10 Things Smart Progressive Churches Know About Worship, Part 1

Column by Rev. Fran Pratt on 19 December 2019 0 Comments

I have been a worship leader, liturgist, and musician in various church contexts for nearly 20 years, and I have ideas about how we, who are re-imagining faith and church, can proceed. In particular, progressive clergy, worship leaders, and liturgists need to re-imagine, redefine, and reclaim the concept and practice of Worship. Regardless of our tradition of origin, whether we consider ourselves ex-Evangelical, Mainline, Christian Mystic, or otherwise, we have an opportunity to think critically about our worship practices as we move forward.

Church no longer has a corner on the market of spirituality; this is a truth the church must admit if it is to survive. But we don’t need it! We don’t have ego skin in games of hierarchy. So we’re free to be creative, to break rules, and to think outside the accepted boxes. And I encourage us all to re-think what we typically call “worship” in our gatherings. We can craft liturgies and gatherings that are meaningful and attentive to the times and our authentic experience. We can create space for spiritual awakening and growth.  Toward that end, I offer you 10 things smart progressive churches know about worship:

1) The “Worship Wars” are over; We can opt out. This style is not better than that style. We know that musical style depends on the audience/congregation, and we’ll use whatever style of music works best as a formational tool and to create space for authentic experience of the Divine and of community. Ideally, style should shift as the congregation shifts, and should reflect the mission and values of the community. Style should also reflect the diversity of a community.

This means, preachers and leaders, that sometimes you’re going to have to sacrifice your preferred aesthetic. A handful of leaders should not hold the musical style of a community hostage – the style should be reflective of the range of ages and ethnicities in the seats. The music should serve them, not force them to serve it.

The style should also be sensitive to the lived experience of your people. For instance, in my community we have a lot of people who are making a last-ditch effort at church and are coming out of a lot of evangelical spiritual trauma. They are resistant to anything that feels emotionally manipulative. Some super-emotive modern songs just don’t work for them; they bring up too much harmful history. So I try not to offer songs that might trigger trauma. Instead I offer them emotional and intimate moments within songs rich with theology and missional purpose.  To this end, I’ve found that a mix of traditional and new works well in my community.

Pastors and Worship Leaders don’t have to take sides in the Traditional vs Contemporary debate. It’s dualistic and ego-driven anyway. We can draw from a wide variety of styles and traditions (being mindful of avoiding cultural appropriation) and time-periods to synthesize a meaningful, soul-nourishing, ear-pleasing blend of well-loved, shared liturgy.

2) A well-rounded gathering reflects a variety of spiritual postures. It offers congregants opportunities to express more than just joy, praise, or exaltation – expressions we might judge to be “positive.” There are other important songs we need to sing: songs of justice and resistance to evil, songs of peacemaking and forgiveness, songs of confession, songs of hopefulness, songs of thankfulness, songs of lament and grief, and so on.

And these postures aren’t only constrained to songs. The liturgy as a whole can create space for this spectrum of feeling and expression. The rituals we imagine together to help us process change can tap into this variety. Yes, by all means go to church to get the joy, but don’t pretend your people aren’t also dealing with pain. Acknowledge and facilitate your community’s process as you look at your gatherings holistically.

3) A well-rounded gathering presents a variety of elements. If we are coming out of Evangelicalism, gone are the days of “5 songs and a sermon” – there is more to do together. If we are coming from traditional denominations, Black Church traditions, or other specific cultural lineages, perhaps we are more familiar with certain liturgical streams or other expectations. We all have our version of The Way Things Are Done. But creativity is part of our Imago Dei, the Church is well-placed to trail-blaze that truth, particularly in our gatherings.

We don’t serve our traditions; our traditions must serve us. So now is the time to examine whether it’s working. Some questions for thought:

  • Are we providing a nourishing communal spiritual space for our congregations? (Hint: ask people how they feel about this)
  • Are we offering a balance of intellectual and emotional space and physical integration? (a balance of Doing, Thinking, and Feeling?)
  • Do we need to add ritual or liturgical elements?
  • What are we resistant to? New music? New Technology? Fresh liturgy?
  • Is the diversity of people (age, race, education history, etc.) gathered being considered?
  • Are we addressing real-time issues in our liturgy and offering helpful space to process them?

Thankfully, there are plenty of formational tools available to us. In addition to music and teaching moments, we have many options for meaningful gatherings. Consider these:

  • Contemplative forms of prayer

………………..Lectio Divina and Visio Divina
………………..Guided Meditation and Imagery
………………..Centering Prayer

  • Litany
  • Rituals of various kinds (including Eucharist)
  • Prayers of the People (or other communal prayer moment)
  • Poetry (and Slam Poetry)
  • Video
  • Drama
  • Silence
  • Communal Meals
  • Embodied movement

Our teams finds it helpful to frame our work in planning services and gatherings as Making Sacred Art. This opens us up to a wider expression of creativity and energy. We are making sacred art in our communal meetings, and embodying the creativity of the Divine in our space.

4) Intentional liturgy works better. I pay a great deal of attention to the lyrics I ask my congregation to sing. I want them to be able to sing a song like they mean it, and I want the lyrics to be deeply meaningful to them. The best response I can get from my community is when they tell me things like: “that song brought me to tears” or, “I can’t get that song out of my head” or “that song is on repeat in my car.” I want the songs and liturgy to be deeply resonant to my people’s experience and nourishing to their souls. Here are characteristics I look for in songs I introduce into my repertoire:

  • Singability – Is the melody catchy and memorable? Can novice singers reproduce it? Is it keyed (or can it be keyed) accessibly? Overly complex melodies discourage participation, as do overly boring and simplistic ones. Look for beautiful middle-ground melodies.

  • Theological robustness – Is it true? Does it avoid theological gray areas? Does it teach us things we need to remember about the goodness of God or the complexity of human experience?

  • Beauty – Do we like it? Is it pleasant to hear and sing? Do people hum the melody while cleaning up after service?

  • Missionality – is the lyrical theme reflective of our collective mission and theology? For instance, if we believe, as Christ said, that the Kingdom of God is near at hand, do our songs reflect that? Do they encourage peacemaking? Do they bolster our justice work?

  • Stance/Address – Are we singing TO God, rather than only ABOUT God? Are we singing like we believe God is present in the room. Whenever possible I look for songs that directly address God because I want to encourage Divine interaction.

5) The best kind of congregational singing is loud and a little off-key. Worship leaders should be solid singers, but should encourage communities to sing enthusiastically regardless of skill level. Song are liturgy and singing is a communal work; no one is barred from participating. This should be stated regularly.

You are discouraging your folks from singing IF:

  • Your songs require classical vocal training or a 2-octave range to sing
  • Your song are keyed too high (like most hymnals) or low for an average person to sing along with
  • Your melodies are so complex that they can’t be memorized in a few tries
  • You don’t repeat songs enough for people to become familiar with them

And that’s bad, because singing together is like congregational glue. Here’s something I say to my folks so regularly that they can recite it with me: Singing is a physical act that helps us access our spiritual selves. Melody and lyrics do more than spoken word alone – there is an alchemy to music that strikes human hearts and minds more deeply, accessing our memory and emotional centers more readily. Because of this, music is a valuable teaching and formational tool. But it’s also a tool for comforting and soothing broken or discouraged hearts.

Every human society we know of produces/d some kind of melodic or rhythmic music.  It’s innate to human experience and expression. We need great music in our gatherings, and whatever we can do to encourage our folks to sing and participate should be done: Change styles? Sing simpler songs? Key songs lower? Find better songs? Whatever it is, do it. (Hint: you can even hire me to consult with you about it.)

Read Part 2 here.

~ Rev. Fran Pratt



What do you consider the Bible to be? Is it uniquely inspired by God? Is it different from other literature? Is it authoritative? If it is not all authoritative, how do you determine the parts that are? If the Bible is not divinely inspired, where do moral truths come from? Are moral values eternal and universal for all cultures?


Dear Reader,

John Scotus Eriugena (815 – 877 AD), a great Irish theologian, philosopher, and poet said that God speaks to us through two books, “One is the book of 'scripture,' physically little. The other is the big book, the book of 'creation,’ as vast as the universe.”  It’s from this understanding that I’m responding to your good and important questions.

Our primary operating instructions are in the living system around us, the 13.7 billion year story of which we are a part.  The story of the universe – how we got here and all of the interdependencies that make our life possible – is an incredible story!  It is intricate, numinous, simple and complex.  Creation, therefore, is our primary authority (and those who live near to the Earth teach us this again and again and again…).  Written texts, while secondary, are also vital.  There is so much to learn after all, and we have within us many learning styles and ways to comprehend information.

Throughout time, a variety of interpreters have offered multiple ways to better understand the story (or parts of the story) so that we can both appreciate it with the awe and reverence it deserves, while also living honorably and justly within it.  These interpreters are biologists, poets, theologians, ethicists and mystics.  Western civilization credits the Bible with a lot of authority.  This isn’t true everywhere and other parts of the world regard other and additional texts to be profound and instructive interpretations of how to live well within Creation and with one another.

When words are “revealed” to the interpreters (and this happens through mystical experiences as well as dedicated scholarship and inspired acts of creativity), the authors, I want to believe, are doing their absolute best to record truths as they understand them (in that moment) for their readers.  Some truths are highly useful in a triage situation (i.e., how to stay safe in an epidemic or natural disaster), and other truths hold deep revelations that may require the patience of contemplation.  In the later instance, relevance can remain for generations to come – consider for instance, the writings of the Christian mystics, or the Sufi saint Rumi.  Poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, or scientists like Carl Sagan, are a few examples of those we reference when we’re trying to describe concepts difficult to convey with words.

So, is the Bible inspired by God?  Yes, definitely…and so are other texts that attempt to express the teachings of Creation so that we might understand and practice them well.  You have asked how to discern which parts of the Bible are authoritative.  Like many of the sacred texts written before and around this period, the Bible was a response to the political situation and societal practices of the time.  The writing always invites the reader to consider many ways to receive the teaching – metaphorical, historical, cosmological, and psychological.  If you are interested in learning more about this, you may enjoy reading, The Bible and Human Transformation by Walter Wink.

Over time, moral truths have been attributed to the Bible, the Torah, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon, the Popol Vuh, and etc.  Each of them, a divinely inspired set of phrases, has done its very best to record origin stories and legacies as well as to provide guidance for how we might best live in peaceful, integrated and honorable relationship with all beings.  While it is most certainly true that certain ecosystems require ways of living that do not apply universally, it is also true that Creation’s teachings are reliable and trustworthy.  It is a lifelong endeavor to learn the Big Book of Creation.  We are most successful when we undertake our studies with the support of others in spiritual community and/or spiritual direction, as well as tending our prayer, dreams and other contemplative practices, and of course, becoming intimate with Creation itself.

May the Big Book and the little books be sources of nourishment for you on your journey!

~ Rev. Lauren Van Ham




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