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Rethinking worship

As far as I can tell from trends, surveys and statistics, people around us aren’t saying “no” to God, or to faith, or to our congregations.

They are saying “no” to Sunday worship, especially as worship is presented by major denominations.

Our worship just doesn’t connect with people. Wrong time of the week, wrong venue (formal, pews), wrong format (ritualized, stiff, mostly in audience mode). I don’t mean “wrong” in any moral sense, of course. Just not working, not effective in reaching new constituencies.

Older generations who do value Sunday worship keep expecting younger generations to discover an appetite for their treasure. That isn’t happening. Even megachurches are seeing a dwindling appetite for yesterday’s offerings.

If we believe that worshipping God is essential to being fully human and fully alive, then we have an obligation to rethink how we do worship. I’m not talking about the tinkering we did 40 years ago, as we changed to contemporary language, rewrote liturgical prayers and adopted new hymns — and fought bitterly over every change.

I’m talking about meeting people where they are. Serving them, not ourselves. Here are seven basic suggestions:

Don’t abandon Sunday worship. We do it well, and it matters to a lot of people — just not enough people and not younger generations. Instead, add other worship experiences.

Worship in small circles. One primary purpose of worship is to draw us outside ourselves and into communion with other faithful people. Of the many ways to accomplish this, praying and singing in small circles can be uniquely engaging. It’s what Jesus did, and it’s what the early Christians did in homes. Praying and singing in circles doesn’t require pastors or professional musicians or large dedicated space. It’s free of cost, free of denominational overhead, and free of boundaries. Go where the people are.

Worship at many times. The Sunday morning slot isn’t as user-friendly as it once was. Try several times — Sunday evening, weeknights, Saturday, early mornings — and see what works.

Worship in many formats. Sunday morning traditions, such as Holy Communion, have their place, but other formats are necessary, as well. Hymn-singing, meditation, labyrinth walks, sitting with candles, Taize chants, shared silence, nature walks — be creative, and see what works. Don’t be limited by what you have always done.

Worship with many leaders. Ordained leadership is important for some settings, but not necessary for all. Same with trained leadership. Often, people can engage more deeply in worship when it is led by a peer in a non-hierarchical setting.

Get beyond word and sacrament. Worship doesn’t fall short because some common elements are missing. A group holding hands in prayer and chant can be as powerful as any sermon or sacrament.

Work from the heart. One primary criticism of traditional worship is that it is too heady — routinized words, intellectual sermons, doctrine. The heart matters, too. Emotions have their place. A small circle engaged in prayer and song might lead to tears, remorse, deep connections, hopefulness. God welcomes those responses.

These prescriptions apply to small congregations as well as large. We’ve had four decades to read the numbers: doing the one thing they have always done will kill most congregations. Variety will be the spice of life at all size levels.


TOM EHRICH is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is a founder of the Church Wellness Project. His Web site is