Think about the last church service you attended: how good was it? Perhaps that’s an odd question. How do we evaluate our worship? Is the whole thing just personal and subjective? Or are there some objective criteria that an OFSTED-style inspector could apply? What would a mystery worshipper (like the mystery shoppers who visit supermarkets) make of us?
We are thinking about the services we offer in our churches and, as part of that, I’m reading a booklet on the topic of evaluating worship. The booklet asks whether our worship is any good and what we mean by ‘good’. Of course, we need to ask a prior question: what (or who) is worship for?
Some regard attending church as a duty. They value such qualities as loyalty and faithfulness. Nothing wrong with that, of course! But the danger with such an approach is that we might not care too much about the content or quality of our services if our only consideration is ticking the box that says we have ‘been to church’.
Another approach is to think about what we get out of going to church. Again, I’m not knocking people coming to church because of what they get out of it. We all do, to some extent. (I have to go to church because my name’s on the board outside.) But it surely can’t be right to approach worship if our only concern is, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Occasionally someone will say that they didn’t get much out of a particular service. The officially sanctioned answer to that is to ask, Well, what did you put into it? We live in a consumerist world where “What’s in it for me?” seems the most important question. We might want to turn that around: ‘ask not what your church can do for you. Ask rather, what you can do for your church’.
Another reason people might go to church is to meet their friends. Again, nothing wrong with that. Given that we all know that we can pray and worship God in the privacy of our own homes or gardens, or on a walk in the countryside, the fact that we go to church at all must be something to do with the other people who are there. Some of them minister to us in word and song; some in taking care of the practicalities of worship; some in providing a cup of tea or a friendly word. The danger, of course, is that church becomes nothing more than a social club where we exchange pleasantries and catch up with the gossip. (So, when people are exchanging the peace at a communion service, it can easily turn into a moment to talk about the weather or the bus service!)
Do you ever wonder what God thinks of our worship? Do we imagine that God probably likes the same things that we do? Perhaps God would prefer it done a bit more carefully or a bit more enthusiastically, but basically God likes the forms of worship that we like!
Of course, the God of the bible is often very far from pleased with the worship that is offered by God’s people. The prophet Amos rails against the hypocrisy of those who prepare “festivals” and “solemn assemblies”, those who offer sacrifice and song but neglect God’s command to act with justice and righteousness in their daily lives (Amos 5:21-24).
Of course, in the bible, worship is far more than what we do when come together on a Sunday. Paul reminds us that ‘spiritual worship’ is a life given over to God as a “living sacrifice”:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1,2)
What we do when we come together in church must be a part of that – a life that is acceptable to God – and must help us to live our lives as Christians.
In the charismatic tradition, where I came to faith, the emphasis was on worship as an intimate encounter with God: “I really felt the Spirit here today” means that the worship was good. It may not be that different from what people experience in BCP worship or listening to a great organist in a cathedral. You sense that God is present. I still believe that the aim of leading worship is to usher people into a sense of the presence of God. (Of course, God is always present: our sense of that varies with our circumstances and our mood.)
In some traditions, the emphasis is on worship as teaching or edification. Evangelical and liberal traditions have both seen worship as an opportunity to teach people about the Bible, about God. One discussion I sometimes have with colleagues when we share the preparation of a service is around who picks the hymns. To some it’s obvious that the preacher picks the hymns because they know what they are going to talk about and the hymns should support that, leading up to the sermon and responding to it. I make the point that, rather than worship being seen as supporting preaching, preaching should support worship. The preacher’s job is not to teach but to usher people into the presence of God. The best preaching does that: it makes you feel that you have encountered God.
Then there is the idea that worship has power to convert. What impact does our worship have on visitors? To be honest, this is where we probably do need to ask questions about the quality of our provision. We can expect committed worshippers to get something out of a service, even if the preacher goes on too long and they don’t know the hymns. Regular churchgoers can use the time to pray and to reflect. But visitors need to be bowled over by what they find. From the welcome of the sidespersons to the coffee after the service, the whole experience needs to be good. If we are looking at the quality of our worship, a primary question must be to ask what it looks like to visitors. How does it feel to be a visitor to one of our services?
Worship needs to speak of community – to be open and accessible to all, reflecting God’s unconditional love and acceptance. We can’t simply have the church as a club for those who like that sort of thing. How can our worship nurture, encourage and challenge the regular church-goers and reach out to our occasional visitors? I hope you will give some thought to this and to the other questions in this piece, and let me know what you think.
 Evaluating Worship: How Do We Know it is Any Good?, Mark Earey, Grove Books 2016