmed what those of us who worked there suspected all along—that Willow was a great place to find the Lord but not a great place to grow in the Lord.”
The Sabbath worship service should be a time to focus on helping all church members grow holistically in the Lord. If evangelism is the only focus of a worship service, existing members are in danger of not receiving the spiritual support they need. It is important to create worship services that equip current members and, at the same time, create a culture that is welcoming and affirming to newcomers.
5. Encouragement: “Our goal is to give our members the support they need to get through the week.”
Providing encouragement to church members is certainly a laudable goal. But do we really think that's all we can hope to accomplish during the worship service? Is such a limited goal really making maximum use of the one hour we have together on Sabbath morning? Are we satisfied with such small dreams because reaching higher is too difficult? Is this goal faithful to the biblical mandate to make disciples?
Reflecting further on his experiences at Willow Creek, Rory Noland writes,
It is time for third-millennium Christians to rediscover what the ancient church knew all along—that [Sabbath] morning is the ideal setting for churchwide spiritual transformation and that gathered worship plays a vital role in the process of discipleship . . . Since spiritual formation is the central work of the church, we need to reclaim [Sabbath] as the church’s primary formative event.
The Detrimental Effects of the Current Worship Service
The modern worship service has changed the New Testament model of active congregation participation into a room full of passive spectators. This historic reversal has not been without its detrimental effects. The following is a list of some of the negative outcomes that today’s typical worship service has produced.
1. The current church service conveys the idea that the pastor is the individual best qualified to handle the Word of God. It exacerbates the clergy-laity dichotomy, which teaches that the pastor has a higher calling than the average Christian.
2. Only hearing from the same person—or persons—every week excludes what the Spirit has to say through other church members, who represent a plethora of rich and varied stories of faith and experience.
3. Modern church services fail to honor the biblical concept of the “priesthood of all believers” and short-circuit the process of mutual edification that was so important to the apostle Paul.
4. Having the congregation sit passively through the high point of people’s collective spiritual experience fosters a spectator mentality and spirit of inactivity. Simply sitting in the same room, singing the same songs, and listening to a sermon does little to promote a spirit of togetherness and unity.
5. Calling the hour together on Sabbath morning “The Worship Service” can easily imply that it is the pinnacle of worship, while other forms of biblical worship in people’s lives—such as preparing dinner, laboring on a project at work, or attending a child’s baseball game—are somehow less. Biblically speaking, for Christians, all of life is a sacred act of worship (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The weekly worship service is so central to Adventism, that I would call it a “keystone” element. The dictionary defines a keystone as: “The wedge-shaped piece at the summit of an arch, regarded as holding the other pieces in place.” Strategically speaking, the worship service is the piece of church life that sets the direction for everything else. It is the centerpiece of church culture.
Christian preacher Shawn Lazar offers a stirring call for change on the website Free Grace International, noting,
Modern New Testament scholars still know that the early church worshipped one way, while we worship in a completely different way. Nevertheless, despite this “open secret” among scholars, most churches have proceeded with business as usual—and more churches are closing than opening.
It is impossible to model passivity on a weekly basis during the worship service and then hope that the members will actively participate in ministering to their communities when they leave. Changing the worship service is therefore the key to unlocking the full potential of other aspects of church life, such as Sabbath School, discipling, small groups, and community involvement.
Take a moment and imagine the number of inspiring, encouraging, transformative, heartfelt, heart-rending stories we never get to hear from the congregation because our entire focus is on what is happening up front. How different might church culture be if those compelling stories were given a major role?
This is the first in a two-part monthly series. In the next installment, I will focus on potential solutions and alternatives to these problems. Please email any ideas you may have regarding how to make sharing from the congregation a substantial part of the worship service to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
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