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An Interview on Worship with Tom Bandy
Relating the decline of the Church in North America to leaders' attitudes and approaches to worship, this respected advisor offers solutions to the challenges.

Paul Miller (PM):Tom, you have written extensively on the "thriving" church system in contrast to the "declining"church system. What role does worship play in the thriving church?

What are the main roadblocks to significant worship renewal in churches today?

Tom Bandy (TGB): Worship is more important to a thriving church than a declining church. In declining churches, lay leaders are primarily connected to institutional administration rather than worship. Ever notice that key lay leaders never miss a committee meeting, always attend an annual meeting, even demand to vote by proxy while on vacation … but are remarkably inconsistent in worship attendance? In a thriving church, worship is crucial. Every cell group or team must connect with a worship experience … often sitting together rather than with their families. Worship is the motivation for the continuous personal and spiritual growth seven days a week. More, worship is a primary method in which the congregation embeds its unique "DNA" of core values, beliefs, vision and mission on members and seekers.

PM:What do you think are the main roadblocks to significant worship renewal in churches today?

TGB: There are three … especially significant in Canada.

First and foremost is control. Both liberal and conservative Christians in Canada resist multi-track worship, and insist that they impose personal aesthetic tastes, ideological perspectives, and dogmatic views on what they describe as "good" worship. It is simply a method of control, denying the real spiritual diversity of Canada.

Second, Canadian Protestants in particular are dysfunctionally clergy dependent. They even train their clergy this way! They imagine that worship is something only trained, certified professionals should do, and the laity are amateur observers.

Third, Canadian church leaders in particular are too fearful of technology. They hold people back from spiritual growth by limiting them to 16th century technologies to experience God. The bottom line holding back all North American churches is that, fundamentally, "churchy" people do not want to grow. They want worship to foster feelings of contentment and harmony and to powerfully motivate church members to go home to lunch instead of joining Jesus in the mission field.

PM:What steps are involved in bringing about renewed worship in a congregation?

TGB: Remember that leverage points are very contextual: What is first on the list in Newfoundland may be third on the list in Calgary.

Here are five key steps.

a) Open yourself to the uncontrollable Holy[Spirit] … and stop trying to reduce God to rational ideologies and dogmas.

b) Recognize that worship is not supposed to entrench membership privileges, but surrender privilege to outreach among pagan seekers.

c) In this second apostolic age, credible teams of lay spiritual leaders are the true planners and implementers of worship (not clergy).

d) The one-size-fits-all worship service is a dinosaur, and leaders need to diversify and multi-track their worship according to both purpose and style.

e) Make worship an experiential event, rather than an informational event.

PM:Change often creates conflict and tension. How can a congregation deal positively with the conflict that change in worship generates?

… worship is the most volatile leverage point for change.

TGB: The rule of thumb is that you always add on options, never take away options. If people experience the transforming power of God and are motivated to walk daily with Jesus using classical music, Latin terminology, hymnbooks, gowned clergy, do it. If not, what pagan god are you really worshipping? The real conflict is not about worship at all, but control … some folks (of all ages, clergy and lay) insist that everybody must worship the way they do.

Leaders need to understand that worship is the most volatile leverage point for change. They may be better off to start with cell group multiplication. Leaders also need to understand that it is inevitable that you will lose some people in transformation. But remember that for every five veterans you fear you will lose in changing worship, you have already lost 500 seekers whose names you will never know because they cannot experience God or come close to Jesus in the forms those five members insist must be "good worship."

PM:Would you say that renewed worship is more of a cause, or a result, of broader change in the church?

TGB: It's both. The system of a church is inter-related. Transformed worship (indigenous, experiential, multi-tracked) forces the church to multiply cells, diversify budgets, liberate risk-taking mission. Conversely, if you do the latter three things, it will force the church to transform their worship. Churches transform worship, and then when somebody excitedly declares their life to be changed by interacting with God, and wants to go deeper, all the church can say is "Well, there's a vacancy on the finance committee."

PM:What role does "tradition" (both local congregational and larger Church tradition) play in renewed worship?

TGB: The question is not whether tradition is important. Of course it is. The question is whichtradition is important? I find Canadian churches remarkably selective about which tradition they want to remember. Usually it is not the tradition of their entrepreneurial ancestors who first took a risk and founded the church. Nor is it the tradition of the earliest Christians in the Acts of the Apostles. The "tradition" they selectively remember is a cautious, stodgy, judgmental, exclusive tradition from around the end of the 19th century, or from the European religious wars of the 16th century, which, in fact, is foreign to the real culturally diverse and entrepreneurial roots of Canada.

PM:Many churches seem to take a largely technological approach, adopting such techniques as worship bands and computerized projection systems in an effort to bring about renewed worship. Often these attempts lead to frustration because nothing much changes. What would you say to a congregation that has tried and failed to update its worship?

TGB: Technology without prioritized adult spiritual growth and team leadership is barren. Never introduce so much as a new sound system without first growing a cell or team of people absolutely committed to spiritual growth who will implement it. Most churches buy a sound system, tell a committee to install it, and insist that only the clergy use it. No wonder nothing changes. Renewed worship will be facilitated by upgraded technology, but only if behind that are teams of spiritually passionate adults and leaders who desire to be with Jesus in the mission field.

PM:How easily can a model that has worked well somewhere else— Willow Creek, for example—be imported into a congregation? What things need to be kept in mind when borrowing successfully from other churches?

TGB: Everything is contextual when it comes to tactics. Learn from other congregations, but customize the tactic for your situation. That requires serious demographic and psychographic research. The problem is not just that a tactic for one context won't work elsewhere, but that Canadian churches in particular refuse to seriously research their own demographic change and live with out-of-date perceptions of the public. On the other hand, while tactics are contextual, leadership attitudes are indeed transferable. What you need to learn from Willow Creek, Saddleback Valley, St. Luke's UMC, Eastside UC (Regina), Communite Bethel (Montreal), North Bramalea (Brampton), St. Jacob's UC (Waterloo), Queensway Cathedral (Mississauga) and others is their attitude. That's what is transferable regardless of context.

PM:Can worship be an effective means of evangelism and outreach, or is that using worship for a purpose it wasn't intended to serve?

In other words, should the focus of Sunday worship be on strengthening the already committed for ministry, or connecting with the not-yet committed?

Worship, like Jesus, is experiential, relational, non-judgmental, and cross-cultural.

TGB: A long time ago, Micah derided the liturgies and entrenched practices of religious institutions, saying that what God really required was to love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly. These are lifestyle goals. Worship should impact lifestyle. Canadian leaders are right to say worship should glorify God, but wrong to think that the best way to glorify God is by implementing only certain forms. The best way to adore God is to give abundant life away to others. So, of course worship is about mission. It always has been. Worship that panders only to strengthen the self-righteousness or contentment of a few is the stuff Moses raged against.

Obviously, the answer to the second question is "both/and." In multi-track worship, some worship is aimed to draw seekers into the experience of the Holy that will change their lives, while other worship is designed to take people deeper and deeper into the mysteries and lifestyle implications of Christian faith. But make no mistake. Worship is about mission.

PM:How are worship and theology connected?

TGB:In the first century and 21st century apostolic age, they aren't connected. Theology is largely irrelevant to worship. Christology is everything, however. In the first centuries, the only real question was "Who is Jesus, and why does he matter?" Same thing today. No faithful disciple in an apostolic age wastes time debating how communion should be served, whether staff associates have sacramental privileges, what kind of music should be played, or what formula of liturgy should be imposed in every denominational franchise across Canada. What is crucial is that worship be connected with Jesus: the experience of Jesus, the grace of Jesus, the mission of Jesus.

There is a direct connection between the decline of the church in Canada, and its inability to talk boldly, explicitly, and conversationally about Jesus. Which Jesus? The Jesus of the pre-modern Chalcedonian confession: fully human, fully divine, irrational paradox, key to abundant life. Worship, like Jesus, is experiential, relational, non-judgmental, and cross-cultural. Most Canadian churches of all brand names either decline to talk about him much, or they limit Jesus by reducing the experience to ideological agendas (liberal or conservative). Worship and Christology are crucial. It's the crux of mission.

Tom Bandy is a partner in Easum-Bandy Associates, a church consulting firm. He resides near Guelph, Ontario.
Paul Miller is the editor of the Theological Digest and Outlook.

Originally published in the Theological Digest & Outlook, September2001




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