The late and legendary W. A. Criswell used to tell of the weekend he visited Manhattan. On Saturday night, his group attended the Broadway play “Hello, Dolly.” It was light and bright, happy and spirited, and left them with a song in their hearts and a lift to their steps. On Sunday, they visited a cold church where the songs were unsingable, the members were unfriendly, and visitors felt like intruders. The contrast between the Broadway play and the frigid church was so stark, Criswell said, “If they’d given an invitation, I would have joined ‘Hello, Dolly’!”
I had a similar experience on my first visit to Cincinnati some thirty years back.
On Friday night, I attended a baseball game at the old Riverfront Stadium and saw the Reds play the way only the “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s could play. Everyone around me was friendly, they were enjoying themselves, and they included me in the mix. At the end of the game, they were all shaking my hand, saying how good it was to have me in the Queen City, and inviting me back. Bear in mind that I was alone and had not known a soul in the city. It was a charming experience.
On Sunday, I attended a worship service across the river in Covington, Kentucky, that was a clone of the Manhattan church Dr. Criswell attended. Cold, formal, irrelevant to anything in my life.
Thereafter, when I have reflected on that experience, I have adapted Dr. Criswell’s line and said, “Had they given an invitation, I’d have joined the Cincinnati Reds!”
What made the difference? Figure that out and you will go a long way to determining why some churches are growing by leaps and bounds and others are dying on the vine.
I’ve not spent hours sorting this out, and your opinion on this is as good as mine, but a few things seem clear. With both “Hello, Dolly” and the baseball game, we were watching professionals do what they did best. These were people who had devoted their lives to their craft and took it seriously. They were well-trained and highly prepared. Every detail of their presentation–whether the songs and acting of the play or the baseball game’s announcers, organ music, seating comfort, and the hot dogs–had been gone over time and again and made as good as they could make it.
And the church? My opinion about dead, cold churches will color my analysis, of course. You get the impression that the worship leaders care little about what they are doing, that they are bored as well as boring, that their main purpose is to get through the service, and that someone actually enjoying what they present is the farthest thing from their minds.
I used that little word “enjoy” on purpose. It’s a lightning rod and draws the ire of many a “pure” worship leader. “We’re here to worship God, not enjoy the service.” Mostly, I agree. However, I’ve noticed that when I worship best, I get a lot out of it myself. And I’ve also learned that if my emotions are not involved and my intellect challenged, if this is just an act my body is performing and words my mouth is uttering, I may as well have stayed home for all the good it’s accomplishing.
The huge question, the massive consideration that must be dealt with by every church staff team planning a worship service is this: how and at what point do we engage the congregation?