Melanie Ross writes about a study she conducted to find out how one large, evangelical congregation paid attention to its worship being both formative and expressive. In this section, she focuses on how the planning expressed the congregation’s faith. This is about West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Pennsylvania with 2,500-2,750 people worshipping on Sundays.
Ross’s study included interviewing parishioners. Here are some of the issues that her interviews raised.
One component of good worship at West Shore is stylistic variety. As one congregant explained to me, “I know that ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ are ‘can of worms’ words. But I think we're committed to having a wide variety of styles, time periods, and musical genres.” She continued, “When I've been involved in planning worship, and when I've seen other people plan, there is intentional thought to ‘Have we done something that people would consider a hymn this week? Are we doing things that are both upbeat and contemplative? Have we brought in something from another culture?’ Eclectic is a good word to describe it, but it's not hodge-podge,” she concluded.
A second component of good worship at West Shore is theological range. In the words of one worshiper, “Our prayers and songs are more honest than they used to be. Life is hard. God is good. There are zeros and tens in every single day. How do I balance that?” She reflected, “I think our worship is starting to reflect more and more the need for people to be encouraged and lifted up in an authentic way. I don't mean, ‘Let's get ourselves all psyched up: yay, God!’ And I don't mean, ‘Here's a nice little thing God did for me.’ It's more like, ‘I don't have a clue what's happening and I'm scared to death, but this is how God worked in all these ways in the past.’ God is constant and he will save, and in ways we don't even imagine.”
Finally, many interviewees stressed an intrinsic connection between good relationships and good worship. “What attracts you to somebody's family, or to a couple you know, or to a group of friends?” one person asked rhetorically. “It's the kind of relationships they have with each other. It's like that at West Shore too. If our relationships aren't right on the inside, worship won't be right on the outside.” Strong relationships and trust make it possible to experiment in worship.
. . . One worship leader, who has been with the congregation for 27 years, summed things up nicely when she compared West Shore to a petri dish. “Some of the things I suggested for worship have failed miserably,” she admitted. “But the church continues to allow me to try things out in corporate worship, and all of us learn together. The congregation is always willing to take a chance with you, and to continue with you. I think there's a seeking-ness about it,” she concluded. “Seeking who the Lord is and what the Lord likes.”
Ross concludes by noting the impossibility any congregation has in establishing exactly how the assembly will be shaped or helped by the worship offering.
. . . Perhaps at the end of the day, defining good worship is like trying to shine light on a moving electron. We can study the path worship takes over time (its formative aspects). We can examine worship in any given moment (its expressive aspects). But knowing both simultaneously and with precision is a difficult, if not impossible, task on this side of the eschaton.
––Melanie Ross is assistant professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut.
Melanie Ross, “Good Worship: An Evangelical Free Church Perspective,” Liturgy 29, no. 2 (31 Jan 2014): 3-8.