Why I dislike church worship surveys very, very much

7 Feb

The pastors of the EC Church have a Facebook page.  It’s a place where we pastors talk shop throughout the week, ask each other questions, debate, and so on.  Recently a pastor friend of mine asked the following question:

Has anyone ever surveyed their congregation regarding worship style? If so, do you have any questions that my worship committee might use?

I knew I had to respond.  We’ve done worship surveys at Faith Church.  Maybe some of you remember them.  How would you answer his questions?  Want to know what I said?  here is my response:

Don’t survey them! It always went bad for us!!!! Ha! That is true though.

My eye starts to twitch when I think about surveys.  They give the impression of interest in hearing from people and caring about their perspective.  But somehow it has not gone well for us.  I think that might be due to believing that majority rules, or that majority is always right.  At Evangelical Seminary’s recent Faith in the Marketplace breakfast, speaker Jim Smucker (CEO of Bird-In-Hand Corporation) gave a wonderful presentation, including a clip from the movie Invictus.  Please watch it here before reading further.

So I knew I had to say a bit more in response to my friend’s question:

When I said, “don’t survey them,” above, the more I think about it, the more I think that is serious. By surveying them about worship style, how could you avoid promoting a consumerist mentality toward worship? In 2007 Faith Church was going through worship difficulties. One proposal (which I admittedly favored) was going to two services, one traditional, one contemporary. I was wrong. Though kicking and screaming, I supported our decision not to go to two services. Instead we attempted a blend. Our reasoning was that we wanted our people to practice unity over and above their personal preferences. Many were unable to demonstrate that kind of sacrificial attitude. Faith Church is now smaller from a resulting worship exodus, and has ongoing budgetary concerns.

I wonder often if we should have just given people what they wanted, and hoped to minister to them (change their minds) after keeping them here. This is speculation, but after decades of consumer-oriented worship, I highly doubt we would change their mind. Could the Spirit do it? Sure. But we didn’t go that route, and here we are smaller. About two years ago, we evaluated the blend idea, and found that wanting too. Attempting to place everyone in a position where they get a little of what they want, and have the opportunity to sacrifice a little bit, it wasn’t working. Trying to please everyone leads to pleasing no one.

So we went back to the foundation, asking “what does it mean for the gathered church to worship God?” The traditional style doesn’t have a corner on the market. Neither does the contemporary or the blend or high liturgy or anything else for that matter. Our conclusion was that we needed to lead our people in a varied, experimental, creative, biblical, Christ-centered, joyful, worship of God. Now, we tinker with order of worship almost every week. We introduce elements of worship from a variety of traditions. Some weeks an entire worship service is devoted to one of those traditions. We practice variety in giving, with communion, with baptism, etc. One week we didn’t have a worship service and instead did a Church Has Left The Building…worshiping by serving. We worship twice each summer in a local park. And we’re looking into more options this year. Not everyone likes every Sunday, but we’re no longer driven by their preferences. After a Silent Sunday (Quaker and Taize influenced), I asked for feedback, and one couple gave the best compliment: “We didn’t care for it, but we respect what you’re doing.” They’re still here a year later.

Unless you can avoid promoting consumer worship, I urge you not to survey them. Lead them into worshiping God.

So while we don’t have worship figured out at Faith Church, I hope we never do.  Instead I hope we always experiment, having teachable hearts that expectantly seek to worship God in new and old ways as much as possible.

13 Responses to “Why I dislike church worship surveys very, very much”

  1. Christian February 8, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    Joel, I’m not your intended audience here, so I won’t be offended if you don’t post my comment. I think all you’ve done by blending your service style is change your own motivations and intentions. But this denies why any of those people are in your building in the first place. They are generally there because they agree with your overarching view of god, which is different than another churches view. This is already a very egocentric driven choice. Imagine your post being about every week you presented various theological perspectives as truth. So one week you preach that god is totally sovereign and in control of all events bending all outcomes to his will and then the next week you preach open theism, where god is evolving and reacting to events. This would reveal the consumer mentality of your audience. I know your separating, as many Christians do, that worship style is a preference issue, but I think the larger truth is that people are already following the god they prefer. So because you present a theological landscape that fits their god style preference, they show up and consume it. By thinking that preference is only about worship style you obfuscate this point. It might also be true that the leadership is also practicing a consumption of consumers they can abide. In other words,there may be a limit to truly opposite views about god. For instance, would you tolerate a faction who believed differently about how salvation worked, baptism, the Holy Spirit? What if some thought believing in the virgin birth doctrine was a misinterpretation of the book of Isaiah and Jesus’s divinity did not depend on this? IMO, It’s all subjective and people are both worshipping and believing in a god they prefer.

    Respectively,

    C

    • joelkime February 8, 2013 at 9:18 am #

      Great to hear from you, Christian, and very thought-provoking comments! I’ve had discussions about something similar with a friend of mine who is Eastern Orthodox. His view is that Orthodoxy has the best claim to being the one true church, and frankly he has a case to be made. It was the Western church which did the innovating. But that’s for another discussion. While he knows this is not going to happen, his point is that all should return to Orthodoxy. Might that be the most anti-consumerist approach? The book Becoming Orthodox tells the story of a group which did just that. But is that the only way to practice anti-consumerist unity? John Armstrong’s book You’re Church Is Too Small is an excellent resource as well. I would counter by saying that theological distinctives are needed and good, if and only if, they are held with a generous spirit of unity. I agree with you that the temptation has been to be far too consumerist in our theological distinctives. Over the years I have become less and less concerned about participating in a congregation that fits my theology as closely as possible. People do need a strong dose of humility when it comes to hermeneutics and theology. Thomas Oden’s “Comic Theology” is a great example of this: we should all be able to heartily laugh at our attempts to explain God. We should be willing to learn and study a variety of views. I know I have been at times guilty of sectarianism. But that doesn’t mean we should dissolve our unique perspectives. I think a variety of perspectives can produce a healthy accountability for one another. In the end we say at our church that we try to major on the majors and minor on the minors. You don’t have to agree with our denomination to become a member, to teach, etc. We just ask that you politely tell us how and why you disagree, and give the denomination’s Articles of Faith a fair shake. I try to do the same from the pulpit in the other direction.

      • Christian February 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

        Yea, I get your majority vs. minority. That’s like a contemporary version of Augustine’s “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity”. I think I’m putting forward the idea that even the major things fall under the subjectiveness and consumerism. Have you ever met a conservative individual whose god was more liberal? Of course, the most ardent theological opponents will tell you they are doing scholarly exegesis. This should be humbling, especially in the realm of superstitions.

      • joelkime February 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

        I hear you. There is a great temptation to create God in our own image. How to avoid it? Perhaps the varieties of theological discourse, once again practicing humility, can offer the necessary accountability. I do think it is possible to get beyond an entirely subjective approach to understanding God.

        However, it seems to me that the first characteristic of God we need to adhere to is his incomprehensibility. He is not totally comprehensible, and yet he has revealed himself most clearly in Jesus. Maybe the best next step is to study Jesus. “He who has seen me has seen the father.” Your thoughts?

      • Christian February 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

        I think that it’s a way of knowing that cannot be verified the way anything else can be verified and yet people are very confident, overly confident in fact. I think it can be argued that not only is it a temptation to create god in our image this is in fact what is happening. I appreciate your Jesus assertion, however we only know him through the lens of the New Testament and this requires subjective interpretation, an acceptance that it was written by god himself, an acceptance of harmonization of clear contradictions and I suppose an acceptance of the trinity. All those things must be presuppositionally accepted before you can even start. Back to the egocentricity nature of what we think god thinks, check out this study: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/51/21533.full.pdf

      • joelkime February 8, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

        I wonder if this relates to your initial comment “I’m not your intended audience.” I’m interested in hearing the story of your last 20 years since college days.

        In response, it seems like faith is at the heart of your concern. Are you essentially saying that faith is opposed to reality? Or am I totally misunderstanding you. I agree that arrogant faith is awful, but is it possible there is another way to look at those concerns (biblical inconsistencies, trinity, etc) in a way that affirms faith in Christ?

      • Christian February 8, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

        Yes, I think your right. I am writing a blog that I will soon publish about my own reason for rejecting faith as a reasonable way to know anything but certainly something like Christianity claims. How do you resolve this for yourself, since you already admit the subjectivity of theology? I’ll advertise the blog when it is ready.

      • joelkime February 9, 2013 at 8:33 am #

        I look forward to the blog. It’s been a while, so my info might be wrong, but I believe Alvin Plantinga has done work in the area of the rationality of faith. Top notch scholar. Admittedly he is coming from a perspective of faith, but nonetheless is well-respected by philosophers of all stripes. Some say he’ll go down as the most significant philosopher of our time.

        But you asked how I resolve this for myself. Not being much of a philosopher or theologian, I’ll try to do my best to describe my perspective. I’m going to use the word “seems” a lot in the following sentences because I admit I don’t have a lot of knowledge in this discussion, and even if I don’t use “seems” in a given sentence, it is the context I intend for everything I write. My point is that I know I don’t have it all figured out, and I don’t want to come across as if I do.

        That said, it seems to me that faith underlies all inquiry, including the scientific. The scientific method is based in a sort of faith. We could call it scientism, naturalism, or materialism, or maybe some other “ism”. I could be defined as the belief that science is all there is. While there seems to be a purely objective pursuit to scientific method, does it not also have subjective basis, just like theology? One angle is an assumption (subjective, it seems) that the supernatural is not fact. But can the scientific method prove that? Instead an atheist version of the scientific method takes it as an article of faith that there is no supernatural. So I see faith as the underlying basis for all systems. If I am correct, then the concern is which faith best fits reality.

      • Christian February 9, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

        You a correct Alvin Plantiga is a respected thinker. I saw him speak at USF, Tampa. He addressed the philosophy department with what he called the defeators of naturalism. He has been addressed by other philosophers, but I think that is probably outside the scope of this post!

        I appreciate your humility in posing your arguments. I will respectfully, with all the ability fonts and syntax can muster, disagreee! I would humbly suggest that you are seeking to level the ground here by saying that seemingly everything requires faith. Pretending that where true for a moment, it still would be a bad reason to accept anything, since it simply renders all things things untestable. It might seem that way, but that is exactly the opposite of how science works.

        Science is the opposite of faith – it relies on observation and evidence. When science does not know, it says “we do not yet know”. Trusting in science and the scientific method isn’t blind – it’s based on centuries of hindsight, in which scientific inquiries led to answers that could predict the future, whether it’s eclipses or the effects of antibiotics or the way electrons move around computer chips.

        To be fair, it can be argued that a certain amount of “faith” exists with how average person accepts what science says. Few people are in a position to confirm the results of modern scientific experiments so they have to accept what others say based on their experience and authority. Unlike with religion, however, anyone can in principle confirm those experiments on their own — and the ability of others to repeat experiments to make sure they are right is one of the things which defines the scientific method.

        Moreover, most people can observe the practical impacts of what science says and thus don’t need to conduct experiments to confirm that scientists are right. Not everyone is able to understand the theories behind how electricity operates, but everyone is able to witness the obvious and dramatic effects of electricity at work — both good and bad.

        You are correct that science cannot disprove the supernatural. It cannot disprove unicorns, or other fantastical beings either…but this is not an argument to assert them is it?

        Here is a video from my blog: http://www.chasingblackswans.com/tuesday-tv-the-faith-cake/

        I guess your the first one to see it! I’m hoping to engage in meaningful debates, with respectful dialogues. I have spent more than half my life as a Christian and needs a place to examine my own thoughts, challenge and be challenged. I’ll be advertising it on Facebook and twitter soon and look forward to feedback.

      • joelkime February 9, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

        Looking forward to your blog, Christian. Thanks for sharing that with me, and thanks for such a good dialogue! I would still love to hear the story of your last 20 years.

        Would you agree that the nature of science and faith is our point of disagreement. I respect your position on the nature of scientific method, but is it not still built on a foundation of faith? I can see how this discussion could be like two mirrors facing one another, producing a endless image in either direction. And yet it seems to me that our point of disagreement is not one of scientific method, but of methodology, which is the domain of faith. But perhaps I am wrong about that?

        People much more intelligent than I have delved into these matters, so I’ve got some studying to do!

      • joelkime February 15, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

        Hi Christian, I’ve read a bit through your blog, and I was most interested in your story. Thanks for sharing that. I read somewhere that you received hate mail from Christians. So sorry to hear that. I am wondering what brought you to the point of commenting on my post?

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