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predictable worship?

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council has been looking at statistics of declining attendance. Peter Carrell and Episcopal Cafe are two places drawing attention to the report. My first degree is in Mathematics – my first comment is take the greatest of care in interpreting statistics, it is not for nothing that we speak of “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Secondly, from a missional perspective, there is a particular mindset that comes with focusing on church-centred statistics. We generally gather no statistics of the number of people we serve or care for. Certainly it is beneficial to have more people within the Christian community in order to help those outside it – but there is not necessarily a direct correlation between numbers in the worshipping community and numbers of people being cared for outside worship.

Mary Frances Schjonberg reports:

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council heard here Feb. 21 that church membership and Sunday attendance continued to decline in 2008, but also heard a call for the church to promote knowledge of the characteristics of growing congregations.

During his statistic-laden hour-long report, Kirk Hadaway, the church’s program officer for congregational research, told the council that congregations grow when they are in growing communities; have a clear mission and purpose; follow up with visitors; have strong leadership; and are involved in outreach and evangelism.

Congregations decline, he said, when their membership is older and predominantly female; are in conflict, particularly over leadership and where worship is “rote, predictable and uninspiring.”

Those who put a particular spin on TEC’s declining numbers need to take note that “the most recent trend of declining membership began in 2000 and 2001, “long before the actions of General Convention 2003.”

I already see the response suggesting that women should stay home in order to help the church to grow! My own (clearly limited) personal experience is that when I visit a community the quality of attention paid to music, to the sermon, to welcoming, to the worship including the environment can often all be easily improved and doing so would be a significant step towards having visitors desire to return. Whatever draws someone to visit a worshipping community – that need has to be met. Hence, worship cannot be too tightly themed or we will exclude visitors. Sermons need to address our emotions, our minds, and have a point we are able to put into practice in our concrete, everyday lives. The regular congregation needs encouragement and possibly formation how to welcome newcomers and visitors and make them feel comfortable, welcomed, and with their desire to return nurtured. All this is not difficult. It is just too often not done, thought about, talked about.

My hackles were raised at blaming worship that is “rote, predictable and uninspiring.” The other side of seeing worship as “rote” is seeing it as “by heart”. Worship “by heart” has been the Judaeo-Christian tradition for at least 3,000 years. I would like to see the peer-reviewed statistical evidence that there is a correlation between “rote, predictable” worship and causality of decline. I have participated in plenty of “rote, predictable” worship, from Taize, through great cathedrals, to China, and the heart of Zaire, where there is clearly no correlation to declining numbers. The danger of linking “uninspiring” to “rote and predictable” is it feeds a prejudice that in order to grow numerically in our “new context” we need to abandon the liturgical tradition of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, etc. Nothing, IMO, is further from the truth. In this context it is worth noting the recent announcement that the proportion of Roman Catholics worldwide has increased. IMO we need training and formation as leaders and communities to celebrate worship that is “by heart, common worship, and inspiring.”

It interests me that Peter Carrell suggests complaints that “TEC’s declining stats may, at times, be hidden from sight.” This from a province that has for nearly two decades collected no statistics provincially, and where decline is often in the most surprising places (eg. the self-described “Evangelical” diocese of Nelson). In a province which clearly suffers from the idolatory of incessant novelty (“We used ashes last year, what can we do differently for Ash Wednesday this year?”), about as far from “rote and predictable” worship as any Anglican province is able to get, it would certainly be fascinating if it could be demonstrated that we have the formula for numerical growth! I suspect, however, that we would find similar, if not more alarming decline in the NZ province highlighting my contention that there is no statistical link to liturgical worship but that the causes need to be sought elsewhere.

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13 thoughts on “predictable worship?”

  1. Good post, Bosco. The Presbyterian Church talks a lot about decline too, but sometimes seems to miss the fact that it is the little communities that are doing a great deal of work, even though their number is small. Big churches often have a revolving population – people come and go all the time, and only some get noticed.
    There are all sorts of issues, and stats only see some of them!

    1. Thanks Mike. I was friendly with the founder of a large Pentecostal church here. To outsiders it looked a thriving community. He, however, knew the reality and spoke to me about it: the average person stayed 18 months and when they left they did not go on to any other church community or denomination. They had LOTS of young people. And few old people. And many Anglicans would have looked on with envy to what they perceived to be a vibrant, growing community.

  2. That’s an insightful write-up! My own thoughts are twofold; first that what a person hears in Church must be worth the bother of attending – and to me this means the clear teaching of sin, judgement and salvation through Grace (life tips can be easily picked up watching Oprah); and secondly that what a church does to bring in new members it must continue to do to keep them (if hetrodox worship / abiblical teaching is used to bring them in, the moment orthodoxy and the Bible return those members start leaving).

  3. Paul in his letters did not think church growth and pew-count to be worth his effort discussing. He focused on something else – something that mattered much more – that those in the church held fast to sound doctrine.

    Surely it is better to bring one man to salvation than to bring one hundred to a church service? What is the value of the church – indeed – what is the point of the church – if orthodoxy of teaching and practice is not held an absolute essential?

    You rightly point out that there needs to be a personal application of what is taught to the listener, and this is that application: that they personally are to repent of their sins and ask forgiveness in Christ that at the last they might inherit life eternal. This is personal, applicable and a matter of the very highest relevance and importance.

    The three statistics I would like to see assessed are these:

    First, the percentage of Anglican sermons which fail to bring their message to the Cross and the work of Christ.

    Second, the number of weeks on average a person would be able to attend a weekly service at an Anglican Church without being personally convicted of sin and hearing the glorious Gospel of our salvation boldly proclaimed from the pulpit.

    Third, the percentage of regular Anglican worshippers who have heard the core doctrine clearly enough to confess their total depravity, their salvation by grace alone in Christ alone, their sanctification by grace alone, and their assurance of the sufficiency of Christ’s work.

  4. Hi Bosco
    A couple of notes, maybe three!
    In ACANZP we know we have poor or non-existent collections of overall attendance: a complaint within TEC has been that when the stats have been known they have been slow in being made available.

    I take ‘rote, predictable, uninspiring’ not to mean the liturgy per se (which is both rote and predictable) but the performance of liturgy in a manner which because uninspiring leads to congregational decline (at worst) or congregational aging (i.e. the average age of the congregation increases rather than decreases over time). There are many parishes in NZ where there is considerable concern about aging and/or decline. Occasionally I visit such parishes and wonder, Could not the liturgy be led better? (Don’t worry, there are also non-growing parishes which are non-liturgical, or see experimentation as the sine qua non of 21st century church. When I visit those I usually have the same question, Could not the liturgy be led better?).

    Thirdly, stats may be misleading etc, but they can bite. You may have read an earlier post of mine on the number of Methodist churches for sale in Christchurch. I presume that, beyond all interpretations of stats of decline, local Methodists have reached the point of concluding their attendance stats do not support the churches they once used to.

    So, I am with you when you say, “we need training and formation as leaders and communities to celebrate worship that is “by heart, common worship, and inspiring”. This is an urgent need!

  5. The church that draws me in is one that is grounded in the Eucharist and that constantly reminds me to honor what Jesus said were the greatest commandments–Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Oh, and that it’s our responsibility as Christians to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and the vulnerable, etc. (Matthew 25).

    Most of us are well aware of our sinful natures–where we need help and support is in learning to overcome our sinful selfishness and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. (You know…what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer?)

    I don’t see Jesus demanding we accept that we are “totally depraved” (Calvinistic claptrap) or that we believe in any particular doctrine of the atonement or subscribe to a specific soteriology for our salvation. Jesus says “Love”–including love your enemies–and shows us how, even to the point of forgiving those who killed him without their repentance. The Church that proclaims THAT Jesus will grow. The Church that tries to pound the 39 Articles into people’s heads will die–and ought to.

  6. It might be interesting to focus a bit of attention on the words in the summary report that suggests congregations dwindle when they “are in conflict, particularly over leadership.”

    No matter what the denomination or the issue, unaddressed conflict within a congregation tends to thin the ranks except for the stalwart and faithful “older and predominantly female” members who stick it out with their old friends, often having survived many conflicts and many changes of leadership. At a certain age one begins to realize that the leaders are all “temps.” Conflict also tends to drain the energy and vigour of a congregation, and this can be a factor in worship that is “rote, predictable and uninspiring.”

    Just a thought… but I confess that I haven’t read the report yet.

    Also, the summary statement does not say “rote” or “predictable” or “uninspiring.” Note the “and”. Liturgical worship doesn’t need to be rote or uninspiring, as Bosco Peters regularly illustrates. I will read what the report author says that supports the notion that “predictability” is a problem.

  7. I think that we passed the point of thinking that decline was simply about worship a very long time ago. There is nothing here to recognise the post-modern and post-Christendom shift that has affected all churches within Western society. If we really wish to address decline then it involves recognising these massive cultural shifts, to which the church is only just beginning to wake up to. Good and authentic worship remains essential to any church health, but the truth is that we all do the same things every week – even including those churches who claim to be “led by the Spirit” every week! If we want to address what is happening everywhere then we need to understand the nature of missional church and take on board the insights of the Emerging Church movement and Fresh Expressions of Church (in the UK). This is rediscovering church from 1st principles in the 21st century!

  8. I was born and raised in a Pentecostal home, went to a Pentecostal Bible College, interested in Pentecostal ministry and missions work. I might have been fine in that but God had different plans. He challenged my faith by giving me an opportunity to become friends with a self-professed atheist. From my perspective I never expected to meet someone with a similar outlook on life but having come to that in a different manner than I. It challenged me that for my faith to grow, I need to challenge it daily. I set off on a voyage of exploration and discovery in my Christian faith that has recently culminated in my leaving my Pentecostal church for an Anglican Cathedral. I left for the fact that the Pentecostal worship was predictable, having been immersed in it since birth. I have settled into Cathedral life in the Sung Eucharist, even joining the choir. Yes, it is unpredictable for me, not having been immersed in the Anglican expression since birth.

    However, being an outsider breaking into the Anglican expression gives me perspective on the worship I find in the Anglican tradition. I am of the belief that the Anglican liturgy has a richness of faith which encourages me to spiritual practice. I gladly get up in time be ready at 9am on Sunday to sing in the choir. I’ve given up other endeavours to make my way to Eucharist during the week (and have done so joyfully). At times in the Pentecostal church, I was simply disengaged at best and extremely cynical at worst. I did not want to go to church, and when I did, I did not want to be there.

    Standing firm in the historical mainstream of the past 2000 years, growing a congregation is not about numerical growth by watering the message down or using marketing techniques to bring people into our congregation. What we need to do is SHOW LOVE to one another. If we are looking for numerical growth in our congregations, then we need to be showing LOVE to our communities around by us. There is a place for marketing and promotion, but not at the expense of the message. We should not falsely advertise what people will find in our congregations. We need to be real and authentic, both inside the congregation and in the community. People will be attracted to our love of God which we express through our love of neighbour.

    Our faith is sufficient to carry us to the ends of the earth and back. I find the “rote, predictable and uninspiring” to be very inspiring. It is like an anchor, a reminder of the faith I was raised to believe. To dismiss the worship of any given service or congregation is to denigrate that congregation. I strongly believe that the Pentecostal church I left is a valid expression of worship for some and would gladly visit, now that I have begun the process of living a spiritual life of love from the heart, not the head.

  9. An excellent article. A few observations from this perspective. I think it is a mistake to look at worship in an “entertainment” context….that is one in which the aesthetics (music, homiletics, decoration, etc…) and their effect upon the attendees be seen as the primary criteria for success. I believe strongly that this is the false premise behind the “active participation” in Catholic liturgy for the past 40 years. To claim that liturgy is unsuccessful because everyone isn’t enthusiastically singing, clapping or whatever, is to miss by a mile the foundation of worship.

    The giant Protestant churches, like the oited above, are an excellent example of what happens when this approach is taken. Excitement is high at first, but then like the popular entertainment that it is modeled on, it wanes quickly and the participants go elsewhere to look for meaning.

  10. Thanks for this! I’m writing an entry that speaks to certain parts of it, and I think that rote worship happens a lot in communities of which I’m a part. There is a big difference between rote and by heart, as you point out, and intentionality is the key.

    Tempter, there are innumberable points in the course of an Anglican service (the Creed, general confession, eucharistic prayers to name three), wherein the aspects of the Gospel and Pauline epistles you hold dearly is addressed. The weekly worship of the faithful, however, is not seen as a time of evangelism; it’s the weekly worship of those who already believe. A reading from the Gospels (about Jesus) is always heard. Conversion isn’t a one time thing, and the point of the church isn’t merely getting people to repent. We have a mandate to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Those are also personal applications of the Gospel that get preached pretty regularly in my experience.

  11. I resonated with Doxy’s understanding of the Eucharist as the necessary ingredient for a Christ-centred focus in worship. When this is backed up by teaching based on the Gospel values of the life and work of Jesus; there is no worthwhile substitute. After all, the Eucharist was established by the will of the Founder of the Church. What more could one wish for as the focus of all worship?

    I also appreciated Douglas’ contribution. He found his solace in ordered liturgical worship that was well and thoughtfully executed.

    All the senses need to be involved in true worship. A time of silence can also make a valuable contribution while ‘waiting upon the Holy Spirit’ for new inspiration. “Be still, and know that I am God.”

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