Stephen Ellingson, author of The Megachurch and the Mainline (Univ of Chicago, 2007), studied for three years the effects of worship changes made in nine churches in California’s Bay Area.
The trouble at Good Shepherd Lutheran began when the newly hired minister of worship and music introduced a new worship service during the most well-attended late morning service time one fall Sunday. The “Blessing of Life Service” did not follow the structure of the Lutheran liturgy, nor did its content reflect the theological language or commitments of Lutheranism. Instead, it was imbued with the language of Buddhism or, in the minds of some members, New Age spirituality. During the service I saw confusion and then anger on the faces of those around me in the pews and they voiced their displeasure quite loudly during the next week. In response, the clergy relegated the Blessing service to an experimental third service time slot, but they continued to experiment with worship over the course of the next year. They rewrote elements of the liturgy and dropped others, and they organized a series of dinners, small-group meetings, and weekly columns in the congregational newsletter to explain and win support for their efforts to remake worship. The clergy wanted worship to become accessible to a general population (few of whom were Lutheran), to become more authentically true to the message of Jesus, and to cultivate a deeper, more authentic faith.
These efforts did little to appease a small, vocal, but congregationally powerful group who would eventually organize protests at church council meetings, circulate a petition that demanded a return to traditional Lutheran worship, and request the bishop assess the theological fitness of the senior minister. The latter turned into a months-long heresy trial, and I can still hear the anger, sorrow, and confusion in a parishioner’s voice when she said at one of the meetings: “The first Sunday with the new service there was no Lord’s Prayer or creed. I began to wonder where I was …. Without the creed, who are we?” She continued by describing what worship should entail––preaching based on the Bible, Holy Communion, and prayer––and sneeringly labeled the new style of worship “entertainment.” She concluded by declaring: “It [the new service] didn’t give you a feeling of being in the sanctuary of God, being able to worship God, and get something out of the service. I got absolutely nothing out of the service. Nothing.”
Eventually the bishop declared the minister to be theologically sound, which prompted nearly 200 members to leave the church. . . .
Ellingson concluded his research with four insights into this difficult shift in our churches’ worship. Here they are simply named.
First, worship plays a central role in helping individuals cultivate their religious identities. Second, worship is anchored in tradition but that anchoring may be partial or contested, which may create problems for congregations as they attempt to alter worship. Third, clergy and laity may bring different expectations and understandings about worship when they enter the sanctuary. These conflicting expectations and understandings are often at the root of worship wars. Finally, changing worship is a delicate, even perilous task that must be managed with great care.
Look for the next installment of this essay to learn more of the details uncovered by his research.