Making a Real Return to Church Possible

by Paul G. Johnson

Mr. Johnson is an adjunct faculty member of the sociology department at Massachusetts Bay College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 29-August 5, 1987, p. 656. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Many people may feel disillusioned with church worship services, especially when our worship words say one thing but our experience says something else. The words and songs of worship must be translated to current idiom and music.

"The time for the great reversal is at hand," conclude Hartford Seminary sociologists David Roozen and William McKinney, whose recent study indicates that 42 per cent of the baby-boom generation are returning to church (reported in the January 21, 1987, issue of the Lutheran) Many people between the ages of 18 and 35 who attended church only occasionally before 1970 are now attending regularly, their survey shows. The number of older people attending church has stayed about the same since 1970. If 42 per cent are returning, 58 per cent are not, and are growing further away from the church with every passing year. And those "returning" are not generally singles, nor are they individuals more open to social concerns. In some congregations young married couples show up primarily to have infants baptized; once again, a little child is leading them. The problem remains that not much about churches has changed since young people abandoned them during the ‘60s. Studies reveal that the worship format turned them off then, and it hasn’t changed in either "liturgical" or "nonliturgical" churches. How long are those who have "returned" going to remain if what they didn’t like about the church 20 years ago hasn’t changed? And what about people of other ages who are still not participating in mainline churches? Can their absence be blamed on other reasons?

Ironically, the time for a "great reversal" may be at hand, though not in the way Roozen and McKinney conclude. The baby-boomers’ reasons for leaving the church suggest an opportunity for worship renewal in both "high" and "low" churches. Young adults return not as prodigals who rebelled against authority, but as persons with a message for those of us who never left. Moreover, they also bring insights they share with their single (often more liberal) colleagues. Thus, there is a living bridge from the traditional church to the baby-boom church, if we will but consider young adults’ opinions. They can help form a truly new church.

In 1981 the Lutheran Church in America’s parish research department sampled the thinking of 600 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. Several questions asked about worship. From a list of 14 worship components, "vestments and processions" received the lowest rating in terms of importance. Ecclesiastical "emperors" may love to march in solemn assembly, but to most younger church members today’s vestments suggest ostentation -- which they have difficulty associating with Jesus. Seven out of ten respondents preferred a simple, informal, spontaneous worship style over tradition, liturgical precision and clergy prominence.

The questionnaire also revealed young Lutherans’ attitudes toward the LCA’s emphasis on weekly communion. As might be expected, those who preferred simplicity and informality would celebrate the sacrament only once a month -- but with an abbreviated liturgy. As might not be expected, only 1 per cent of those who prefer liturgical tradition considered "holy communion with full liturgy" to be "very important." These respondents appreciate the moments of silent meditation on the bread and wine, but consider to be superfluous the reading or singing of the same words from a book each time in preparation for these moments.

Another intriguing revelation was that the majority of older adult Lutherans harbor the thoughts of their offspring. This fact first came to light in 1978 when 2,000 laypersons and over 700 clergy volunteered their views in a project called "The Lutheran Listening Post." At one point, participants jotted down "what major comment about worship [they would] like to make." Although they were not asked specifically about worship experiences, most focused on them. Seventy-four per cent of the clergy and 68 per cent of the laity described Lutheran worship services as rigid, boring, too formal, repetitious and bound by tradition.

While the laypeople’s reaction might have reflected their opinion of the worship leader or the way the liturgy is read, that could hardly be true of the clergy, who for the most part are the leaders and readers. Clergy must have been responding to the printed text they read. In general, the respondents preferred contemporary language, lay participation, and simplicity in style and clergy attire, which many claimed would enable people to receive the service’s message more deeply into their lives and thereby draw closer to God.

These data will come as news to many Lutherans now merged in the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for these findings were never shared with the LCA constituency. Instead, the report was stamped with those words that ring the death knell for research data: "Not for distribution." The new Lutheran church will inherit a number of studies that contain clues for worship renewal. However, the chance of the reports’ ever seeing the light of day is remote. Such data are anathema to liturgical authorities. When they do seek feedback from the flock, they ask about such matters as how often the Eucharist is offered and what training is provided the laity who read or assist at the altar. What is learned is limited by the question. They never ask why many persons are not attending services, or what is the experience of those who do.

Indeed, the Lutheran Book of Worship itself would not have been published, at least in its present form, had the original field-test data been accepted. For several years prior to 1978, when it was published, a host of LCA congregations had the opportunity to try out parts of the new liturgy. The majority were less than receptive to the new liturgical forms; they wanted less formal, more meaningful, realistic language. However, the LCA’s president in 1976-77 did not share this view. Therefore, he ordered a new sample, composed of congregations known from the prior sample to favor the new liturgy. Not surprisingly, when their supportive views were reported, the LBW was published.

Having served for four years as the liaison between the research department and the LCA worship coordinating committee, I understand why this happened. People preferring "high" liturgy assume that a liturgical language’s validity is like a poodle’s pedigree -- the further back in time it can be traced, the better.

An effect of this assumption is that to data that criticize their emphasis, liturgical authorities respond with calls for "intelligent worship" and liturgical education. They think that those who criticize the liturgy only misunderstand what we do or why we do it. Supporting this confusion is a bewildering lexicon of liturgical language, including such terms as alb, chasuble, cope, cincture, cotta, burse, ciborium, flagon, lavabo and fraction.

The esoteric nature of such terms preserves the clergy’s teaching authority -- a second value held by traditionalists. When the LCA began allowing some laypersons to read the "lessons" (another term that presumes lay ignorance) and assist with communion, the pastor’s role was described as "chief liturgical officer" or "president of the Eucharist." To these worship authorities, worship is not just the church’s main event, it is the only event -- or as the LCA’s worship coordinating committee chairperson stated in his 1978 report "Projections and Perceptions," "a congregation is never the church as much as when it worships." However, worship is but one of five functions that the LCA characterized as church activity. The other four are learning, witness, service and support. The denomination’s staff people who administer these other functions are open to suggestion; they seek input from others, even outsiders. But those who care solely about worship see their views on liturgy as the only correct ones. They offer no dialogue, only direction. They dismiss others’ thoughts and experiences as strictly amateur, despite the fact that more people have something to say about worship than about the other four areas combined. This implies that worship authorities believe that relating liturgy to where people are is tantamount to "making liturgical policy in the street" or "catering" to their needs.

There is a basic flaw in the fabric of this authoritarian attitude: it misunderstands the part that meaning plays in worship. If one has to be educated in the meaning of worship words before worshiping, then meaning comes through and is experienced in the process of education, not during the worship hour itself. If the real encounter with the meaning occurs outside the scheduled worship period, or in a printed commentary, then in order to worship consciously with that meaning in mind, one must constantly exercise his or her memory. Unfortunately, the corporate recitation of words by a group does not provoke the memory, especially when the words are the same -- or overly familiar -- every week. Then the memory is not even needed, the mind is quite capable of focusing on other matters while the words emerge as if one is on automatic pilot.

The idea that the more familiar people are with the words, the more free they are to worship, sounds strange to the majority who find that they must labor mentally just to keep their minds on the subject. Little wonder that the term "liturgy" means "the work of the people." Having to work hard to worship for one hour does not speak well for the One being worshiped or for those worshiping.

Several years ago I interviewed a congregation in Virginia to obtain their evaluation of worship. Tasked groups of adults and youth how much of the church worship hour they spend consciously reflecting on God. While they said they had never thought about this before, only one out of 30 declared that it was a difficult question to answer. The youths’ responses ranged from five to ten minutes, whereas for the adults it was but a little longer. Nonetheless, all were surprised by the admissions -- for they acknowledged that the whole hour is called "worship."

This information indicates that many people may feel disillusioned with church worship services, especially when our worship words say one thing but our experience says something else. Perhaps this is what many of today’s youth and young adults are telling us when they sleep in on Sunday morning, or say, "Mom and Dad, I’m just not motivated. There’s nothing there for me."

It should be noted here that we are not referring to one of those highly chorerographed opening worship services at a church convention or large youth gathering where the music sends chills along the spine and the speaker is "out of this world." We are in touch here with the average Sunday "back home" -- the only service in which most members take part.

One successful practice is the use of silence, which was the Lutheran young adults’ preferred worship component. After all, words are more meaningful when there is time to reflect on them. A good example is provided by Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, which had a weekday evening service that began with a hymn and a prayer. There was no liturgy or sermon. Instead, with the lights dimmed, students sat in silence until they were individually ready to go to the altar railing to receive communion from the chaplain. The chapel was usually filled, and to the surprise of the more "religious" students, the service seemed to draw students never seen at the regular Sunday worship hour.

Again, language used in liturgy might communicate more effectively if it is in the vernacular. In response to the Lutheran survey, one pastor wrote: "The language needs to grow out of the weekday experience of the members of the congregation. It must be based on their own Christian faith, hope and love, not the predispositions of liturgical experts." A layperson observed: "Keep it easy to understand. Why force the congregation to think in order to receive the meaning? We will think just as much if its meaning is more direct."

Such language relates to what worshipers already know. It would also make it easier for visitors to participate in their first service. The connection between worship and witness would be genuine and ongoing, and it would not require a special conference to explain it.

Two congregations on the West Coast intentionally use clear, vernacular language in liturgy. At St. Stephen’s of the Valley Lutheran Church in Palmdale, California, a layperson on the staff writes the liturgy for each Sunday. It elaborates on a contemporary event or the Scripture theme for the day, or both. The pastor told me that "the effect is to help people see and hear their own lives in every part of the worship." (Even the creed is paraphrased with this goal in mind.) Some services are repeated, but months later. Those who want the same words every Sunday attend a traditional service. However, over half of the congregation participates in the new service. Copies of these liturgies are now available on a subscription basis.

Further north, at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fircrest, Washington, all members have a chance to plan the worship for one month per year. Each group, containing various ages, meets a month in advance over supper to begin planning. The pastor is a resource person, but the group makes the decisions. The percentage of members who attend Sunday worship at this church has been one of the highest in the LCA.

A biblical and Reformation dynamic, one that led Martin Luther to translate the Scripture into the vernacular, informs the lay participation approach. Communicating the gospel in commonly used terms aims not to lift people out of their skulls with a sense of God’s presence, but to enter their minds and give them understanding. Jesus spent 30 years getting to know people in order to relate his teaching to their experience. And Paul encouraged everyone who so desired to speak during worship, provided that they were not talking in tongues. Pastors today follow this dynamic when as part of their sermon preparation they talk with laypeople about the text, or engage them in spontaneous dialogue during the worship service. The Word comes alive when preparation and delivery take laypeople’s input into account.

The future of worship in the new Lutheran church and in other mainline churches is like the relationship of students to Latin. Even though Latin can teach us much about the etymology of English, few students are interested. School administrators could change the textbook’s cover or format, or replace the teacher, but unless the students are interested, none of these actions will accomplish much. However, there are several possible approaches, which may also be applicable to liturgy planning.

One option is to do nothing different. Latin has been around for a long time, and carries a tradition. Anybody who knows Latin is drawn to it. It would be a sin to offer an alternative; it would compromise our standards and betray our heritage. It’s either Latin or nothing.

Another option would be to do a better job of promotion. Kindle interest early. Teach children when they are young. Begin giving them little doses of Latin in first grade and continue as they grow. Tease their palates to want more, and they may grow to like it. Some may hate it, but there may be more who like it if we can just expose them to it early enough.

A third option is to legitimate the language in which students think. Study it and investigate from where and when it surfaces (the context). Join them in exploring its syntax and meaning. Apply the tools of learning normally reserved for studying a foreign language to this vernacular form of expression, and make this study a recognized, sanctioned part of the curriculum.

In 1983 a Lutheran bishop wrote that a century ago, we lost many Lutherans as we went through the pain of discarding our mother tongues for English. There were those who fought to retain worship in the Lutheran languages of Northern Europe. They hurt the church. Today, the new Lutheran church needs a different kind of "tradition." Not from German to English, or Swedish to English, but a translation to current idiom and music.

It is difficult to guess where the church would be today had it not translated worship language into English for use here in America. One wonders where we will be ten years from now if we do not take the next step. Those in both high and low places have everything to gain and nothing to lose by taking that step.