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The Changing Nature of Worship

The Changing Nature of Worship Lilly foundation Insights into Religion U.S. Congregational Life Survey

A church in Illinois streams video of a sermon from the home church miles away and displays it on a large screen.  A church in California offers half a dozen “video cafes,” each featuring different types of worship music to correspond to the different tastes of its participants. These are just a few of the changes taking place as U.S. congregations grapple with new technologies and contemporary idioms in worship.

Recent studies show a marked increase in the number of congregations using electric guitars and bass in worship, making a practice considered fringe 30 years ago mainstream.

According to new data from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) project, nearly half of all U.S. congregations now use electronic instruments in worship at least some of the time. The 2005 figures, compiled by sociologist David Roozen of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, shows that the more often a congregation uses electric guitars, the more its members describe worship as exciting and joyful.

Indeed, music is assuming a more central place in worship, said Todd E. Johnson, who directs the program in worship, theology and the arts at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Where music was once interspersed with Scripture readings and prayers, “now, you have a 20-minute block of music and then it’s over,” Johnson said. “There’s a separating of music from proclamation and prayer.”

That doesn’t mean the music performed is exclusively praise tunes. Increasingly, churches use a combination of hymns, praise, and indigenous or home-grown music.

But there’s lot of evidence contemporary music lends worship a more relaxed tone. Deborah Bruce, who collaborated on the 2008 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, found that 66 percent of congregations polled said worship included laughter; 40 percent said worship included applause.

Compared to 2001, fewer worshippers in 2008 included traditional hymns as one of their preferences for congregational worship (61 percent in 2001; 56 percent in 2008). There’s a loosening of worship,” said Bruce, who works as associate manager of research services for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and co-authored with Cynthia Woolever, A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations.

Technology is also bringing profound visual changes to the worship experience. While PowerPoint projections of song lyrics are nothing new, the use of visuals is extending to other parts of the service. Some congregations screen photos of sick members or mission teams as the congregation lifts up prayers for them. Others use video clips from movies and TV shows on a regular basis.

“Some of it is distracting, and churches have done away with it,” said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, referring to the use of Power Point throughout a sermon. “The use of technology has matured over time.”

Technology has also forced pastors to rely more heavily on staff and lay people. Years ago, planning for worship may have involved the pastor and the organist. Today, it requires a team effort. Witvliet said that while some congregations hire media specialists to bring worship in line with 21st century technologies, others rely on a worship team of volunteers with expertise in multi-media.

The result is a worship experience more rooted in the community’s shared values, Witvliet said. Johnson is not so sure.

The live streaming of a sermon from the “home church” or even farther away, limits the audience’s participation and takes away from the immediacy of the worship experience, Johnson said. It can also result in more generic sermons.

“It’s an accommodation to a culture that’s moving toward virtual relationships,” he said.  "Until," Johnson added, "the range of experimentation is breathtaking. While more traditional megachurches may be moving toward higher production and performance values, so-called emerging churches are placing more focus on creativity and the arts. These worship services tend to be more participatory and interactive and more willing to explore age-old practices as well as new ones."

"The church is not just moving in one direction,” said Johnson. “We live in exciting times. I’m optimistic about the future.”

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