Sally Morgenthaler, who has a terrific article on leadership in a “flattened” world in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, has been a pioneer in the world of worship. Her book Worship Evangelism set the tone for a large cultural shift within evangelicalism back in the late nineties.
Lately, she’s been rethinking some of the ideas presented in that work. In a new article from earlier this month, she reflects on the successes and failures of this movement (h/t Jonny Baker). Two years ago she taught her last seminar on worship, a year later she abandoned her worship resource website. This article is an explanation of the disappointment Morgenthaler feels over the way “worship evangelism” became an excuse for not being involved with those outside the Church. Instead of holding worship and mission together, some took her work as an excuse to believe that quality worship is a substitute for missional involvement.
Instead of attracting the unchurched, many found that their emphasis on evangelistic worship was not living up to that intention. Morgenthaler writes,
Were these worship-driven churches really attracting the unchurched? Most of their pastors truly believed they were. And in a few cases, they were right. The worship in their congregations was inclusive, and their people were working hard to meet the needs of the neighborhood. Yet those churches whose emphasis was dual—celebrated worship inside, lived worship outside—were the minority. In 2001 a worship-driven congregation in my area finally did a survey as to who they were really reaching, and they were shocked. They’d thought their congregation was at least 50 percent unchurched. The real number was 3 percent.
She later describes the movie Saved as an example of the true attitudes of many secular folks to the evangelical movement, and goes on to cite a journalist who observed worship in one of the congregations that has invested heavily in high-production worship for non-Christians,
“The [worship team] was young and pretty, dressed in the kind of quality-cotton-punk clothing one buys at the Gap. ‘Lift up your hands, open the door,’ crooned the lead singer, an inoffensive tenor. Male singers at [this] and other megachurches are almost always tenors, their voices clean and indistinguishable, R&B-inflected one moment, New Country the next, with a little bit of early ’90s grunge at the beginning and the end.
“They sound like they’re singing in beer commercials, and perhaps this is not coincidental. The worship style is a kind of musical correlate to (their pastor’s) free market theology: designed for total accessibility, with the illusion of choice between strikingly similar brands. (He prefers the term flavors, and often uses Baskin-Robbins as a metaphor when explaining his views.) The drummers all stick to soft cymbals and beats anyone can handle; the guitarists deploy effects like artillery but condense them, so the highs and lows never stretch too wide. Lyrics tend to be rhythmic and pronunciation perfect, the better to sing along with when the words are projected onto movie screens. Breathy or wailing, vocalists drench their lines with emotion, but only within strict confines. There are no sad songs in a megachurch, and there are no angry songs. There are songs about desperation, but none about despair; songs convey longing only if it has already been fulfilled.”
Morgenthaler’s response is direct, “ No sad songs. No angry songs. Songs about desperation, but none about despair. Worship for the perfect. The already arrived. The good-looking, inoffensive, and nice. No wonder the unchurched aren’t interested.”
I’m not capturing all of the nuances of the article here, but these are some of the high points that stood out to me. I would encourage you to read the whole article to get a sense of Morgenthaler living through the shift from modernity to “whatever it is that we’re now experiencing” (post-modernity, hyper-modernity, post-Christendom, whatever). In closing, she describes the uncomfortable call she is currently experiencing,
I am currently headed further outside my comfort zones than I ever thought I could go. I am taking time for the preacher to heal herself. As I exit the world of corporate worship, I want to offer this hope and prayer. May you, as leader of your congregation, have the courage to leave the “if we build it, they will come” world of the last two decades behind. May you and the Christ-followers you serve become worshipers who can raise the bar of authenticity, as well as your hands. And may you be reminiscent of Isaiah, who, having glimpsed the hem of God’s garment and felt the cleansing fire of grace on his lips, cried, “Here am I, send me.”
May we all be so uncomfortable.