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. Here are some of his conclusions:
One of the simplest but most useful insights I gained about the process of change in the study congregations is that leaders must strike a balance between innovation in worship and continuity with past practices. My analysis of change in worship supports the key insight from other sociologists of religion who argue that core theological tenets and ritual practices must be preserved and that members must be able to see how that new form or elements of worship is related to the old
If change is seen as a radical or a complete break with the past, members are likely to reject it as (1) not authentic to or faithful to the tradition, (2) unintelligible, and (3) too difficult to master. If the new worship practices differ too radically from the old, members are likely to leave or give “voice” (e.g., complain, mobilize to prevent change, or push the congregation into open conflict)
Concerns about the loss of members or the possibility of conflict (which could exacerbate membership loss) were very important to the study congregations as they struggled to cope with the ongoing decline of mainline Protestantism in northern California. Most of the congregations also voiced a commitment to retaining the theological core of Lutheranism, which they understood to be one way to distinguish their church from nondenominational congregations that were flourishing in their communities.
. . . . In short, the services. . . considered continuous with the Lutheran tradition. . . conformed to the format of the older order of service, emphasized key theological tenets of grace and sola fide (Martin Luther’s phrase “faith alone”), and were organized around the preaching of the Gospel and the rite of community. But the changed worship was also seen as novel in that its musical idioms reflected contemporary pop music, it included a greater emphasis theologically on conversion and sanctification, and it appealed as much to emotion as to intellect. . .
At some congregations, the process of change was smooth because so many members simply did not know much about (or care to preserve) the core. At other congregations, concerns about continuity led to a both–and strategy in which the non-Lutheran contemporary service existed alongside the traditional liturgical service. . . .
Worship matters because it is the primary way in which congregants learn the basic tenets of the Christian faith, experience the blessings (e.g., forgiveness) and challenges (e.g., sin) of the Christian life, and meet the God they worship. When churches change the content of worship it may challenge congregants’ understanding of their religious identity and commitments, and thus provoke conflict. Similarly, changes in the form of worship or how it is organized may be met with resistance because it may affect the theological content of worship, as well as what congregants are able to hear and their ability to participate.
. . . Congregational leaders would be best served by identifying how members experience services (what they believe is most important about worship) and by gauging congregants’ level of commitment to specific liturgical forms, styles, or practices.
Stephen Ellingson, “Why Worship Matters: Lessons from Lutheran Congregations Struggling in a World of Liturgical Change,” Liturgy 32, no. 1 (2017): 32-41.