Worship: from Survival to Revival

by Rashard Allen

Turmoil

March 13, 2020: Then-President Trump declared a state of emergency in the United States for the Covid-19 Pandemic. Much of North America soon after entered various forms of shutdown. We were afraid, confused, and in some cases, angry; some for the loss of lives and health, others for the loss of freedom. Most churches discontinued in-person services, at least temporarily. Churches scrambled to find ways to provide worship services for its members. We turned to livestreaming, pre-recorded services, Youtube worship playlists, and Zoom services. Many institutions that previously were light on technology were thrust into the 21st century. The results certainly varied, but nonetheless out of desperation and necessity was borne some of the greatest displays of creativity the Church had seen in decades. 

May 25, 2020: George Floyd was murdered by veteran Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while being arrested under suspicion of forgery. Widespread civil unrest ensued as pent-up frustration from hundreds of years of racial oppression and injustice spilled out onto the streets. Again, the North American Church found itself scrambling, this time being thrust into the 21st century of civil rights and racial justice, acknowledging that “Black Lives Matter.” In many cases, however, that acknowledgement was short-lived, and soon the church succumbed to the long-standing fractures and apathy within its ranks. 

January 6, 2021: The Covid-19 pandemic and the escalation of racial division served as the backdrop for a bitterly contested election cycle, fraught with misinformation and hateful rhetoric, which culminated in what amounted to an attempted coup on the grounds of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Predictably, the North American Church was once again scrambling to address this latest act of extremism, albeit with much less fervor and resolve than before. By now, most people were already exhausted – by the pandemic, by racial unrest, by political divisions. 

Survival Mode

Since the beginning of COVID-19, much of the church has been functioning in “survival mode.” We have been struggling to keep producing services every week, not to mention trying to keep up with the mountain of pastoral care needs from people who are lonely, isolated, sick, tired, or just angry about everything. The task has been further hampered due to fewer people volunteering and, often, less financial support. Church leaders, both paid and volunteer, are just trying not to be crushed under the weight of responsibilities and expectations, all for the purpose of keeping church going. 

As I further reflect, however, upon the recent history of the church, it seems to me that we have been in “survival mode” for much longer than the past 18 months.

For at least 40 years, we have scrambled to either keep up with the changing social landscape in order to stay relevant, or to combat it in order to be counter cultural. In some cases, we labored to keep up with the changing musical tastes of younger congregants. In other cases, we engaged in largely fruitless worship wars, pitting newer genres of worship songs against older genres, as if one were more holy than another. In yet other cases we ratcheted up the entertainment value of our services with lighting, movie clips during sermons, and other technology, all in the hopes of attracting new people to our services. We have poured endless amounts of time and resources into the perpetuation of our beloved institution of church, simply surviving. 

There has also been a scrambling to return to the way things were pre-pandemic. As churches began meeting together again in person, the questions are often framed looking backwards. When can we get back to having choir again? When can we get back to Sunday School again? How can we get people to come back to worship in person? Meanwhile, we have failed to acknowledge that the pandemic has changed us permanently. We need to recognize that neither the continuous cycle of playing catch-up with the changing times nor the nostalgic longing for the past is accomplishing anything except burnout and disillusionment. 

Deconstruction

While churches have been scrambling, many of their members have been re-evaluating. The faith deconstruction movement, a phenomenon arising largely out of the North American evangelical church, has gained traction and recognition over the past several years. Many lifelong Christians, especially Millennials and Gen-Xers, are re-evaluating their relationship with their local church, church in general, or even Christianity altogether as a faith tradition. The result has been varying levels of disengagement from the life of the church. 

Another result of these questions, however, has been an illumination of the many dysfunctional and harmful theologies and practices of North American Christianity, the ways in which the church is failing to operate as Jesus commanded us. Many people have seen much of the Church’s response to the pandemic, social injustice, and the widening political divide, and decided, “this ain’t it.”

The church would do well to listen to its disillusioned voices, as opposed to dismissing them as backslidden or desperately attempting to get them back into church without first considering what they are trying to tell us. 

Moving Into Revival Mode

Paradoxically, I believe that the Deconstruction movement, a movement leading many people to disassociate from church, can serve as a great blessing to us in the church. I have heard it said that those who are deconstructing their faith are leading the very revival that the North American Church has been praying for over many years. That said, there are some steps that I believe would be helpful for us to consider as we move forward. 

  1. Instead of merely lamenting the loss of these church members, entire churches could engage in their own process of deconstruction. If we are willing to look deep enough, we will find toxicity and dysfunction baked into both our theology and ecclesiology, as well as places where what we say we believe does not resonate with our experience or practices. Confessing these areas of disconnect can lead us to meaningful repentance. 
  2. Instead of exhausting ourselves in an effort to return to our previously established norms, we can enter a period of deep prayer and discernment, asking God for a fresh vision that both fits our current reality and projects forward into the church of the future. After all, we follow the One who makes all things new and taught us to not fill old wine skins with new wine. One would be hard-pressed to find a single church program or worship format that is worthy of being continued in perpetuity without change or evaluation. 
  3. Instead of scrambling to keep up with the prevailing culture, we can regain our prophetic voice, providing the world with a unique, Christ-centered perspective full of all the hope and joy of the Gospel. As Anabaptists, we have always understood ourselves to be primarily citizens of the kingdom of God. We are a people committed to love and peace. Our world, mired in hatred and violence, needs this voice now more than ever. 

I believe that Christianity at its best is a faith tradition that draws from our past to inform our present and empower our future. Israel was continually called to remember God’s past acts of faithfulness to strengthen their resolve to live with and for God in the present and look forward to an eternal future in God’s presence. Furthermore, we have the life and teachings of Jesus and the Apostles to guide our lives now and empower us to transform lives and communities in the generations to come. The transformation begins in our own hearts as God engages with us in holy conversation, both individually in prayer and study, and together in corporate worship.

Our worship can serve as a microcosm of how we are to live in relation to God and the world: gathered together by God to sing and pray, taught by God as we listen to the Word, invited by God to the Table as we commune with God, eating the body and blood of Christ, and sent out by God into the world to partner with God to be a conduit of love, hope, joy and peace.

Such a perspective in worship allows us to be forward-thinking, valuing the past, yet not nostalgically longing to return to it. Thus, we can serve as agents of continual growth and transformation in a world that needs it as much as ever. Centred in this vision, we can begin to move from survival mode to revival mode. 

Rashard has served in professional worship ministry for almost 20 years, 17 of those years full-time, serving churches in Dallas, TX, Pittsburgh, PA, and currently at Neffsville Mennonite Church. He has a Bachelor of Music from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, a Master’s in Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology, and a Doctor of Worship Studies from The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Rashard lives in Maytown with his wife, Michele, and his three children: Andrew, Lizzy, and Deborah. He is a professional basketball junkie and enjoys cooking, writing music, and spending quality time with his family.

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