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Worship brings no transformational change for many

Worship brings no transformational change for many

There’s a new study out from Barna. In the study it is reported that roughly a quarter of the people attending church on Sundays are experiencing profound life changing connections. A quarter are finding something is different. But almost half the people who go to church on a Sunday are feeling like nothing is different. For half the church going public, the experience of a transformational experience with God isn’t happening on Sunday morning.

The Barna report is found here. There’s quite a lot of information in the report, more than just the percentage of people who feel their lives are transformed by worship, but that to me is the most surprising result to be found.

Skye Jethani makes the following observations about the implications of the report:

“What should we conclude from this report from Barna? That is going to depend upon your own setting and congregation. But here are a few of my wonderings:

-Many (perhaps most) churches still have structures/values that appeal to those 50+. Despite all of the rhetoric since the 90s about “emerging generations” and new models of church, there is little evidence it has been implemented broadly or effective.

-Is the problem really our worship services, or what we expect from them? Some might look at these numbers and respond by updating their music selection, adding some icons or candles, and getting younger leaders up front. And that might be wise. But I wonder if most people aren’t “experiencing God” in these gatherings because they aren’t experiencing God Monday through Saturday either. Perhaps we (church leaders) have over-emphasized worship gatherings because they are something we can control, when we ought to be training people to commune with God apart from formal services.

-Finally, a friend of mine has vented in the past about all of the “transforming lives” talk that permeates ministry gatherings these days. “Transformation isn’t our job,” he rants, “it’s God’s! All we can do is lead people to him.” Granted, my friend is highly Reformed, but he has a point. Might it be time to consider what Paul said about ministry in 1 Corinthians 3? Some plant the seeds, others water it, but ultimately it is God who causes the growth. I don’t believe we should ignore outcomes or allow lazy, ineffectual discipleship to take root in our churches. But we must also admit that life transformation is more mysterious, more God-driven, than making widgets in a factory.”

I’m particularly taken with the last point. “God gives the growth” is a reminder to all us in active parish ministry that we don’t have to take responsibility for every perceived failure nor for every imagined success. Our job is to prepare the field and wait for God to send the sun, the rain, even the seeds. At best maybe we can get in a little weeding every now and then.


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I think Skye’s Reformed friend is on to something. I don’t think that worship’s purpose is to be “transformative.” God transforms us, and that takes place both inside church and outside of it. Expecting what is for many a once a week experience of worship to transform us is not only asking an awful lot from 60 to 90 minutes, but it mistakes the appropriate focus of worship – it’s not about us.

Bill Dilworth


Couldn’t agree more, texasbishop. Energy and enjoyment are crucial – and good preaching can make a huge difference. I actually think these things alone could pretty much cure any problem with perceived “stale worship” without the need for any change in the rites at all; most of them are very basic now. (I also think the rites are perfectly amenable to all sorts of “new media” formats as they are, too – limited only by the creative imagination.)


When it comes to worship conversations I hear a lot about types of music, word choice, flow, the need for revision, and ideas about how we can expand our worship.

I would like to two thoughts to our discussion:

1. I wonder if how we lead worship, the celebrants attitude, the energy expressed and the prayerful engagement in leading worship (or lack thereof) does not affect more of people’s experience than the list above. That in fact the celebrant/leader’s manner and enjoyment of worship is a key and essential ingredient in people’s experience.

2. Good preaching as a necessary component to transformational worship.

We have been “working” and revising our worship for a long time. I am not arguing for continuing that work. I am not arguing about the need for a broad acceptance of different types of worship expressions.

I am saying that there are two ingredients to worship that are key and do not get much attention by our church. And, they may be two of the most essential ingredients…


Dr. Shy makes some good points about “giving people. concrete suggestions/programs and guidance in spiritual development and formation.” It’s really very true that spiritual “conscious contact with God” is a daily practice; once a week is not enough to make much of a difference, in my experience. I definitely notice for myself, anyway, that I feel much better when I do these things daily; I’m much more centered. (I’m glad, too, that Dr. Shy points out that this isn’t merely subjective!)

And I really like the idea of spiritual direction for everybody. This is a very ordinary thought in A.A. and other 12-Step programs – “spiritual direction” happens in meetings and with sponsors and in doing the 12 Steps – but it seems not to be much in evidence in the church. I suppose Confession – AKA “the Rite of Reconciliation” – is one practice that could help, but spiritual direction involves more than just confession.

It would interesting to think more about this, and maybe about how to emphasize these things: the day-to-day practice of prayer, meditation, and perhaps just ordinary conversation with others about our spiritual lives and paths.

Murdoch Matthew

The survey is interesting to me as one of the fifty percent — a lifetime of religious practice, over a half-century of Anglican living (lay reading, working for church organizations, a month’s residence in monasteries) — and I’ve never felt any metaphysical experience, no “transformation.” It’s tempting to think that no one actually experiences “the presence of God” — they just hear people all around them talking about it, touting it, and assume that someone must be having this experience that everyone talks about. Or maybe they’re able to find elements of common experience that they can give spiritual labels to.

The survey indicates that maybe a quarter of church people have primary experience. Maybe these are the visionaries that Mr. Ng sees as attracting the rest. I doubt that the church as a whole is “bringing people to God.” It brings them to the church’s story about God, and they’re invited to internalize it through repetition and meditation. It’s not magic, and its effects do not always follow.

At the Episcopal Book Club in the 1960s we said the daily offices and had daily Eucharist. It was right for us to do so as an incipient religious community, but no transformations were observed. Dr. Shy probably has the key — something like mindful meditation is needed, not just liturgy and fellowship. And meditation as a spiritual discipline, not what I was taught, trying to imagine oneself living in the scriptural stories, being present at the Cross, e.g.

The church seems to be fading in contemporary life because it’s not necessary. Counseling is available from many secular sources; fellowship and civic action likewise. The church offers local community in a traditional setting — and music. The Story offers a center for organization and identity, but its metaphysical claims don’t much impress nowadays. I want to know more about the twenty-five percent — and the other twenty-five percent who are getting something from the enterprise.

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