Presentational vs. Participatory: Are We Teaching to the Test?

Marc Brown:

test-taking-pencilMy wife is an educator. Her entire adult life has been spent teaching children and helping equip teachers. Perhaps the most formidable and irritating challenge she deals with is the enduring bane of standardized tests. Tests, in general, are not bad. Tests are meant to reveal objective progress toward a desired benchmark or standard. In the world of American public school education, standardized testing has unfortunately become the 800-pound gorilla in the room causing all things to revolve around its needs– determining the very curriculum it was designed to assess. In deciding what is crucial or dispensable, standardized tests can leave educators absolutely no time, opportunity, or choice to teach anything outside of the tests’ sometimes narrowly-focused objectives.

In planning and leading worship, the benchmark for which worship planners and leaders strive is congregational participation. If worship is what happens when God’s people assemble to receive and respond to God’s revelation, then it makes perfect sense that leaders want these moments to count. We want people to actively participate in the holy dialogue of worship with Creator God. We do not want to turn the sanctuary into an auditorium, nor the congregation into a crowd that passively seeks entertainment. Over the last few years I have read many books and heard several speakers expound on responsible worship planning, preparation and leadership. The buzz words in this milieu are “active congregational participation.” In nearly every instance the focus specifically lies on congregational singing. Recently, though, I have begun to wonder if focusing on the goal of congregational participation and inevitably dropping “nonessential” worship elements might be doing the same thing to evangelical worship that standardized tests have done to public education?

spectatorPlease don’t misunderstand me. I truly believe that one of the biggest problems in Western Christianity is audience-style, consumer-driven, passive worship attendance that turns would-be worshipers into non-engaged spectators. As Robert Webber writes, “we sit passively and are entertained by television…as spectators, we listen and watch, but we seldom participate actively. This same mood is often carried over into our church services.”[1] Bob Kauflin expressed the same sentiment when he wrote, “How can you stand there with your hands in your pockets and apathetic looks on your faces and claim to be worshiping God?”[2] For many Christians, greater participation is needed in congregational worship. My concern is that in our culture, active engagement in worship simply means that everyone sings for as long as possible. If someone sits down or does not sing, they are considered to be passively engaged in worship or not engaged at all. The fallacy at work is that we can’t see all forms of active engagement.

The root of this issue might come from our need to mend what is broken. A pastor once spoke to me comparing music ministry to preaching ministry. He said it must be nice for me to have immediate recognition as to whether or not I had done my job well. In preaching a sermon, he felt he had no evaluation of the effectiveness of his hours spent researching, writing and delivery other than expressions on the congregation’s faces, handshakes at the door, and their general responsiveness to his leadership. As opposed to the sermon, he remarked, with music everyone knows right away whether or not my work has been successful. In trying to achieve our goal of helping the congregation worship, we may be over simplifying our evaluation criteria to include only what is most obvious– congregational singing. Just like the pastor in my story, we can immediately see and hear active participation when the congregation sings, but may not so easily identify internal forms of active participation.

John Baldovin, in his introduction to the book, The Postures of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer, points out that all Christians turn actions of worship into ritual.[3] Ritual has a bad rap in American culture. For many people, “ritual” is synonymous with “meaningless.” According to Baldovin, ritual is what “helps a group of people experience solidarity, identity, and common purpose.” Our ritualistic actions are the tools we need for the Body of Christ to “express our identity bodily and communally.” Singing together in the congregation can help us to experience this solidarity, group identity, and common purpose, but it is not the only way. If God reveals Himself to us in corporate worship and our response is our participation, don’t we need options for response in addition to musical expression? Shouldn’t we build liturgies in a way that accommodates more ways to respond than singing alone?

Throughout history, God’s people have responded to Him in many different ways. Andrew Hill points out several of these historic responses in his book, Enter His Courts with Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church.[4] In addition to singing, Hill gives biblical evidence for liturgical responses (such as AMEN!), prayer (worship, praise, thanksgiving, adoration, devotion, communion, confession, petition, and intercession), making vows or commitments, preaching/teaching, giving tithes and offerings, participating in seasonal festivals, penitential acts (weeping, tearing clothes, shaving one’s head), and artistic responses. In her book, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services, Constance Cherry lists numerous principals to consider when moving congregations from passive to participatory that do not include singing.[5]  Cherry asks worship planners to consider these questions: Which of the five senses have I employed? Where have I asked people to connect with fellow worshipers? How many times have I invited all worshipers to do something? What physical action have I invited? How much of what is being done by leaders can be done by the people? And, am I intentionally and pastorally guiding worshipers toward appropriate responses?

In a recent conversation with a good friend, we talked about this very subject. As we talked, my friend Tom shared that he almost never sings with the congregational music. However, he told me how he appreciates well-crafted and well delivered presentational music in the same way he values sermons. Why? Both presentational music and sermons give him time to hear God or to reflect on how God is revealing Himself. Tom is an introvert. Congregational music helps many in our congregations understand God’s revelation. However, as an element of worship naturally geared toward extroverts, it may also make it difficult for some introverts to listen to God. Some estimates are a that a third to a half of all people may function this way. [6] We need to provide many ways for our congregations to hear and respond to God’s revelation, not just one. If we don’t give our congregations time and opportunity to hear God, then to what or whom are we asking them to respond? Let’s not reduce the structures of our worship to include only the forms of response we can see and hear. That would be like turning congregational worship into a standardized test.


[1] Robert E. Webber, Worship is a Verb: Celebrating God’s Mighty Deeds of Salvation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2004), 3.

[2] Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway 2008), 121.

[3] John Baldovin, The Postures of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer(Chicago, IL: Liturgy  Training Publications, 1994), 3.

[4] Andrew Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1993), 113-130.

[5] Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 267-269.

[6] Susan Cain. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking(New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2013), 14-15.

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