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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Other 5%

A few days ago, I was talking with some of my students at Asbury University about worship planning. One of the students mentioned that when putting together a worship service with their worship team, someone inevitably raises the point that they need to be mindful of “the other 5%.” The 5% she speaks of are those who do not come into the church with the same knowledge and background of the other 95%. In other words, those 5% are the visitors. (These percentages aren’t exact statistics, just examples she used to make a point.) This student then asked me how I approach this concern.

To begin with, I want to note that the “other 5%” are important. Nothing pleases church leadership more than to see unfamiliar faces becoming familiar faces. The church certainly has an obligation of hospitality to those who darken our doorways.

However, I want to offer some further thoughts I have been wrestling with for consideration:

1.) Most visitors likely have a basic understanding of Christianity/the church

Christianity in America is on a rapid decline. Those number of those who claim to be Christian is steadily decreasing, and even more so is church attendance. Hundreds if not thousands of churches are being shut down yearly due to lack of funding, lack of attendance, or consolidation with other congregations.

As for churches that are seeing an increase of visitors, these visitors usually fall within two types of groups: 1) those attending because of a personal invitation by a friend; 2) those attending because they are shopping around (for whatever reason) for a new church. Statistics have shown that less than one percent of visitors attend church because they woke up that morning simply feeling compelled to go to church, or they woke up sensing a deep conviction of their sin, seeking a place to repent. (I apologize for not including citations. A good friend passed these stats to me and I failed to write down the source.)

If this be the case, most likely visitors in our churches enter with some basic knowledge of Christianity. Perhaps those attending because of a personal invitation do not, but they at least have come because of someone who does.

2.) When did 5% of people start deciding 100% of worship?

There has been a trend in worship over the past 30 years to be more seeker-friendly and appealing (though we use the word relevant) to those either outside of the faith or burnt out with the church. 

Over and over again, I have seen or heard about churches make decisions on the content of worship based on the 5% that might be entering their doors. They don’t want to confuse or offend visitors. One commen statement used in this approach is, “Well, what if visitors don't understand or have questions?”

My response – Good! Let them have questions! If someone steps into our church and attends worship for the very first time and they don’t have questions, we are probably doing something wrong.

Worship by nature should proclaim something very opposite from what the world proclaims. It holds all other powers and principalities as subjective to Christ. Furthermore, as I said in an earlier post, worship is relevant to every life. It doesn’t need to be made so.

Let us look again at some of the sources I quoted in that same post:

“Worship will eventually be subversive of the surrounding culture, God’s truth transforms lives… Worship inverts values, habits, ideas as it forms our character… The worship response of service includes and demands social action leading to social change” (Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, 52, 72).

 “The worship of Yahweh creates a world of justice, mercy, peace, compassion…this is the real world, created in the moment of liturgy, which asserts that every rival claimant and candidate for the real world is false and destructive. Thus doxology is polemical because it means to uncreate – disestablish other worlds and affirm this is a better world” (Walter Bruggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology 53).

If we agree with Dawn and Bruggemann, we must acknowledge that authentic worship will raise questions. True worship, a true revelation of the glory of God, will constantly raise questions for 100% of people. Christian life then becomes about journeying and seeking answers together, encouraging one another in the faith, and holding one another accountable to Christ-like ways of living.

However, in the quest to appeal to the 5%, do we begin to eliminate some important questions? Perhaps one fundamental question has been ignored – who is the worship for? 

3.) Take personal interest

So, what do we do? As worship leaders, do we continue to design services focused on getting a certain response from the congregation? Do we focus on the praise of God to the point of shunning the people in our context as well as the visitors in our midst? Or is there something more?

I continue to wrestle with this, and by no means do I feel I have the answers. However, I can speak from my own convictions on the matter.

What we can do as the church is take more personal interest in this 5% instead of relying on worship to do it all for us. We can offer to take a visitor out to lunch after the service, ask if they have any questions  and be willing to answer and/or discuss them together. We can get to know our visitor's stories, learning about their past and discovering what brought them to church. That's pretty simple, and probably is a common practice. 

Understanding that pretty much 0% of people just show up to church on their own volition, the need for personal invitation to church is strong. We are often afraid unchurched people won't "like" or "get" church. Don’t expect worship to just magically draw them in. In fact, you might even expect it to repel them. But know that’s not a bad thing. It just means you need to talk with them more, explain more, let them ask questions and wrestle through their issues.

As a final thought, maybe the church as a whole needs to stop looking at conversion as a decision, but more as a process. This idea is a discussion to dive into further at another time, but I do wonder how much the drive for "making a decision" in worship has hurt American Christianity. What do we lose when we cease to take ongoing personal interest in the initiation and incorporation of individuals into the community of the Church? 

Perhaps we lose people. We lose them because they do not meet the Triune God in worship, standing in awe of His presence. We lose them because we have not taught them the Gospel message and what it means to live new lives repentant of sin. Or maybe we lose them because they just weren’t happy with the font we used for the song slides, so they decided to look for a new church. 


  1. I guess my first question is more semantics: what do we mean by "worship"? I would guess from the way you use the term - and correct me if I'm wrong, this is the first post of yours I've read - that your definition fits more into the "event"-oriented idea of worship, that it's a cyclical corporate gathering. My next question is, how do you propose we address questions of style, art, and the like in light of the points you raise? I like that you're encouraging a missional attitude from church-goers, but I guess I'm not seeing what you ARE proposing from the worship planning perspective; we're not choosing to plan around so-called "seekers", but what does that mean for what we actually DO? Do we assume everyone coming has a deep theological understanding? Because that's not my experience, and so to what "level" do we "cater"? Everyone comes to the gathering with something, some background, some mistaken perspective, some cultural bias ... and so my question ultimately is this: what does it look like? "Meeting God" sounds good on paper, but what does it actually look like on a given Sunday?

  2. Hey Chris,

    Thanks so much for your comments! You raise some very important and insightful questions. I will offer some brief (and inadequate) answers.

    First of all, I would like to point out that this blog post was not meant to set forth a perfect worship plan, or a design for how to go about planning worship. This post is a feeble reflection of thoughts I am currently navigating through, based on a recent conversation, regarding one specific approach to worship planning. It is not a treatise on worship planning itself. Admittedly, I did not explicitly make this clear within the blog post.

    As for how I define worship, in the context of this conversation/post you are correct – I am looking at a corporate gathering, specifically around the cyclical weekly “event” as you say. Is this my definition of worship? No.

    (I certainly don't want to make you suffer through reading more of my blog, but I do believe some of these questions might be clarified in other posts.)

    Though style and art are touchy subjects to address, they are also extremely important ones. I have far too many thoughts on this, so I tell you what I will do – sometime in the near future I will write a post specifically discussing some of my thoughts regarding style and worship.

    For now, I’ll say that style is an important aspect of worship to consider, but probably not as important as the American church makes it out to be. Style will always be fluid because styles are always changing. We embrace style as it assists in the proclamation and celebration of the Gospel story. A proper mindset regarding style is that it helps make a connection in worship but it is not something used solely to appeal to people. (I’ll try to clarify these thoughts in the upcoming post and will appreciate your comments.)

    As for art, we need it more in the church. Various mediums of art are important in the proclamation of the Gospel, drawing people into worship, (i.e. icons as “windows” to heaven). Art also provides a place for the gifts and talents of the congregation to be put to use for God’s glory. Part of the personal interest we should be taking in others is discovering the gifts and talents they have that can be put to appropriate use in worship.

  3. (Continued from above..)

    As for some of your other questions:

    “Do we assume that everyone has a deep theological understanding?” Of course not. But we also don’t assume everyone is an idiot.

    “To what level do we cater?” This is a good question, but perhaps there is a better way of asking it. This connotes that worship is directed toward people, but I think we would agree that our worship is God-oriented, a response to God’s self-revelation.

    N.T. Wright says: “…the word ‘worship’ means, literally, ‘worth-ship’: to accord worth, true value, to something, to recognize and respect it for the true worth it has.” Thus, worship is rooted in God’s glory and praise. He further writes: “Put it this way: if your idea of God, if your idea of the salvation offered in Christ, is vague or remote, your idea of worship will be fuzzy and ill-formed. The closer you get to the truth, the clearer becomes the beauty, and the more you will find worship welling up within you.”

    Instead of looking at the level we cater to, I believe we must first ask the primary question, What is the goal of worship? My answer to this question would be that our goal as worship leaders is to provide the opportunity to help people connect and respond to the beauty and glory of God. I think the level of the worshiper becomes irrelevant as the glory of God is revealed.

    I cannot write a formula for how this is explicitly done. It will look different in each context. The truth of the Gospel will be the same, but the “look” of worship (as in how it is executed) most likely will not, because, as you say, everyone comes with their own biases, perspectives, etc. As a church, we live and grow as a community. As a community, our worship takes a distinct nature as we respond to the beauty of the Triune God. We have to carefully consider what do these biases and perspectives influence and what do they not? Perhaps, for example, they influence our music and instrumentation, but they should never influence the content.

    You are correct, “meeting with God” sounds great on paper. We can theologically discuss what it means all day. But how does it look on a given Sunday? I can’t tell you. I can tell you how it looks for the community I am part of, but I can’t give a distinct definitive answer for every worshiping community as whole. I can tell you this – it will recite, reenact, and live out the glory of God.

    Blessings brother!

    - Jonathan

  4. "Our goal as worship leaders is to provide the opportunity to help people connect and respond to the beauty and glory of God. I think the level of the worshiper becomes irrelevant as the glory of God is revealed. I cannot write a formula for how this is explicitly done. It will look different in each context."

    Beautifully said, Jonathan. I think this is what I was trying to sus out; your article, I think, benefits a lot from this perspective because it then takes us to each local context and asks the hard questions there. You'll notice the "" marks around "level" because I too think that it doesn't really mean much in the context of art; we all get something out of it if it's done well. The trouble is that seekers are a "level" as well, if you look at discipleship as bigger than just those-that-have-converted, and so the issue becomes how to incorporate the many into our worship planning, rather than the few. I think explaining regularly the "why" behind what we do helps seekers enter in the conversation, but also reminds the regulars why they're at the event, so long as we keep the explanation fresh and find new ways to articulate meaning so it doesn't become just another part of the service we "have" to do.

    What I struggle with most are questions of style, because calling us away from the seeker mentality still leaves us with big questions of what a service could look like. If we're no longer trying to be "culturally relevant" (to the extreme, anyway), a GREAT answer to the problem is to talk about cultural expression; we express our artistic worship of God (or our gatherings) in a way that is out of our communal culture rather than in response to culture; our culture generates and creates, rather than reacts. I think the "it depends" answer is the best one you can give :)

    Someone once told me that as we plan, the seekers shouldn't be something we worry about not because they don't matter, but because the experience they hunger for as people seeking can only be found within a community devoted to discipleship. A seeker comes expecting things to be different, not looking for the thing they're used to; they wouldn't be here if they wanted what they think they've always had ...

  5. Hey Jonathan I'm really enjoying your blog. Love how you're wrestling with these very practical issues. Great conversation going on here.

    Re: catering to the 5%, I think you're right in that the church should and must be hospitable, welcoming, warm, friendly and loving to newcomers. This proclaims the gospel, imo. A simple welcome in a service would be appropriate.

    However, I think a specific purpose of worship is to transform the worshipers by taking focus off ourselves (or other people) and giving it to God.

    I can't imagine David and his worship team concerned in the slightest about the opinion of guests or any one else there in the tabernacle. Clearly he was most interested in the opinion of God Almighty.

  6. Amen, Rob! Thanks so much for the comments and for reading!

    Chris - very well said! I really appreciate your reflections.