Why Congregational Worship Is Broken and How to Fix It

By Matthew Carpenter

Every week in churches all across the world, people gather under the banner of Jesus and go through the motions of congregational worship. For some it’s a blessing; for others it’s a chance to critique. Some people disengage all together, and some people just disengage their brains and jack up their emotions.

What are we actually doing and why are we doing it? Is there a right way? Is there a better way?

Musical Roots

I grew up in a musical family, or perhaps a better way to say it, I was trapped in a musical Alcatraz with the cast of Hello, Dolly! My father loved music. He couldn’t help it. I actually think that if you pricked him with a pin, he would bleed the score to either a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical or a John W. Peterson cantata.

On more occasions than I care to remember, my day would begin with my father bursting through my bedroom door singing and miming either “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” or “Good Morning” from Singing in the Rain. Memories still flood my mind of spritely jazz hands, little kicks, a booming bass voice, and a huge smile.

My father also loved Jesus and the church so, naturally, the passions collided perfectly on Sundays when he would get up to lead the worship in the morning and evening service.

The Family Oddball

Despite my childhood environment, at a young age I struggled to enjoy music, especially in church. I kept this shameful secret to myself. How could I confess to my father that I secretly read the bulletin when everyone else was blasting out in four-part harmony.

I tried, one or two times, but every time I would muster up the courage, in my mind’s eye, I’d see the downcast face of my heart-broken father weeping while cradling a hymnal. I didn’t have the stomach for it.

I muscled through and even sang in the choir at church while I was in high school, for my dad. Then came college. “Finally, I’m free,” or so I thought. With my music “career” finally behind me, I went about life happy to be in the audience and not on the stage.

For the most part I could avoid singing, but I was a good church boy, so I couldn’t get away from congregational singing in the church. I could fake it if I needed to, but something in me still felt empty.

Fast Forward: Now I’m a Pastor

The irony of God’s providence and sovereignty isn’t lost on me. God called me, kicking and screaming, into pastoral ministry, and I’m so very grateful He won that fight. The only problem now is that not only do I have to sing, but I have to actually think about what we sing, how we sing, why we sing, and most importantly Who we are singing to.

For a few years I was able to ignore it and busy myself with just trying to survive ministry. I would deal with every other area of the church and just go through the motions of keeping people happy with our church music. It worked . . . for a while.

The problem came when God became really real to me. During my pastoral ministry I always believed in God and I understood God at a practical, intellectual level. For me, however, God was firmly stuck on the pages of my Bible and my theological books. With a comfortable, intellectual gap between the two of us, I was able to unemotionally engage with the King of Kings. I could pray without humility, I could sing without paying any attention to the words, and I could preach accurately without being awestruck by the truths of the Word.

During that season I wanted to understand and honor the Lord, I wanted to lead people to believe in Him, and I wanted to only say and do things that were true. I wanted all that . . . but I didn’t really want (or feel as if I needed) more of God. I didn’t long to be in His presence.

That has changed.

Drawing Near

No longer is God distant to me. No longer is the Holy One an idea to be grasped. No longer is the throne room of the King unreachable and unreal. No longer do I feel worthy.

I am now keenly aware of His presence and His majesty. I am now painfully aware of my weakness, foolishness, and sinful flesh. I am now blown away by the unmerited grace and mercy that is afforded to me.

The stirrings are far reaching when you consider almost any area of church ministry, but right now I’m really being driven to focus on music and our corporate Christian worship.

So here is a broad, generalized, sweeping statement about the church (in general) and corporate worship. In my opinion our corporate worship system is broken; and, like most things, it’s because we’re not really thinking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we should be doing it, who should be doing it, and Who we should be doing it for.

A “Setlist” of Subjects

I’m absolutely not talking about contemporary vs. traditional. That subject has been beaten dead over the last 20 years, and I don’t need to add my voice to it. Instead I want to talk about the reality of God in our midst and how the church isn’t successfully, consistently, or safely leading people, as a group, into His Holy presence.

Here’s the “setlist” of what we need to think about

  1. Worship is only for those who know Christ and it’s a cultural stumbling block for those who don’t. Jesus told the woman at the well that she couldn’t worship what she didn’t know. Those who are not believers can’t actually worship Jesus; and, frankly, it’s a little unthoughtful to expect them to participate in singing about blood and resurrection and sacrifice. Are our corporate, formal services supposed to be venues for preaching the gospel to every nation? If so, then we really need to think about all of the stumbling blocks that we set up in front of the teaching of the Word (offering, Communion, announcements, etc.). There has to be a better way.
  2. When we sing, the words we sing are often promises to God. Are they true? Do we mean them? Too many songs claim we will give God everything, or we will do whatever He wants, or we love Him more than anything else. Those are amazing things to proclaim to God if we truly mean them. Our actions indicate otherwise. I don’t think we should stop singing these songs. I just think we need to start living them—especially if we’re going to keep singing them.
  3. When we sing, the words we sing are often proclamations about God. Are they true? What are we teaching? Bad theology is sneaky, and Satan has done a good job of hiding out as a catchy tune or a good ol’ classic. Reality is, most people can quote more lyrics than they can Scripture, and often the promises people cling to and claim come from songwriters and not from the breathed-out Word of God.
  4. Congregational singing is another form of teaching. Are we teaching it? What if I just handed you a piece of paper and a pencil and said, “Make art!” Am I helping you become an artist? Am I really helping you realize the full potential of your abilities? Do you understand art better now because you have the materials to get the job done?

Now, what if I told you that the art that you produced was going to be delivered as a gift to a benevolent, loving, gracious, and deserving king? Isn’t that kind of how we “do” corporate worship?

We need to invest in really teaching one another the words we sing, and the music we play, and the doctrine we proclaim, and the promises we make. We need to talk technique and get our hands dirty in the process. I, for one, believe that means radical change to the status quo.

  1. Worship and sacrifice are symbiotic. What are we sacrificing? Worship without sacrifice is empty, and sacrifice without worship dishonors the Lord. Second Corinthians 9:6–7 say that whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. I know we sacrifice Sunday “free time” by going to church, but how little and how empty is that sacrifice really?

Matthew Carpenter is pastor of Franklin Lakes (N.J.) Baptist Church.