Adventist Worship: A Critical View from the Pew*

(system) #1

*with suggestions for improvement

By Gordon Short, MD, president of Brevis Corporation.

Adventists claim to go to church to worship God. Judging by what happens during the “11:00 o’clock hour,” I think it might be just as reasonable to say that they go to church to perform some ritual of masochistic penance.

Before continuing with my critique, in the interest of full disclosure I should state that I am an Adventist and have been attending Adventist churches for three quarters of a century. Whether that makes me highly qualified to comment by virtue of great wisdom and experience or just superannuated and fossilized is for you, Dear Reader, to decide.

There is something about worship that suggests that it is, or is attempting to be, a form of entertainment. That is, there is typically an auditorium, an audience, a stage and performers. Oh, sure, we use a change of vocabulary: sanctuary, congregation, platform, elders, pastor, etc., but that is a distinction without a difference. Preachers will insist that we bring our offerings to God -- music, prayers, Scripture readings, monetary gifts, children’s stories, sermons, whatever. That it is not what we go to church to get, but what we go to church to give. And that may well be. But it would be a strange form of worship indeed without an audience. What if the musicians played and sang regardless of whether there was an audience? What if the preacher preached a sermon to God but there was no audience to listen? What if members dropped their money in a night depository and then went home? Would that still be worship?

“Entertainment” in the context of “worship” appears to be a loaded, perhaps naughty, word. So let me clarify what it is I am talking about when I use that word. In my dictionaries entertainment means to provide amusement or enjoyment or pleasure. To provide joy and pleasure seems appropriate to me because worship, I think, should involve the telling of the “Gospel” and Gospel is supposed to mean “Good News.” Is there not joy, is there not pleasure in hearing the Good News? (Although I don’t see worship as a form of “amusement,” it has been thus characterized by Will Rogers who is reported to have said that “a good preacher is just an actor gone bad.”) The problem with Adventist worship is not whether it is or is not “entertainment.” It is that Adventist worship is typically bad entertainment. Or to use the antonym, it is a bore.

My experience with worship (not in an Adventist ghetto) is that it is typically poorly planned, sloppily executed, uninspiring, irrelevant to the problems of daily living and in brief not really worth attending. Is this unfair criticism by a disillusioned senior citizen who needs to vent his spleen because his standards of what constitutes entertainment have been corrupted by Hollywood? Perhaps. But from what I hear and observe, at least 70% of the young Adventist alumni of our colleges and universities leave the church. If 30% is a passing grade for church effectiveness, then I beg forgiveness for speaking out of turn.

So specifically, what is wrong with the way most churches construct worship services? Why is worship dull and uninteresting? My experience generates these observations:

1. The pastor has low standards for excellence. Perhaps it would be more charitable to say that the pastor wears so many hats, has so many people trying to get a piece of him, that he simple doesn’t have the time to spend on planning excellent worship and writing great sermons. What seems certain is that as captain of the ship, the pastor must demand excellence or excellence is unlikely to happen on its own.

2. Worship is typically planned by a committee in which there is no interaction. A musician is assigned to pick the prelude, offertory, hymns and postlude without ever being clued in to what the pastor is planning to preach about. Ditto for the children’s story. Ditto for the prayers. Ditto for any “special music.” With luck the Scripture reading is suggested by the pastor to relate to his sermon.

3. The “Worship Committee” consists of people whose only assignment seems to be to be sure that someone is designated each Sabbath to do the announcements, take the offering, tell the children’s story, lead the hymns, offer the prayer, play the piano, etc. When all the blanks are filled in, the “Worship Committee” has fulfilled its obligation.

4. No one seems to be concerned about platform setup -- placement of microphones, music stands, flowers, banners (what’s that?), etc. Nor does anyone seemed concerned with coaching participants on where and when to go to their designated places. Participants seem to have a fear of encroaching on the prior person’s space and wait till that person has left the platform before getting up to go on stage. The lethargy of “dead air” seems not to bother anyone. Low energy is the antithesis of effective worship.

5. No theme is developed for the service. The pastor seems to be concerned only that he has at least his full half hour once the “preliminaries” are disposed of. He seems to operate on the premise that it is difficult to get lost if you have no destination in mind.

6. In short, the audience (what’s left of it) seems to be a flock of sheep without a shepherd. In one church that I visited a year or so ago, the pastor was gone to the conference headquarters for some meetings. The flock that remained had someone who did his/her duty of preparing a bulletin which listed all the standard components of announcements, prayer, hymns, offering, etc. On the right side of the page where one typically sees the participant’s name were the cryptic initials “GOK.” As the service progressed, someone got up and asked if anybody knew who was supposed to be next and if not, were there any volunteers. It appeared that “GOK” was not any person’s initials. The only explanation I could come up with from previous experience was that the letters stood for “God Only Knows.” In that day and in that church, if any worship occurred, God must have worshiped Himself.

The Practice of Church Community

The practice of church community involves much more than the development of excellent worship. There are many elements. Worship. Bible study. Children’s activities both social and educational. Looking inward -- to make sure that all members of the community are cared for. Looking outward -- in service to the non-Adventist community and in care of this beautiful world God has given us. Youth evangelism. Student missionary programs. Learning to deal with the problems of everyday living, etc. Community is like a diamond -- in order to sparkle, it must have many facets. But if worship is not first in importance, it is at least first in the sense that it tends to be the gatekeeper -- if visitors do not like the worship services of a church community, they are unlikely to wait around to see if there is anything else worthwhile happening.

If worship is so important, can anything be done to revitalize it? I believe that there is a golden opportunity here to engage young people in a way that will energize the church and keep our young people coming back for more -- and with enthusiasm. Here is the plan:

Worship Worthy of Attendance


To create excellent worship for everyone but that will especially give young adults an excuse to attend church.


SDA universities feel it is worth their while to help to assure that their Adventist alumni will remain active, lifetime members of the SDA church community.


1. Active participation in the activities of the local church after graduation should have its gestation before graduation.

2. Excellence in worship is necessary to attract continued participation of young adults in the life of the church.

3. In order for young people to develop a sense of intellectual ownership in the activities of their local church, they should have a part in creating the worship services.

4. Most local churches do not have the wherewithal to develop creative and excellent worship services.


Have SDA universities develop Creative Worship kits with which local churches may structure their own excellent worship services.

Structure of the Creative Worship kit

Each kit will contain a variety of components such that the worship team of the local church may choose and use those components that it needs according to their resources of talents and desires.


1. Script: The script will be detailed in showing all elements of the worship service including subject, introduction, invocation, hymns, scriptures, children’s story, prayer, sermon, illustrations, dismissal, benediction, etc. The sermon would be printed in its entirety and could be read by a local reader or used as the basis for a sermon developed by the local elder or pastor. The script would also contain detailed suggestions for placement of microphones and prompts for when performers need to be in their positions.

2. DVD:

a. The DVD will contain all music needed for the service. For example, if the service requires an organ prelude, that would be on the DVD. If the congregation likes to sing but does not have an adequate keyboardist, an accompaniment track would be on the DVD. If the congregation would like to sing along with a vocal sound track, that would be possible. If professional-level vocalists are needed in the service, that track would be available. The musicians would be, for example, senior music majors. Also there would be alternative tracks so that a church could structure its service to be traditional or contemporary or blended.

b. The DVD will contain the sermon as presented by an excellent preacher (e.g., Barry Black or Randy Roberts). Many sermons are already available from Adventist Preaching ( These could be used as a starting point for developing this creative worship series.

c. The DVD will contain visuals for projection to enhance the sermon presentation. These could be photographs, graphs, cartoons, verses, texts, etc.

3. Visuals: The kit will contain scrolls to be used for stage decoration. The scrolls would have artistically rendered words like Peace or Love or Faith or other graphic designs or images to enhance the theme of the service. The script would also contain explicit instructions on how to make scrolls and make an inexpensive PVC pipe frame for hanging them.

4. Summary: A Creative Worship kit will contain all components of an excellent worship service so arranged that a local congregation may choose anything from a totally passive, projected service to a totally active service using the talents of the local congregation including the pastor.

5. Technical requirements: The kit will require the congregation to have a respectable sound system and a video projector and screen.


The Creative Worship kits would be developed primarily by students at Adventist universities under the supervision of appropriate faculty members. Ideally this work would be performed as part of course work for which the student would receive academic credit.

Academic disciplines

1. Theology: Students majoring in theology would be primarily responsible for developing the thematic material under the supervision of Theology professors.

2. Music: Students majoring in music would be primarily responsible for developing the musical content under the supervision of Music professors. Students would have the opportunity to perform using their unique talents as appropriate.

3. Art: Students majoring in art especially including graphic design would be primarily responsible for developing the artistic and graphical material under the supervision of the Art faculty.

4. English: Students majoring in English would be primarily responsible for developing the literary material surrounding the main theme under the supervision of English professors.

5. Communications/IT: Students majoring in communications technology would be primarily responsible for developing the DVDs under the supervision of the Communications/IT faculty.

6. Business: Students majoring in business would be primarily responsible for developing the Business Plan under the supervision of the Business faculty.

7. Drama: Students majoring in drama would be primarily responsible for developing dramas under the supervision of the Performing Arts faculty. These might be for the traditional Children’s Story part of the service.

8. Science: Students majoring in science would be primarily responsible for developing appropriate chemical, physical or biological demonstrations to illustrate the theme of the worship service under the supervision of the Science faculty. These might be useful for the traditional Children’s Story part of the service.

9. Coordination: Supervision and coordination for the development process would be the job of the Campus Chaplain(?).

Advantages and Expected Results

Students who help to develop these kits would:

1. Receive academic credit toward graduation.

2. Receive a stipend or royalty for their published work if possible.

3. Be able to add to their portfolio of accomplishments as an aid to entering graduate school or acquiring a job.

4. Feel that they have a vested interest in the worship activities of Adventist churches in general and their own local church in particular.

5. Be a feedback source of criticism after they see the acceptance and use of the kits when they are in their home church.

6. Mainly become an integral part of a local church community rather than becoming an attrition statistic. (The next generation of these alumni will become the future students of our colleges.)

To add zest to this creative project, there might develop some competition among the various Adventist universities to produce the most effective kits.


Manufacturing and order fulfillment for the kits could be done either by the individual universities or perhaps better by the publishing company for Spectrum and Adventist Today magazines. The kits, except for the banners and science demonstration materials, could be downloadable on the Internet.


1. Advertising the availability and content of the kits would be done primarily through denominational channels such as the Adventist Review family of publications and Union publications. Other publications would include Alumni magazines, Spectrum, Adventist Today, etc. The kits could be sold through ABCs. They could be rented on a subscription basis.

2. Hopefully the price of a kit would be in the $50 range perhaps with a rental fee of around $15. (If advertising costs are very high, these figures might have to be adjusted upwards.)

3. Since the kits would have been developed by denominationally owned or subsidized institutions, acceptance by the hierarchy should not be a problem.


Seed money is always a problem when launching any new project. Development of the initial plan could be done on a volunteer basis of which this paper could be considered the first small step. Students could perhaps be charged a minimal fee for participation which they could earn back by royalties depending on the success of what they produce. Donors will probably be necessary. The business students should have some ideas on how to finance a startup.

Summary of Worship Worthy of Attendance

A plan is presented that would involve many Adventist university students in developing a program to improve the quality of worship in local churches (especially small churches) so that the hemorrhage of membership by young intellectuals would be diminished. While worship is not the only important activity of a local church community, it may be the first, because members who do not attend are not available for community service, etc.

Summary of Adventist Worship

There seems to be a sense among preachers that “entertainment” is intrinsically evil and should be shunned. If indeed we have this idea, we need to get over it. Certainly there is good entertainment and there is bad entertainment both inside and outside the church. The problem inside the church is that most of what is supposed to pass for worship is bad entertainment. First we need to get over the psychological hurdle of believing that some words -- pastor, elder, platform, sanctuary, congregation -- are sanctified while other words with parallel meanings -- performer, stage, auditorium, audience -- are secular and therefore must be evil.

Yes, worship is what we bring to God. But we are God’s children. What we bring to God is as the imperfect birthday card that a child scribbles for his/her parent. To the parent it is a “divine” gift. But what the parent gives back to the child -- love, security, a home, food, toys, vacations, education -- is in reality a much greater gift. What God gives back to us -- a beautiful world, health, family and friends, security, hope for a future of eternal life, the gift of His Son -- is incomparably greater. And it is this story, the Gospel in all its glory and wonder, that it is our privilege and duty to tell through the program we call “worship.” Let’s get on with it and do the very best job that we can!

To me “the very best job that we can” means that our minds are open to learn how best to tell a story -- the story, the Good News story. And if the premier storytellers in this world happen to work in Hollywood, so be it. Everybody likes to hear a good story which is why Hollywood is such a hugely successful industry. They have the budget. They have the experience. They have the best brains. They know how to tell a story. If we can overcome our sanctimonious attitude that we can’t learn anything from “the devil,” we might find that there is much we can learn that will make our ministry more effective.

And it need not be expensive. I once saw a woman (non SDA) want to project herself into the time of Christ and step into the role of Mary Magdalene. She pulled out a white handkerchief and draped it over her head. Simple? Yes. Expensive? No. Effective? Surprisingly, Yes. Supposedly we are made in the image of God. I submit that this means at least that we have a measure of creativity Let’s use it!


Here are some additional random thoughts.

1. It has been suggested to me that there is a paucity of high quality ministerial students in our colleges. Therefore it might be useful to see if it is possible to appropriate existing material from sources such as Voice of Prophecy, Faith for Today, It Is Written, etc. It might be easier to rework these messages into worship service format than to start entirely from scratch. There was a time when Gary Patterson said that he was hoping to develop a repository of creative worship services. I believe this was when he was at Walla Walla College. What, if anything, he has done with this concept, I do not know. Another source of material might be the Creative Worship group in Lincoln, NE.

2. Crucial to the successful development of these kits would be a local coordinator at each participating campus. If this is not the Campus Chaplain, then who is it? If all the critical actors, such as the chaplain and professors and church pastor are too “maxed out” already, then it is hardly worth trying to start this enterprise. There must be a local champion who is fully committed to the success of the program.

3. It is also unknown at this time what the acceptability of these kits would be to local churches. Would they see the kits as a godsend or as an expensive doodad that would require too much effort to utilize? In order for this to work at the local church level, there would have to be a pastor or layman (or hopefully both) who would execute. I have a sense that in some (many?) churches the only people still attending are those members who will go to church regularly regardless of the quality of the worship service (Do they go to church to do penance?) and that all the people who care about quality have already left.

4. If it is possible to encourage a merger between Spectrum and Adventist Today, then it might also be possible to develop a publishing association for them that would oversee their book publishing, website oversight, Creative Worship kit manufacturing and marketing, etc. These two magazines are both of excellent quality, but have no trained business person managing the store. By combining enough revenue-producing activities, it might be possible to have enough financial strength to have a business-trained CEO to manage the operations.

5. Chuck Scriven has suggested that our colleges might want to consider the addition of a course to be called The Practice of Church Community (also thanks to Leo Ranzolin). Since the development of a college curriculum is a process that makes the speed of glaciers seem like race cars, I suggest an experimental program with the following structure:

a. An experimental course would be offered for seniors with the title The Practice of Christian Community.

b. The course would give no credit and would require no tuition.

c. But -- the students would already be taking courses in their areas of major interest. Hopefully these courses would require senior projects of some sort -- papers, performances, artwork, whatever. If these senior projects could be combined with the PCC course, then the contributions of the students to the Creative Worship kits could be in partial fulfillment for the other, major course.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at