Many congregations have found that adding services to their worship schedule seems to attract more people. Indeed, statistics tell us that any additional worship opportunity will bring more people, especially if what is added is different from the "regular" service, not only in form or style, but also in time or day of the week. That increase is exactly why many support a "menu" approach to worship. They believe it is important to offer as many different styles and options as possible. The variety will, no doubt, attract more people, and bringing in more people is a benefit that is faithful to the goal of the proclamation of the gospel.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America worship staff, however, has some concerns about this approach. Especially in a small congregation, splitting the existing assembly into smaller groups in order to attract a few more people may cause real damage in the long run. Ideally, a congregation’s worship is a powerful expression of the common faith of the Christian community. Gathering as large a number of people as possible means that the liturgy is sung and spoken with confidence. Splitting the congregation might diminish the quality of the worship and might actually have a negative effect on a visitor or seeker.
If one understands the liturgy as the central event of a congregation’s life, the liturgy should unify, not divide the congregation. More than any other activity, the regular gathering around God’s Word and Holy Communion brings members together. In that way, the Sunday liturgy connects evangelism, social ministry, stewardship, education, fellowship and all other areas of parish life. Splitting a congregation into worshiping groups based on personal preferences may lessen the power of the liturgy to unify. It also denies the catholicity of the church. If worship options are based on personal tastes, demographics, or "market segmentation," where will the church express its unity by gathering as one people?
In many ways, the Christian community is called upon to challenge current cultural values. The culture tells us that we reach people by targeting or "narrow-casting." In the culture of the individual, each person has his or her own Web page, computer, and interest groups. Christian community, however, expresses a whole. God "broadcasts" a unified message of life grace to a diverse community united by Baptism into Christ.
It would not be appropriate to say that a congregation should never offer more than one regularly scheduled worship service a week. Sometimes there are simply too many people for a single worship service. Two or more services can still express the unity of the community when the basic structure and texts of the liturgies remain consistent, even with different musical styles.
Certainly, congregations can benefit from renewing worship and seeking to revitalize their worship with new music. In some ELCA congregations, liturgical and musical life has become repetitious, devoid of active participation by the worshipers. A broadening and enlivening of the musical repertoire in every congregational liturgy is a worthwhile goal, not only for the visitor, but also for the regular worshiper. Not only can revitalized worship appeal to a wider range of personal tastes, it can also convey a means of expressing the very nature of the church. Music and all the arts powerfully convey God’s Word as that Word forms and renews faith. Imagine one worship service centered in Word and Sacrament, based on the structure of our inherited liturgy, celebrated with graciousness, reverence and natural hospitality. Such a service might juxtapose German and English hymns, chant, contemporary song, and music from all corners of the global church. Such a revitalized worship event:
- truly reflects the whole church, not just one piece of it,
- is faithful to Lutheran theological and liturgical tradition,
- is consistent with ecumenical practice as it focuses on Christian unity,
- can be lively and engage both long-time members and visitors,
- uses a variety of music that reflects the diversity of the church.
While making decisions about adding services that offer stylistic options, congregational leaders must carefully consider the overall long-term implications of their choices for the life of the congregation.
The model for our worship should be biblical, not culture driven. The metaphor is the wedding feast of God, where all are invited by the messenger who goes out to the highways and byways, calling all to attend the one banquet. Those who are truly hungry and thirsty will not seek to gather only with those of similar preference, but will join with all believers to enjoy the rich feeding that God offers.