Breaking Free from Worship Ruts

Just this past week, I spoke with two pastors. One’s a 40-plus leader of a large, evangelical church with 20 years of ministry behind him. The other leads an innovative, mainline church. At 60, he’s logged 38 years of service and expects to add another 10. Both of these leaders have built strong ministries. Both have a history of flexibility, courage, and vision-casting. And both have the same problem: They’re bored out of their gourds with their worship services. Ruts of worship expression that eroded into gullies during the 1990’s have now given way to gaping—yes, yawning—crevasses. And neither pastor has the slightest clue as to what to do about it. The solution? “They just need a really good band and an extroverted worship leader.”

Been there, done that. Both of these congregations jettisoned hymnals and organs quite a while ago, and their bands are studio-quality. I probed for details, and here’s what I found. Without exception, music is the only right-brained worship activity—the only aesthetic expression—featured in any of their services. Now, this is strange. Strange because human beings come equipped with eyes as well as ears. They’re also wired with nerve endings embedded in their skin and a propensity for movement and ritual if it hasn’t been subcultured out of them. Sounds as if we just may be looking at the “failure to be fully human” syndrome.

I asked more questions. What kind of music did they sing? The first pastor answered, “The same stuff we’ve been singing for two decades.” Which I’ll describe benevolently as “12-string guitar I just want to feel closer to You” music.

The second pastor responded, “We went with happy in all our services. Very happy, because we’d gotten sick and tired of the funeral dirge approach.” Hmmm, that 180-degree habit will get you if you’re not careful. Happy is pretty much neutralized in the absence of lament.

I could wax voluminous here, but you get my drift. To grossly misquote Sylvester Stallone in the film Rocky, “We all have ruts.” You may be leading a church that has a reputation for being on the cutting edge. But when it comes to worship, admit it. You’ve fallen over the edge into the pits. Really, really big pits. Before you add fill dirt—some trendy technique that’s working in urban Yukon—check for the “failure to be fully human” syndrome. You just might be able to get your wagon wheels out of that pit and get back on the road again.