As concluded by the Pew Research Center, attending and observing a church’s worship service is the number one method people use to search for a new church home. As such, it is important to be purposeful in the ways in which you go about visiting a church and observing their worship services.
Ricardo Camacho, “One of my photos from passion 2013, 2 January, 2013.
Every Sunday during this project I walked into a different church. Besides the few exceptions, I experienced worship at these churches for the very first time. My eyes were fresh, and mind sharp and ready to ask a lot of questions. I carried my notepad with me wherever I went (while also, of course, trying to be discreet in the process). While its impossible for any church shopper to be unbiased, I strove to attend each service with opens eyes and an open heart.
In his book, The New Worship Awakening: What’s Old Is New Again, theologian Robert Webber argues that “True worship is never directed from the “platform” to the “audience” as is so much of our teaching evangelizing, and entertaining. True worship happens among people who celebrate Christ. Jesus dwells in their worship, bringing to them what he did for them on the Cross and in Resurrection1.” During my observations, I wasn’t looking to be captivated by entertainment on a stage. I was looking for genuine celebration and reverence. I wanted to see and celebrate all of the different ways people worship God every Sunday across the city of Naperville. None of this means that I don’t have worship preferences, but I believe that exposing yourself to experiences that are unknown to you is a key practice in intentional church shopping.
My Methodology for Worship Observation:
1. Make use of the greeters when you walk into the building.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! They are there to help, they are there to welcome! Let them do their job! Sometimes, they’ll even go so far as to help you into the worship center and walk with you to your seat. They may even offer to stick around after the service to answer any further questions or welcome you to fellowship time.
2. Look for a visitors welcome center.
Some churches will have an entire area dedicated to providing information for visitors. This can be helpful if you’re looking for more specific information about different ministries of the church or volunteer opportunities.
3. Once you find your seat, take a look around you.
Don’t distract yourself with your phone, look to see who’s in the pews/seats. Are there families with young children? Older couples? Different ethnicities? Observing who’s physically present at Sunday morning worship will give you a general idea of the makeup and size of the congregation.
4. You can analyze and comment on the music and worship band/music ensemble, but look at how people are worshiping in their seats.
A church can have great music, but the reception of that music is what defines that portion of the worship service. Ask yourself:
Are people participating?
Do they know the songs?
Is it monotonous?
Are people really present?
Participation will look different in every church, and its important for you as a visitor to take a step back and ask yourself what you see in that participation. While there are stereotypes of worship participation for each tradition, all have the potential to be full and life-giving. It doesn’t matter if the worship is charismatic or liturgical, people can be participatory and completely present in both situations. In his quest to craft and shape the concept of worship renewal, Robert Webber claims that people need to be “involved as true participants.” Read as he shares his experience of observing a lack of participation:
I have been in liturgical, non-liturgical, and even charismatic churches where I would sense the passiveness of the people. They seemed cool and distant not only towards worship, but also toward God. Invariably they were unfriendly and uninterested in me, the visitor. Getting a smile, a handshake, a warm greeting, much less an invitation to dinner was out of the question. But the situation is different in a church where the people are fully participating in worship2.
When Webber experienced churches where worshipers actively participated, he encountered a completely different kind of atmosphere:
Indeed, the unity of the people in worship not only revealed their full and conscious participation, but it gave one a clear sense that these people cared about each other. They threw themselves into this worship for the sake of each other’s joy. Somehow, the praises and responses were so clearly communal, passionate, and joyful that our spirits—mine and, I know, those others—were lifted into the glories of the heavens. It was as though we were standing around the very throne of God, joining in a hymn of unending praise3.
When we participate in worship, we become apart of something more than ourselves. We celebrate the Lord and open ourselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit. But not all participation looks the same. Its easy to fall into the trap of judging the different types of participation in premature ways. To learn more about how to observe and understand the participation of worshipers in relation to worship music, listen to a workshop by Monique Ingalls at the Calvin Worship Symposium in 20166:
5. Look at the order of the service and the wording of the liturgy and take note of any questions that peak your interest.
Its easy, especially if you come from a more contemporary background, to pay little attention to the words you recite during the service. However, if there is anything that strikes you in any way, remember it! Ask someone about it later. Often the liturgy is a great place to gain a firmer understanding of the beliefs of the church as it is either written by someone on staff or taken from a lectionary.
6. Stay after the service for coffee hour or fellowship to ask questions and introduce yourself.
Believe me, after nine weeks of attending different churches, I realize that going to a new church is an uncomfortable experience. But if you’re really wanting to learn more about different churches its important that you get to know people in the congregation right off the bat. Fellowship is a great way to ask questions and learn more about the inner workings of the church, and you’ll get to meet a lot of great people along the way!
Notice, I didn’t mention anything about the sermon in my methodology. While research shows that people often value the content of the sermon itself, my own personal experience has been that the fluid nature of the sermon on any given Sunday is too hard to measure on a single visit. You want sermons to challenge you to think more critically about your faith and how it relates to the issues of the world. You want to hear biblically-based preaching, but its hard to use a single message as a means of determining your opinions. If you really want to look at the sermon in a deeper way, I’d suggest examining it on a long-term scale based on multiple visits.
Timbriggshere, “Worship Service, Church at Charlotte”, 23 October, 2016.
The Calvin Institute of Worship promotes “the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond4.” In an article entitled What You Can Learn from Visiting Churches5, Joan Huyser-Honig discusses a more scholarly approach to observing and analyzing worship services in churches. In this article, they outline four different things one should do to actively examine a church’s worship service:
1. Move from simplicity to complexity
Its okay to compare and contrast a church from your previous experience. Begin by noticing these differences, as it will help you think more deeply about why those differences exist and their significance.
2. Visit outside your tradition.
We are all comfortable in a specific type of worship setting. But the vast diversity of worship is a reality within our cultural context. Sometimes, what is most familiar to us is not what we need. By visiting and observing a church that is incredibly different from what you know, you learn a different way of worshiping and connecting with God, experiencing him in new ways.
3. Describe, analyze, and imagine
When attending a worship service, describe what is happening. Analyze why it is happening, and Imagine the different ways it might look like in varying worship contexts.
4. Develop “appreciative curiosity”
Its important to maintain an “appreciative curiosity” attitude when observing worship services at different churches. Rather than trying to figure out what you like and what you don’t like, this allows you to focus on learning more about what is happening and why it is happening.
To read more about these four different proposed techniques, you can read the full article here.
This page has presented you with multiple observation strategies for examining the worship services of different churches. I hope that you will find these helpful as you embark on your church shopping journey!
1. Webber, Robert E. The New Worship Awakening: What’s Old Is New Again. Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pg. 92-93.
2. Webber, Robert E. The New Worship Awakening: What’s Old Is New Again. Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pg. 82.
3. Webber, Robert E. The New Worship Awakening: What’s Old Is New Again. Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pg. 83.
5. Huyser-Honig, Joan. “What You Can Learn from Visiting Churches.” Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 13 Apr. 2016, worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/what-you-can-learn-from-visiting-churches/.
6. Ingalls, Monique. “Understanding Your Congregation’s Unique Worship Culture.” Worship Symposium. Worship Symposium, 30 Jan. 2016, Grand Rapids, Calvin College.