The Psychology of Worship and Church Growth

By David W. Virtue

I spend a lot of my time wandering in and out, worshipping in Episcopal and Anglican churches around the world. I have come to some conclusions about church growth and worship that I would like to share with you.

You won’t find these thoughts coming from church think tanks, in Pew, Gallup or Barna reports or the myriad resolutions from Episcopal General Conventions. They are my own observations. You can take them for what they are worth.

The first thing I notice about a church is its passion. Does it have a passion for souls, for growth or is it simply marking time. Does it have a passion to hear the Word of God? I spoke to a godly rector recently who told me his parish doesn’t want to grow; it wants to stay where it is as the leaders like things the way they are, please don’t disturb us. If he raises his voice and suggests otherwise, a woman will scream something like this, “This is our church, rector. We have been here for decades and we are not changing. Rectors like you come and go, we remain, thank you for your ideas, but we like things just the way they are.” End of story.

I heard this speech from a godly rector in the Diocese of Dallas recently and again in the Diocese of Colorado. In the case of the Colorado parish, he told the congregation that he wanted to practice the Great Commission, and he was going to leave with whatever nucleus wanted to follow. A week later, he started down the road with 50 people and a new name. Today he has doubled his congregation, which continues to grow. Risk taking is not only believing God will honor his decision; it is also a matter of personality and drive.

Of course, nothing is always that simple. Some pastors starting over stumble and fall. Some underestimate their people; some over estimate their flock. Sometimes, they go backwards before they go forward again. It can be messy. And some churches, for whatever reason, simply die.

I recall Francis Schaeffer telling a group of us at L’Abri that he wanted to prove that God literally existed. He left the comfort of his church in the US Midwest and went to Switzerland and trusted God to start a ministry to Europe’s young intellectuals. A new evangelical history chapter was born.

Demographics, I have learned, also play a part.

Rick Warren can start a parish in southern California, but would he be as successful in say Schenectady, New York. One doubts it. This is not to pour scorn on his contribution to the gospel or to his success, but demographics cannot be ignored.

Having visited Texas over the years I am more or less convinced that anybody can start a church and be successful in this state of plenty. Texans are incurably Christian. Texas has the largest number of Southern Baptists, an estimated 3.5 million. Texans are also flexible and will move about until they find a comfortable fit in a particular congregation and stay for a while. One might accuse them of being fickle, but that is a judgment call. Churches of 10,000 are not uncommon in this state. One that size is impossible to find in New York City. One thing is certain in Texas; most are theologically and politically conservative. If you deviate from either path, be prepared for the consequences and do so at your own risk. Someone theologically conservative, but liberal politically, might have a hard time making it. Texas and New York are states of mind.

Big is not necessarily better. Big churches can be impersonal. You can drift in and out of them without ever being known. Christian sociologist Os Guinness has observed that there are as many people going out the back door of mega churches as coming in the front door. The theology of these churches is wafer thin.

Apart from passion and demographics, there is that mysterious thing called spiritual life. The moment you walk through the front door you have a sense that something is different here. It can be the rousing voices of a choir singing an anthem or the quiet reflective environment of a more catholic congregation, but one senses something different is going on. One is either caught up in the spiritual exuberance of the moment or one is humbled in adoration before the cross.

Neither is necessarily right or wrong, it just is.

Liberal churches of whatever stripe have a different feel. One senses an agenda is at work. Are you for the poor, are you for gay rights, are you for this or that agenda? Are you sufficiently compassionate about this or that group in need of your support? There’s an edge to things. If you enter a pro “gay” church you will be immediately judged by how someone perceives you – are you homophobic or are you “safe”.

In a liberal church, as soon as it is announced or whispered that “David Virtue is with us” one of two things happens. Either there will be a few grins, or the big freeze sets in. A minority of people will always be angry; the clergy will usually ignore me, or perhaps one will suggest that I should worship elsewhere next time. “Inclusive” churches are not nearly as inclusive as you think.

In all cases, the liturgy is the same and so is the Eucharist. It is the sermon that distinguishes orthodox from heterodox. It is here the lines are sharply drawn.

If a preacher does not draw me into the presence of God regardless of his or her political beliefs, then the sermon has failed. I am not the slightest bit interested in what the preacher’s political views are…I can read all that online. I don’t need his opinion, because that is ALL it is, and even if I happen to agree with it, that is not why and who I am here to worship. I want to know something about the character of Christ; I want to know that God cares, loves and forgives me a “miserable offender”. I want to hear the Scriptures read in a way that grips my soul and I want to hear the Scriptures burnt into my soul that challenges me to be a better Christian. I want to walk out and say, “Yes I have heard the Word of the Lord and this is what it says and this is what I must do to change my life.”

Some sermons exhort you to do; others exhort you to be. Some are filled with Scripture; others barely make a passing reference to it. A lot of preachers use Scripture as a crutch to support what THEY want to tell us and not what the text says.

Some sermons are exegetical; most are merely topical. One goes away full or empty.

One of the most profound worship experiences I have ever had was in eastern Nigeria. No one warned me. Just as well. The service started at 9am and finished at 3pm. People came and went, nobody minded, but we were there to worship the living God for the WHOLE DAY. Multiple choirs sang, multiple sermons were preached, exhortations made, altar calls given. Nobody worried about getting home early to watch the Red Skins versus the Cowboys or watch the World Cup with beer and pizza.

They were there to worship the living God.

And you wonder why the Anglican Church in Nigeria is 23 million strong and why the Church of England can barely muster a million on any given Sunday or The Episcopal Church can barely muster 700,000. British cathedrals are empty or tourist places; our churches are mostly empty while vicars and rectors are dispirited. Worst of all, there is an absence of the hearing of the Word of God. The people look up and are not fed – the laity is fed on husks.

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